the ultimate shape-shifter: the color pink

by clé tile | published: Mar 16, 2023

Paul Gauguin Cavaliers sur la plage (II) (Riders on the Beach (II), 1902. source

soft and subversive. pretty and provocative. demure and daring. frilly and feminist. and when it comes to art and design–and tile–it’s both an accent and a neutral, background and foreground.

love it or hate it, the way you feel about pink has been powerfully molded by history and culture–we might even say more than any other color. this is the story of pink.

pink: mysterious origins

while the rosy hue is, of course, prevalent in nature, art, and in clothing and interiors (courtesy of dye from the madder root), what of the four letter word?

it wasn't until the 17th century that the word "pink" became associated with the red and white blended pigment. etymologists believe the term was derived from Dianthus flowers (aka carnations), which were commonly called “Pinks” in the 16th century.

no one really knows how the flowers earned this nickname. was it their rosy coloring? their frilly petals with edges that appear pricked? but despite these slightly murky origins, that simple four-letter word—and the color it describes—comes with a complex, complicated mix of associations.

from mistresses to the mainstream

Madame de Pompadour, chief mistress to King Louis XV of France, first popularized the pastel in the mid-18th century. said to be her favorite color, in 1758 famed French porcelain maker Sèvres even released the pink fond rose ground color in her honor. before long, pink was associated with the luxury of the royal court. And everyone—both men and women—wanted to wear it.

while pink is considered a feminine color today, this association is actually rather recent. starting in the mid-14th century, as the blushing hue became connected with Caucasian skin tones, the color was worn by men and women alike.

Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture. source

Marie Adélaide of France. source

but it wasn’t until the mid-19th century, when pink lingerie became increasingly available, that the color began to become more engendered. this feminization became the norm after World War II when women were encouraged to “Think Pink” (a sentiment most notably captured in that Audrey Hepburn vehicle, Funny Face). with servicemen returning to the workforce, the media often idealized housewives in frilly ensembles and soft colors in an effort to push women out of the factory–and back into the kitchen.

ever since, pink has become the color of womanhood, ranging in popularity from soft blushes and flamingo tones in the 1950s to the neony pink and turquoise palette that defined the 1980s. moody mauves and dusty roses of the 1990s gave way to vibrant pinks, fuchsias, and magentas in the early 2000s. though millennial pink has ruled in popularity over the past decade, its tenure is slowly coming to an end as magenta and lavender start to take over.

polarizing pink

considered by many to be a color of health and optimism, pink plays a starring role in many common expressions. but it's true effects on mood are somewhat debated.

in a 1979 study, a Pepto-y shade called “Baker-Miller Pink” was initially thought to reduce aggression among prison inmates. excited by the possibilities, some sports facilities painted visitor team locker rooms in what came to be known as Drunk Tank Pink, hoping it would pacify their opponents. unfortunately, the results weren’t quite so rosy. when researchers tried to replicate the study, they found no measurable effects. if anything, they worried the saturated color might induce aggression when presented for any length of time.

but that didn’t deter researchers from continuing to examine the relationship between pink and mood. in 2011, researchers painted prison walls in a light shade they called “Cool Down Pink.” lo and behold, inmates in these cells relaxed more quickly. the key seems to lie in saturation and intensity rather than any magic properties of the color itself.

rebel rebel

Rocket to Russia 2018 Ramones. source

calming or not, pink is now used as a symbol of rebellion and protest. in the 1970s, the LGBTQ community reclaimed the Pink Triangle, originally used by the Nazis to denote "sexual deviancy," as a symbol of pride. In the 1980s, punk bands like The Ramones and The Clash gave pink an edgy vibe by sporting the color on albums, vinyl, and record sleeves.

and who could forget Madonna’s pink cone-cupped bustier by Jean Paul Gaultier in the 1990s?

of course, recently, the Women's March of 2017 flooded the U.S. Capital Mall with over 400,000 pink Pussyhats. as part of a nation-wide protest of misogynistic comments made by the newly elected President, Donald Trump, the Pussyhat Project encouraged crafters to make and wear the handmade hats to create visual impact during the march–and proudly reclaim the p-word from Donald Trump.

and since we’re on the subject of rebellion and proudly taking back what was once theirs…men (yes, even James Bond) are reclaiming pink as their own.

welcome to la vie en rose. we wouldn’t have it any other way.