More Than Pretty

The first room of "Pink," featuring a copy of the Ralph Lauren gown worn by Gwyneth Paltrow at the 1999 Academy Awards. The Museum at FIT. Photo: Val Castronovo
A new show at The Museum at FIT examines the history of pink in fashion


The color has been embraced by painters, pop stars, protesters, preppies, punks, fashionistas, Hollywood and Apple, which added a rose gold iPhone to its lineup in 2015.

Its fans include Louis XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, first ladies Mamie Eisenhower and Jackie Kennedy, Elvis Presley, boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson, screen icons Elle Woods (“Legally Blonde”) and Andie (“Pretty in Pink”), rappers Nicki Minaj and Cam’ron, Florida hoteliers, plus legions of Barbie and Hello Kitty aficionados everywhere.

And lest we forget: Gwyneth Paltrow cried in a pink Ralph Lauren gown when she won the Oscar in 1999 for her performance in “Shakespeare in Love” (a copy of the gown, sans tears, is on view here).

At The Museum at FIT, curator Valerie Steele, who has edited a new book on the subject, provides a rich history of the color and its connotations in two darkened basement rooms that highlight its many shades — 45 to be precise, according to her book, ranging from baby pink, ballet slipper pink and bordello pink to Mexican pink, millennial pink and Tumblr pink.

The color caused a stir in the walkup to the Women’s March on Washington in January 2017, with a Washington Post columnist cautioning women to “back away from the pink” and rethink the “pussy hats.” She felt the pink would undermine their cause.

“For all its femininity, or because of its femininity, it is seen as a profoundly unserious color,” Steele said on a recent tour of the exhibit.

The curator has made it her mission these past two years to dispel the cute factor — the notion that pink spells sugar and spice and all things nice and not much else. She has done a prodigious amount of research to document new perspectives on what has been called “the world’s most polarizing color.”

In essence, the conventional pink-blue divide — pink to denote girls, blue to denote boys — became increasingly apparent in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s before “the pinkification of girl culture really took off in the 1970s and 1980s, when Mattel’s Barbie acquired a new, predominantly pink wardrobe. By the end of the 20th century, the association of pink with girls had spread throughout the world,” she writes.

Go down, down, down to the galleries and enter a pink wonderland, with 80 ensembles and a fabulously sweet diorama in the first gallery overflowing with pink things — toys, doll clothes, princess costumes, flamingos, a calculator, Minnie Mouse and way more. It’s a kitschy, over-the-top ode to girlhood that sets the tone for this exhaustive show.

The first room, showcasing Euro-American fashions from the 1850s to 1990s, illustrates the “feminization of pink,” Steele said. It’s a glam fest, with haute outfits by designers such as Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Cristobal Balenciaga, Elsa Schiaparelli and Chanel. Dior favored soft pink in his couture collections (e.g., his late 1950s silk moiré evening dress), while his successor, Yves Saint Laurent, opted for deeper hues (e.g., his 1960 bubble-gum silk faille cocktail dress, with bubble skirt).

By the 1980s, pink-and-black combos were trending, a blend of feminine and chic. Victor Edelstein’s show-stopping black-velvet/pink-satin gown (1987) has a giant pink bow at the back that seductively suggests its wearer is a present waiting to be unwrapped.

The second room invites a broader look at the color. “Pink was a completely androgynous color in the 18th century.... It was a color associated with novelty and aristocrats. See this wonderful cupcake-like gown and her male companion in pink silk suit,” the curator said, pointing to two French royal court outfits.

The color has been fashionable across centuries but also across cultures — in Japan, China, Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America and Africa. Fashion editor Diana Vreeland once said, “Pink is the navy blue of India.” It remains popular with both sexes there today (see the pink-silk wedding Sherwani, a man’s coat, from 2018). Globalization has abetted acceptance of pink by men in the West.

The show’s mantra borrows from French color guru Michel Pastoureau: “It is society that ‘makes’ color, defines it, gives it meaning.”

By the end of the 20th century, the meaning of pink had toughened up considerably in the U.S. It was a color to be reckoned with — it was powerful and serious, feminist and transgressive. In 1994, Hillary Clinton wore a pink suit to her first press conference as first lady. During the AIDS crisis, gay-rights activists adopted the Nazi-era pink triangle — used in concentration camps to single out gay men — as a symbol of advocacy, while breast-cancer awareness campaigners have adopted a pink ribbon to brand their deadly serious cause.

Punks, rockers and hip-hop artists made the color cool and gender-neutral. Punks reveled in its “bad taste,” inspiring Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons to create her “18th-Century Punk” collection, which includes a warrior-pink, faux-leather costume in the style of body armor (fall/winter 2016-17).

“Pink is something that more men feel confident about wearing, and more women don’t feel embarrassed to wear,” Steele concluded. “It’s not just saying, ‘I never grew out of my 5-year-old fashion idea.’”