Text: Dylan Gray Martin
There is no color quite as divisive as pink. Spurring strong reactions, the contentious color is both loved and loathed for its sweet feminine connotations. However, the sugary hue is no longer reserved for little girls toting Polly Pockets and lithe ballerinas mid pirouette. Contemporary fashion has seen pink experience a metamorphosis as it sheds its delicate façade in favor of something more serious and even subversive. Transcending gender, the color is set to permeate menswear as directional labels like Ann Demeulemeester, Alexander McQueen and Thom Browne offer a fresh pink palette for Spring 2019.
“It is society that makes color, defines it, gives it meaning” explains Dr. Valarie Steele. Captivated by the epic history of pink, the revered costume curator set out to decode its stylistic evolution. Her methodical research has resulted in a museum exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology chronicling how cultures have molded and reshaped the color from the 18th century through today. “I really want to show the different facets of pink,” Steele says. “So often people just think it’s this kind of namby-pamby feminine color.”
Running now through January 5, Steele’s exhibition Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color is a testament to the provocative hue’s many guises through the ages. Falling into fashion in the Age of Enlightenment, a rich dye was introduced to aristocrats with a taste for rococo flourish. Steele celebrates its unisex origins, “In the 18th century pink was an extremely fashionable color for both men and women.” She clarifies that while the color came to be stereotypically girlish, it never ceased to capture the attention of irreverent men with a creative streak.
Steele documents pink’s unhinging in the 1980s when a striking shade known as Ultrapink enlivened the onstage outfits and album covers of punk bands like the Sex Pistols. Paul Simonon of The Clash proclaimed “Pink is the only true rock 'n' roll color” and artists wore the arresting hue to diametrically oppose the dreary dark suits of corporate America. The color later traversed genres with its audacious attitude to capture the attention of hip-hop artists. “We highlight the Harlem rapper Cam’ron who wore pink mink to New York Fashion Week in 2002,” says Steele. “He helped launch an enduring trend for men to wear pink.”
The FIT exhibition juxtaposes flamboyant outfits with pink’s defiantly confrontational moments. The color’s supposed cuteness is challenged by its rebellious role in political protests. We are reminded of when impassioned AIDS activists reclaimed the pink triangle used to demark gay concentration camp prisoners. Or more recently, when pink pussy hats adorned an unstoppable storm of Women’s March protestors rallying against the American presidency. Throwing a middle finger up to patriarchy, pink has proven an impactful way to reposition queerness and femininity as powerful.
“Once it’s been interpreted as an androgynous and political color that speaks to young men and women of all races, there is no going back,” Steele postulates. “It’s not like pink always means romance and femininity—it means whatever society says it does. I think what’s happening with pink is pretty much what was happening in the 18th century. The color is starting to cease to be gendered.” As millennial pink washes over streetwear, we are left to wait and see whether the color will take up significant real estate in the closets of modern men.