Love Pink Design? Explore the History of this Pretty and Powerful Color at the 2018 FIT Exhibit
Pink design provokes powerful feelings of both attraction and distaste. Often associated with all things feminine, pink has been a force throughout history appearing in fashion and interior design, and even playing a role in politics. From bright and erotic to soft and cute, the Museum at FIT’s exhibit Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color explores the sensational color throughout history and across cultures.
Pink features approximately 80 ensembles from the 18th century to the present, with examples by designers and brands such as Elsa Schiaparelli, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Alessandro Michele of Gucci, Jeremy Scott of Moschino, and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. If you love pink design and are in NYC between September 7, 2018 – January 5, 2019, this is a must-see exhibit!
Although pink is popularly associated with sweet little girls, princesses, and all things feminine, this reputation really only gained traction in the mid-20th century in the United States. The symbolism of pink has varied greatly across world history and is truly one of the most diverse colors.
The stereotype of pink for girls and blue for boys only really gained traction in the United States in the mid-20th century, yet attitudes towards pink are changing, and the color is increasingly regarded as cool and androgynous. By placing men’s, women’s, and children’s pink clothing from both Western and non-Western cultures—including India, Africa, Mexico, and Japan—in a historical context, Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color corrects popular misconceptions, encourages viewers to question clichés and received opinion, and demonstrates that “It is society that ‘makes’ color, defines it, gives it meaning”—to quote the great color historian Michel Pastoureau.
The exhibition is divided into two sections. The introductory gallery focuses primarily on the theme “Pretty in Pink” with approximately 35 examples of traditionally “feminine” pink clothes organized chronologically from the mid-19th century through the 20th century. It begins by juxtaposing an 1857 bright pink crinoline dress with a black 1860 man’s suit, illustrating the feminization of color in the 19th century.
Subsequent dresses demonstrate how different shades of pink came in and out of fashion, evoking different ideas about femininity. Around 1900, for example, pale pinks implied delicate, aristocratic femininity, while by 1912 a vibrant cherry pink indicated a more exotic image. The 1920s, famous for the Little Black Dress, actually saw a rise in popularity for a range of pinks, crowned by Schiaparelli’s aptly named Shocking Pink of the late 1930s.
The 1950s are notorious as the era of the “feminine mystique” when gender stereotyping was reinforced throughout society and the pink-for-girls, blue-for-boys gender coding took off. Naturally, there are many 1950s feminine pink dresses for girls and women, although Brooks Brothers also sold pink shirts for men. The 1960s continued to witness the popularity of many
“pretty in pink” dresses, such as a 1960 cocktail dress by Yves Saint Laurent for Christian Dior. The 1970s saw a decline in pink design, although fluorescent pink appeared. By the 1980s, pink was back in fashion, although often, as with a 1980 hot pink “power suit” by Claude Montana, it also served to acknowledge women’s growing social authority.
In addition to the clothing and accessories on display, there is a fascinating diorama of pink toys and dress-up clothes for girls, dating from the 1950s to the present, including dolls, “princess” costumes, My Little Pony, and other highly gendered commodities.
In contrast to the chronological layout of the introductory gallery, the main gallery is organized thematically to highlight key concepts in the history of pink design. The first section, “Pompadour Pink,” features several 18th-century ensembles, including a woman’s pink robe à la française, a man’s pink habit à la française, and a man’s pink banyan. These objects show how pink was a new and highly fashionable unisex color in 18th-century Europe—in contrast to the 19th and 20th centuries when pink was coded as a “feminine” color. In the 18th century, pink was also important in painting and interior design.
Nearby, on the left side of the gallery, there is a small section on the pink-versus-blue gender coding in children’s wear, a binary that was still in flux in the late 1920s, when opinion was divided as to whether pink design was for boys or for girls. The final decision seems to have been influenced by publicity surrounding a millionaire’s purchase of the paintings Blue Boy and Pinkie. Reproductions of these are featured along with that of another 18th-century painting, Pink Boy.
The exhibition places pink in a global context, exploring how the color has been used in nonWestern cultures. In India, for example, pink designs have long been worn by both men and women, while in Mexico the color Rosa Mexicano is associated with national identity. Western designers have drawn on these associations; as Diana Vreeland once said, “Pink is the navy blue of India.” Schiaparelli’s Shocking Pink was explicitly associated, in her mind, with Asia and Latin America.
Related Article: The Legacy of Elsa Schiaparelli Reignited
In the center of the gallery is a grouping of platforms, “Rose/Eros” and “Pink: The Exposed Color,” exploring the erotic connotations of pink, which are both significant and overdetermined. Among the reasons why pink is widely regarded as an erotic color are the pinky-beige of Caucasian skin, which has led to the idea that pink is associated with nudity. Added to this is the fact that certain eroticized zones of the body such as the mouth, genitals, and nipples are known as “pink parts”; the fact that flowers, long associated with feminine beauty, are the sex organs of plants; and that pink-colored cosmetics are used to simulate blushing. Lingerie, corsets, and evening gowns, often produced in shades of pink, are featured in this section.
Comme des Garçons ensemble. Fall 2016, “18th-Century Punk” Collection, Fall/Winter 2016, Japan, Museum purchase.
Pink has played a notable role in both political protests and popular music associated with rebellious youth. The transgressive role of pink is emphasized across several platforms featuring both men’s and women’s clothes, ranging from vernacular garments to avant-garde high fashion. Featured items include pink pussy hats, and looks associated with music genres ranging from punk to hip-hop.
The second gallery expands audience perspectives on pink and shows how contemporary designers are increasingly challenging traditional ideas about sweet, pink femininity. Rei Kawakubo, the radical designer behind Comme des Garçons, has been especially influential with collections ranging from “Biker/Ballerina” to “18th-Century Punk.” Even the house of Valentino has produced T-shirts asserting that “Pink Is Punk.”
The exhibition is accompanied by a book published by Thames & Hudson and a free symposium on October 19, 2018, that will be live-streamed
Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color has been made possible thanks to the generosity of the Couture Council of The Museum at FIT, Mary Kay Cosmetics, the Coby Foundation, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
Museum Hours: Tuesday–Friday, Noon–8 pm; Saturday, 10 am–5 pm. Closed Sunday, Monday, and legal holidays.
Admission is free.
Content and images provided by The Museum at FIT
For more information visit Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color online.
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