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A Cultural History of Fashion's Most Controversial Color

The power of color in fashion is something of a social phenomenon. It has the power to control our emotions and project who we are. But over time, social constructs have changed our perceptions of color and what they represent. Writer Sam Trotman explores one of the most divisive colours of all: the color pink and why we should reclaim it back.

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Color is something that surrounds our daily lives and whether you know it or not it has the power to evoke every type of feeling. Not just a trigger of emotion, colour is also capable of communicating what people think about you, from status to intelligence to promiscuity. But how did this social phenomenon come to be? According to French color historian Michel Pastoureau, it is “society rather than nature that makes colour and gives it meaning, one that is constantly changing like sunlight on a landscape.”

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Perhaps one of the most divisive of all, pink is a color whose meaning within society has changed more than any other. A color in constant transition, pink has taken on various guises across the world from the garb of Indian royalty to its place within UK punk. Andy Warhol used it for his iconic 1967 portrait of Marilyn Monroe, Kanye West’s got a mustard stain on his pink polo shirt in “All Falls Down” and Wes Anderson started a whole pink movement with the magnificent facade of his Grand Budapest Hotel. Just as popular culture has taken pink and shaped it in different ways, so too have the connotations surrounding it. In the past decade pink has become a dirty word associated with gendered toys and stereotypical ‘girliness’, but it has also been reclaimed as something fierce, politically minded and transgressive. Lovers and haters alike, however, can probably agree that pink has power.

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Pinks place in the history of fashion is probably its most polarizing. Over the years there have been countless literatures written, exhibitions shown and debates had over pinks power to shape clothes, and be shaped by society. Today, pink tends to be coded feminine by much of society, but the reason is not as cut and dry as you might expect. According to French color historian Michel Pastoureau “There is no transcultural truth to color perception. It is society that ‘makes’ color, defines it, gives it meaning.” Pink, like many other colors in the spectrum, has a rich history and the way we think of it and things we associate with it today is very different to how people perceived it a few centuries back. What’s most fascinating, is that pink is the color that has been around the longest. Back in 2018, scientists discovered cyanobacteria with pink pigment – in Sahara Desert in Mauritania, West Africa – that they believe have been surviving for 660 million years. This makes pink the oldest-known color to mankind. Despite its vivid appearance, pink didn’t have a name of its own in most parts of the world, instead it was largely referred to as a lighter shade of red, especially in western cultures. But some nations like Japan had seven different names for seven different shades of pink way before the color was “discovered” by Europeans.

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It was only in the 17th century that the Western world came up with the name after it became a hit among European aristocrats - both men and women - who wore faint, powdery variants as a symbol of luxury and class. During the period, pink wasn’t viewed as a feminine colour, rather it was underscored by "masculine," military undertones due to the fact that it was a derivative of red, the color of fire, strength and passion. This made it the color of choice for the courtiers of King Louis XVI who walked around in pink coats embroidered with flowers. A century later, in the late 18th century, psychologists of the time actually recommended men who were into business to have their rooms colored pastel pink for a restorative mindset. Post WWII, this bright color became more gender coded than ever, largely due to the fact that corporations began marketing the color as a symbol of hyper-femininity, which would cement the "pink for girls, blue for boys" stereotype. Still, this didn’t stop rebellious acts like Elvis subverting the colour with his shocking suits and the iconic pink 1955 Cadillac. Even, Elvis’s self titled 1954 album with its punchy pink artwork  would go on to inspire the Clash’s 1979 album “London Calling” signalling a new era of pink for punk. The Ramones and The Sex Pistols loved it too, and it is their edgier use of the colour that has gone on to inspire the modern fashion collections of Rei Kawakubo, who has made the colour an almost continuous thread through the entire Comme des Garcons archive. In more recent decades, male pop singers, celebrities and hip-hop artists have embraced the color in different ways - from the pink hair dyes of grunge icon Kurt Cobain in the 90s, to rapper Cam'ron attending New York Fashion Week in a pink mink coat and matching hat in 2002, or Italian football club Juventus winning the 2015/16 Serie A season in a fuschia pink away shirt demonstrate how pink could once again be reclaimed by men.

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Over the past 5 years pink has been ushered even further into the zeitgeist with the rise of the millennial mindset, as a new generation are labelling and owning this color as bold, daring, and gender neutral. The “Millennial Pink” movement shifted the significance of the colour to become a symbol of these post-gender days. Modern feminists like poet and photographer Lora Mathis, defied all traditional connotations of the colour with her powerful artwork “Radical softness as a weapon” which subverted and reclaimed pink for a new generation of culturally aware women. And for men, gender fluid artists like Lil Nas X and Tyler the Creator re-framed pink with a kind of ironic, post-prettiness in their Oscar Awards outfits, while alpha male king of kings Lebron James has proven the meaning of pink is bold, not baby talk, when he was captured in the tunnel wearing Ambush’s hot pink Nike Dunks. So where will the color go from here? As pink continues to transition through a generational shift, its position and meaning within society is changing too. While Millennial Pink relied on a quiet and peaceful pink shade, the more recent evolution of the color acts as a potent antidote to the political unrest happening around the world. That's why eye-popping shades of fuschia and shocking pink, better known ‘Political Pink’, have become the most powerful shade of today's generation. Not only has been used as a tool to draw attention to the world's most important issues, but the youth-lead movement has meant that pink has once again been reclaimed as a subversive symbol for both men and women alike.

Text: Samuel Trotman

Collage: Nikko Gary

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