Pink Outside the Box.

This is a think piece about pink. Why so reluctant to take it seriously, bro?

You’ve possibly been living your life with the impression that pink is passive and frivolous. After all, isn’t the butt of the joke, in Legally Blonde, that Elle Woods aspires to be a serious lawyer, yet surrounds herself with pink material things. And isn’t the ludicrous motto/rule of  ‘On wednesdays we wear pink’ in Mean Girls a testament to how shallow the Plastics are. Pink has a reputation for being soft, romantic, girlish, foolish, superficial, shy; traits too often considered by society to be silly or passive. Advertising companies and the media in general consistently fall back on this semiotic safety net. I personally feel limited by the contemporary media’s push of pink onto young and (seemingly) frivolous girls, as, I’d imagine, many parents of young children also do. Let’s push things forward and take a look at how we’re all selling the shade short.


A quick history. It wasn’t always the case that pink was girly; For a long time, pink was ‘for’ young boys  “being a more decided and stronger color … while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”  although the two colours were generally interchangeable and without stigma. The above quote is from a trade publication published in 1918. Not all that long ago. This attitude flipped during the 1940s and, since then, not only is pink ingrained as a girl’s colour (and blue a boys), but opinions on the matter are much stronger (see ‘Bic for girls’ etc).

Definite reasons for this switch are varied and hesitant. I am reluctant to call out one particular cause. Certainly the Nazi’s parallel use of pink to label homosexual men in concentration camps (also around the ’40s) won’t have helped. The pink triangle to signify a gay man and pink star for gay Jews left the colour with considerable negative associations for men, especially considering that the Nazi’s definition of a gay man incorporated rapists, paedophiles and zoophiles (Lesbians were deemed to have ‘asocial elements’ and made wear a more overarching black triangle, which they shared with anarchists, alcoholics, prostitutes, beggars and pacifists.). Below is a German illustration from 1936 defining the meaning of each concentration camp badge.


What is wonderful is that, in the 1970s, the LGBTQ community took it upon themselves  to redefine/re-purpose the symbol, by flipping  the pink triangle upside down for a proud rebirth. Several LGBTQ memorials use the symbol, such as Amsterdam’s Homomonument, or the one below in Sitges, Spain. This just proves that people’s understanding and associations of symbolism are fluid, conditioned and learned.


Pink, is a badass colour, despite its naive reputation, and it can be found in some tough, hard-knock places. Moving on from concentration camps, the colour can also be found in prisons. The interiors of some correctional institutions are painted with the Baker-Miller Pink tone (below) in an effort to calm unruly behaviour. It was introduced into holding cells as it is found to have a soothing effect, although for short periods of time only. Originally created in 1979 by two US Navy officers, the color is also known as Schauss pink, after Alexander Schauss’ extensive research into the effects of the color on emotions and hormones. Actually, in practice, results are mixed. Some prisoners have been soothed by the color, others have been agitated and disturbed.

US Naval Correctional Facility in Seattle, Washington, first to be painted Baker-Miller pink (a.k.a. Schauss pink).

Let’s stay with the prison theme but make a somewhat cheeky detour back to pink triangles. Arizona’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio controversially introduced pink underwear within all male and female County Jails. This is a man responsible for the Obama ‘false birth certificate’ accusations, this is a man who actively racially profiles his inmates, and maintains the lowest living standards of any Western jails. Amnesty International have reported on the mistreatment within his prisons. The stated reason for introducing a distinctive colour was to decrease underwear theft, but pink specifically, as far as I can tell, was chosen in a derogatory spirit  to emasculate. How below the belt. It has since become  the Sheriff’s signature colour, and a money maker. He sells customised pink boxers as fundraising merchandise… and in true Sheriff Arpaio style, misuse of funding allegations have yet to be absolved.

Maricopa County Jail

So, in its own way, pink is very tough. It has associations with criminals, oppression, prisons, and even mind control. So far, so political. Elle Woods would be proud.

