In September 2013, Marlien Rentmeester, founder of the fashion site Le Catch, was combing the racks at Shareen Vintage in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, when a fuchsia A-line frock caught her eye. “It was so shockingly pink, so cool and different, that I wore it out of the store,” she says. “On the street, women were giving me compliments left and right.” Rentmeester, the former West Coast editor for shopping magazine Lucky, had a sharp eye. In the months that followed, she started seeing pink everywhere: on streetwear blogs, in ad campaigns for Acne Studios and online beauty company Glossier, and in the pantsuits worn by Hillary Clinton.
Fast-forward to 2016, and pink is an even greater phenomenon. Rentmeester long considered pink “fussy, dainty, babyish, or even weak.” Now she says the color is emblematic of women on the rise financially, culturally, and politically—even if Clinton’s pink pantsuits didn’t get as much attention as the pink pussy-bow Gucci blouse Melania Trump wore to the second presidential debate. (Some pundits suggested the bow was a subtle rebuke to her husband’s critics after the “grab them by the p----” tape leaked.)
“We interpret our environment through the colors we wear,” Rentmeester says. “Pink is unapologetic, dramatic, and bold. We’re taking it back and making it our own.” That reclamation is a story that’s not just about skirts, pantsuits, and blouses, but about how fashion can upend larger cultural ideas about power and gender.
Brands have long marketed pink in retrograde ways. Until recently, the NFL took a “pink-it-and-shrink-it” approach to women’s wear, making bubble-gum-colored jerseys in women’s sizes rather than offering choices in team colors, a strategy the league started phasing out early this decade. And pink products are often considered specialty items; as such, they’re routinely priced higher than identical products marketed to men, according to a 2015 report by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs.
Now, companies are imbuing pink with all sorts of positive associations, tapping into the same vibe Rentmeester felt. This fall, J.Crew—a struggling company but still a bellwether of mass tastes—promoted its new line around hundreds of custom-developed shades of pink. In an e-mail, Jenna Lyons, president and creative director, explained that pink was worthy of the same rebrand as a once-sidelined vegetable: “If kale can have its own marketing team, so can pink! We feel that color is a natural mood enhancer, and like kale, it is good for you.”
Where J.Crew is promoting the color as a path to happiness, high-fashion brands such as Gucci and Chanel have recast it as funky and cool, with pink bomber jackets and bowler hats, respectively. Even cookware maker Le Creuset launched a series of hibiscus-hued pots and platters this year because it provided “vibrancy” and a “strong anchor” for the company’s spring line, says Will Copenhaver, marketing communications director.
The idea that the color could be something other than a feminine stereotype isn’t new. Historically, “there were no strong gender associations with pink,” says Michelle Finamore, curator of fashion arts at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Until World War I, babies of both genders were dressed in white because stains were more easily bleached. Even when stores began to introduce “baby pink” and “baby blue” into kids’ departments, they weren’t divided by gender. A 1918 article in Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department, a trade publication, explained that “pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”
Jo Paoletti, author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys From the Girls in America, says modern associations with the colors “took generations” to sink in. It was only after World War II that brands began marketing pastels to women, largely as an antidote to the military-inspired fashions and textile rationing of wartime. Catalogs advertised pink appliances, wallpaper, and upholstery. Bathrooms and kitchens were painted “Mamie” pink, so named for Dwight Eisenhower’s wife, who wore a pink peau de soie gown to the 1953 inaugural ball. In 1955, Dodge introduced the pink and white La Femme, a two-door hardtop that came with a matching umbrella, purse, compact, and lipstick case. At the time, families were starting to buy multiple cars, and women were more involved in the decision.
And yet the company stopped producing La Femmes a year later. “Pink as a marketing device was just too limiting,” says Virginia Scharff, author of Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age. “Buying a pink lipstick is not that big an investment. Buying a pink car is a different order of magnitude.” By the mid-1960s, brands were no longer exhorting women to “think pink.” The counterculture drove fashion, in particular, from the latter half of the decade through the ’70s; young people of both genders were more inclined to wear flowered patterns and vibrant colors.
Fashion historians say our recent understanding of pink as an explicitly feminine color only emerged in the ’80s, when it became common for parents to learn the sex of their unborn babies. This created a marketing opportunity, says Paoletti, as stores could sell boy and girl versions of everything. And because pink had been associated with women in the ’50s, it became the de facto girl’s color. (See: the 1986 John Hughes classic Pretty in Pink, starring Molly Ringwald.)
But, Paoletti says, there’s a distinction between how people viewed the color in the ’50s vs. the ’80s and ’90s. “In the 1950s, pink was presented as a fashion, a cultural choice,” she says, whereas later on “it was presented as part of [girls’] nature.” This happened with help from Walt Disney’s $5.5 billion princess empire. The irony is that Disney itself proves the nature argument wrong. Not one of the iconic princesses drawn prior to 1960 is known solely for wearing pink. Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), and the Sleeping Beauty (1959) are all featured in blue. In Peter Pan (1953), it’s baby Michael who appears in pink footsie pajamas.
With the reappropriation of pink, millennial women have turned the dictate back into a choice. It’s why the cover of #GirlBoss, Sophia Amoruso’s best-seller about taking charge at work, is pale pink. It’s why Stephanie Danler, who wrote the hit coming-of-age novel Sweetbitter, was so excited when she first saw her book’s salmon-pink cover. “I know that women have an ambivalent relationship with pink because it symbolizes femininity and has been traditionally weak,” she says. “But I saw it as a statement color, as challenging.” She thought millennial women would feel the same way, and she was right.
Since May the novel has sold more than 100,000 copies, and the cover has been tagged at least 2,500 times on Instagram—which Knopf told Danler is unusual for a book jacket. Some people at the publisher worried the cover would alienate male readers, she says, but in fact, pink’s cross-gender appeal is part of its popularity: “There’s so much androgyny and fluidity that I didn’t think people”—men or women—“would be scared of the color,” Danler says.
The un-gendering of pink helps explain why Gucci, Off-White, and Pigalle all released pink menswear in 2016—and why the buzziest color of Common Projects sneakers, a favorite label among stylish men, was blush. It also explains why the Pantone Color Institute, which analyzes global color trends, named rose quartz a 2016 color of the year. Laurie Pressman, the institute’s vice president, says pale pink is associated with wellness and mindfulness. “A color becomes popular because it’s symbolic of the age we’re living in,” she says.
“These are turbulent times. People are looking for calm.” She points to studies in which shades of pink have been shown to soothe unruly students or prisoners. Pantone found examples of companies that are “trying to help create balance for employees, reduce stress, and bring wellness-focused measures into the office space,” Pressman says, by using pink accents in décor. This year, for the first time, Pantone named a second color of the year: a pale blue called Serenity.