In the English language, early uses of the word ‘pink’ were not, in fact, references to the colour. In the renowned tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, first published by Shakespeare in 1597, the eminent writer features the phrase: ‘Why, I am the very pinke of curtesie’. Spoken by Mercutio, the statement refers to the other characters’ exemplary manners and very courteous behaviour. Today, however, to be described as ‘pink’ or ‘pink in the face’ means simply ‘in good health’, and the term is associated more with the healthy pink flush of youthful skin. Indeed, the earliest mentions of pink referred to 'rosy' skin and cheeks. In many religious paintings, the colour was often seen on infants. However, even as far back as the ancient period, there was no specific gender assigned to pink. When Christine de Pizan published L'Épistre de Othéa a Hector (Letter of Othea to Hector) in 1400, a work about the political virtues and mythological history of the French government, many men were depicted clothed in pink garments.
While pink remained a colour for both men and women throughout most of history, the popularisation of makeup in the latter half of the 18th Century created a subtle shift in how it was perceived and assigned. In 1758, when François Boucher painted Madame de Pompadour - the chief mistress of the French king, Louis XV and influential patroness of the arts - he depicted her holding a compact of rouge in her right hand and a tiny makeup brush in her left. As the woman who dictated the latest female fashions in France – and in turn in the rest of Europe – Madame de Pompadour’s use of makeup, and her resulting pink cheeks, became associated with femininity. From then on, pink came to embody all that was related to decoration, delicacy, playfulness and, above all, the idea of the youthful woman. This is portrayed perfectly in Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s most famous work and quintessential example of the Rococo period, The Swing (1767), which is displayed at the Wallace Collection in London.
So far, we have witnessed the myriad ways pink was subtly altered in society through presentations of it in art and literature, transforming from a colour that denoted wealth, prosperity, and frivolity, to one with gendered connotations. By the time we reach 20th Century fashion, pink has almost been granted a solely feminine status in Western culture, and it is during the 1950s and 60s that these gendered associations became firmly cemented in pop culture and harder to shake off. For a look at pink's changes from the 1950s to today, keep an eye out for Part 3 of our A Short History of Pink series.