There is also an amazing group of Indian women called the ‘Gulabi Gang’ who have joined together to support and protect each other from violent husbands. These women march through towns and villages, united in dress by shocking pink saris, and carrying bamboo sticks as a very real threat to any male abusers of their female friends, neighbours, and relatives. The bamboo sticks are only used in the harshest and most stubborn cases but it adds up to a striking and fierce image. The no tolerance message is clearly visible from afar. In my mind the bamboo sticks are inverted flag poles and their saris flowing from their bodies in the wind are their banners. These women are literally waving their own flags, courageously, and creating a dialogue where domestic violence is unacceptable and no longer hidden behind closed doors. Many men have joined the movement after seeing their own relatives suffer from abuse. The following images are from the Gulabi Gang website.



What a visual they create. There is something sincerely weighty in the way pink stands out against a landscape. It is a contrasting colour to ‘nature’ hues; browns, blues, greens. Because of this clash, pink is quite literally an attractive colour, it draws the eye to itself. In the natural world, flowers avail of it’s epicurian love potion to encourage pollination by the insects, birds and bees (Save the bees!). The pigment in these petals is called anthocyanins, which also gives raspberries a pink flush. On a very primal level the same applies to humans. Regardless of how metropolitan our surroundings become, pink is used, in dress and make up, to attract a mate. Perhaps a subconscious reason is simply to appear more vivid than the competition.

Until the introduction of chemical dyes pink materials were delicate by default, and would fade paler with every wash. There are a handful of examples in Renaissance, Rococo, or Victorian art and dress of very light pink. But it all heats up after frisky shades are chemically developed in the 20th century. In 1931, the women’s fashion designer, Elsa Schiaparelli, created Shocking Pink — a vibrant, sensational, tabloid pink. Schiaparelli was heavily influenced by her Surrealist friends, and used her designs to push their avant garde thinking mainstream. I imagine them being so very impressed by this fantastic creation of her very own, a brand-new colour. This is at the same time as tanned skin, extreme costume jewellery, and blunt bobbed haircuts became fashionable. Modern fashion was artificial, anti-establishment, anti-Old World, unmannered, improper. Quite punk. Such a shade of pink genuinely would have been ‘shocking’, a slap in the face to refined tastes.

This period also leads into the 1940s, when pinks’ gender alignment switched. Can the change be attested to new sharper, flamboyant pigments? Despite the advances of early Modernity, gender roles for both sexes became guardedly and unequally settled after WWII. The go-to trend was for men to be ‘manly’ and women to be ‘womanly’. Did pink just fall in line with this trend? How far have we since challenged ourselves to move away from this post-war reactionary state of comforting roleplay?


A lot of the pinks in this piece are strong, dazzling shades, which would be rare to come across even within tropical climates. They are within a spectrum of artifice. Another reason why pink may be disliked is that very bright pink registers in our brain as ‘fake’, potentially adding an additional layer of distaste, and even distrust, towards the colour.

In 1973, the graphic designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville made “Pink”, a landmark feminist artwork. “Pink” was an entry into an American Institute of Graphic Arts exhibition about color, but was the one and only entry concerned with pink. The piece is a direct analysis of the semiotics and assumptions of pink and earned de Bretteville the nickname “Pinky”. De Bretteville also founded the Feminist Studio Workshop in Los Angeles, one of the first independent art schools for women. She used this resource to collaborate with women, asking them to explore the notions of gender as associated with the color pink and to submit squares which were then arranged to form a “quilt”. Posters of this “quilt” were printed and propagated throughout L.A.


Going back to pink being used to attract a mate. This obviously also relates to pink being widely used to signify romance and love. Yes pinks, being red mixed with white, are romantic, passionate even.  A great example of pink signifying romance is found in the following SATC scene, from the first movie. Carrie is wearing pink to profess her and Big’s engagement. Charlotte, the hopeless romantic, is in full blown red. The ever pragmatic Miranda is dressed in neutrals. And Samantha, in the next scene, is apparently also dressed in (glamorous) neutrals and initially un-enthused by the news. Yet, we see her later admit excitement, and in a synchronised move she kicks her feet up onto her desk to reveal a pair of hot pink heels.

