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    A SHORT HISTORY of PINK: From Fragonard to Schiaparelli

    Every colour conjures in the mind unique symbols, connotations, and memories, yet there is arguably none that straddles the line of delicacy and strength, of infancy and maturity, of frivolous femininity and mature masculinity, as significantly as pink does. The meaning of this widely favoured colour was explored extensively in an exhibition titled, Pink: The History of a Pink, Pretty, Powerful Color, which ran from September 2018 to January 2019 at The Museum, part of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. The exhibition portrayed the changing uses of, and approaches towards, the colour pink and, through the primary lens of fashion, museum director and exhibition chief curator, Dr. Valerie Steele, chronicled the history of what she calls “a colour in transition”. In the first part of this series, A Short History of Pink: Art, Fashion, and Culture, we took a brief trip into the world of pink, exploring its apparently gendered associations and the impact of art on these, the renaissance its been experiencing on the runways, and the examples of pink enmeshed in cultures around the world. Part 2 will delve further into pink's role and depiction in the art world, assessing the impact of notable designers and trends on its associations, stopping just short the 1950s, where instances of pink in film and fashion were given a 'Big Screen' makeover!

    'Olga Anderson'. Article ' A Short History of Pink: From Fragonard to Schiaparelli'. Source of the image:
    Christine de Pizan, L'Épistre de Othéa a Hector (Letter of Othea to Hector) (1400)

    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.

    'Olga Anderson'. Article ' A Short History of Pink: From Fragonard to Schiaparelli'. Source of the image:
    Jean-Honoré Fragonard 'The Swing' (1767)

    The focal point of the painting is a fashionable young woman who swings from a tree. As she enjoys the fresh summer breeze (and the company of two male admirers), she playfully flicks off her pink satin slipper and lets her frilly pink dress billow around her. Symbolic of the carefree nature, coquettishness, and naiveté of the young lady, the painting is a metaphor for the excess the Georgian era.

    George Romney 'Portrait of Richard Newman Harding' (c. 1770)
    French dress, silk with gilt gold threads (c.1775)

    While throughout the 18th century pink was undeniably reserved for both women and children, it quickly began to lean more towards the former. Published in 1867, Louisa May Alcott’s literary classic, Little Women, features a distinct reference to pink being a colour for baby girls (and blue for baby boys), with Amy March giving Meg’s twins ribbons: blue for the boy, pink for the girl. In fact, Amy explains her reasoning by saying that it is in accordance with the ‘French fashion’. Amy was the well-travelled, fashionably dressed, and artistic sister of the family. Her comment not only shows the leading role France played in establishing trends, but also reminds readers of the possibility of choice and of there being a ‘desired’ way of doing things. After all, the gender stereotyping of colours is yet another way of manufacturing commercial demand. It was no longer proper to dress children in easily washable white muslin, one had to buy different sets for each child. The use of fashionable colours to boost profit in the clothing industry would be exploited to the extreme less than a century later, when Technicolor films influenced the fashion trends of the 1950s. 

    Revue de la mode, Gazette de la Famille, no. 24 (1872)

    The 1920s experienced a loosening of fashion ‘rules’ and ‘regulations’: World War 1 had ended, breeding an excess of ‘post-war optimism’ amongst society in the West and leading to a period of economic prosperity. In the US, this was evident in the vast numbers of residents flocking from rural America into the cities, buying stocks, and throwing overtly decadent, lavish parties. This attitude permeated into Western fashion along with the heady influence of jazz, resulting in the famous ‘flapper’ trend of the roaring 20s. Although on one hand, this loosening of fashion rules was a step in the right direction for female liberty, when it came to the associations of the colour pink, it appears to have attracted another, much more problematic, connotation during this decade: that of perverse eroticism. As women began to bare more skin, pink evening dresses adopted an openly seductive, flirtatious appeal. Frequent use of the colour for nightwear and undergarments further reaffirmed this idea, yet pink still maintained its reputation as a colour for young girls. It was this juxtaposing combination that catapulted the hue into the field of sexual desires, albeit ones dictated by men. These associations have most famously been used by the likes of Victoria’s Secret, a company using the stereotypical image of pink to create its brand identity. Though it may seem that the first decades of the 20th Century were still grounded in earlier preconceptions of pink, there were some exceptions. Most notable of these is the example of fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, who in 1938 showcased her “Cosmic” collection for the winter 1938-1939 season. One of the garments in the collection was the bright pink “Phoebus” cape. As Sophie Grossiord of the Palais Galliera – which houses the iconic piece – states, it was “named because of its sunray mask—the term 'Phoebus' identified the god Apollo with the sun […] A strikingly theatrical effect (…) [was] obtained by the contrast between the simplicity of the front and the luxuriance of the embroidery on the back.” The design was so admired that an illustrated version of the piece by the revered Christian Bérard featured in the October issue of Vogue magazine. The unexpected effect of the large, embroidered sunray mask contrasted with that bright hue led to the colour of the cape being referred to as “shocking pink”. Schiaparelli loved this idea so much that she titled her biography Shocking Life – and it seems as though she did indeed live an extraordinary life!

    Simplicity Patters from the 20's
    Simplicity Patters from the 30's
    Simplicity Patters from the 40's
    Simplicity Patters from the 50's

    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.

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