SATC pinkSATC Pink samantha

Some well played semiotics hard at work. Snaps for Patricia Field, the show’s deviceful stylist. The colour has also been used repeatedly on posters and box sets for the show. This is a colour synonymous with love  the show’s main topic  but also very familiar with consumerism, SATC’s hidden agenda.

Pink is an ideal consumer colour, it jumps off the shelves at consumers, very little thought is needed to grab buyers. Is this why it is so often portrayed as a frivolous colour? The Financial Times newspaper is pink, based on making them visible when displayed in even a tightly packed corner shops. Proving that, pre-internet, even serious broadsheets would revert to shameless tactics trying to make you buy a paper everyday. I have another theory that this could also be an act of solidarity towards the gay community, given that ‘Pink money’ (also the ‘pink dollar/pound’ or ‘pink economy’) has become an economic and advertising term referring to the spending powers of the gays?FT roll up

The Pink Man, by the Thai artist Manit Sriwanichpoom, is a symbol of capitalism, the ever-craving, eternally unsatisfied and self-centered consumer. He also represents the contradiction between modern Western thinking and the Buddhist principle of material detachment. Would any other colour have been so effective in getting this message across?

Manit Sriwanichpoom Pink Man in Paradise (# 6)

The Pink Man is also just one example of pink within contemporary art. Jeff Koons’ Pink Panther is another. I am about to show two epic examples of art with shocking pink interrupting widescreen landscapes, both man-made and cultivated. Compare two artworks — Richard Mosse‘s Infra and The Enclave series, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude‘s Surrounded Islands.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude 2

Christo and Jeanne-Claude surrounded islands

Let Love In, 2012, Richard mosse

Platon 2012 - Richard mosse

Both have landscapes (unnaturally) altered with pink. Christo and Jeanne-Claude by physically wrapping scenery with floating pink woven polypropylene fabric (a synthetic material), Mosse through infrared camera film (created by the military for exposing camouflage).

This image below is another unnaturally altered landscape, but for science. It is from a scientific experiment in Greenland, by The University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences. The researchers injected neon pink dye at the source of a river to gather clues on how water flows beneath the ice. Very practical, very clever, and very fierce.

Dye injection

So is pink passive? No. That is just how we have been conditioned to see it. Were they right in 1918, that it is a ‘strong’ and ‘more decided’ colour? Definitely. Yes, pink has its sensitive side (don’t we all!) but pink is also assertive and attention grabbing. It is IMPACTFUL. For this reason it can make a statement or draw attention to important issues. It is impossible to deny, impossible to ignore.

Does pinks constant association with consumerism and frivol somehow make it feminine, or is that again a nurtured stereotype? Would you normally even consider questions of this nature as a consumer, even as a consumer of pop culture? Now is as good a time as any to begin.

Pink is a shade given A LOT of shade. Rarely does it receive enough appreciation from the right circles, by which I suppose I mean critical thinkers, serious working professionals, academics, the intelligentsia. Pink is smart, layered, tough, loving, shocking, fun, complex. Pink is well suited for the big bad world of grown ups. Nothing against the opinions of wannabe princesses (while they’re still in kindergarten), but there is much more to Pink and I’m bored of it being held ransom. All the sensational splashes, petals, pops, hot flashes and flushes; Let them free.

Are you ready to take pink outside the box?

pink ladies 2


UPDATE 14/11/2016

A great artworld story has developed as a result of Anish Kapoor being given the exclusive right to use Vantablack, the blackest black paint. In response, and in the nature of fairness, the artist Stuart Semple is selling the pinkest pink pigment on the condition that it never be sold to or for Kapoor. See the story here.