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Shocking Pink

books and culture

Shocking Pink

A clever exhibit documents the history of a color. October 5, 2018
Arts and Culture
New York

Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color, Fashion Institute of Technology, through January 5, 2019

The best place to enjoy the art of fashion is the Fashion Institute of Technology’s museum on Seventh Avenue and 27th Street in New York. FIT is a distinguished school—part of the State University of New York—and as is the case with many colleges and universities, its museum is free and open to the public. The gallery’s primary audience is students, so its shows are inquisitive and challenging. Its new exhibition is Pink: the History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color. Like many college museum shows, it makes learning a pleasure.

Pink has been a staple in women’s fashion for years, though not forever; it’s so trademarked as the feminine color that you’d think Eve’s lingerie was pink. The show’s curator smartly surprises us with the color’s more omnivorous history. Until the nineteenth century, pink was as often in the best men’s couture as in women’s, evoking an airy, free-spirited hauteur. It was capitalism—more specifically, jobs in banking, law, and commerce—that drove men from color to the gravity and trustworthiness of black.

By the 1850s, pink was a woman’s color, but as late as the 1920s, designers still disagreed on whether pink was suitable for baby boys or powder blue for baby girls. The show has many witty moments, among them speculation over what might have happened to gender coding had Henry Huntington famously paid a fortune, not for Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, but for his Pink Boy, which stayed with its Rothschild owner at Waddesdon Manor in England, mostly hidden from view.

Pink Boy, Thomas Gainsborough, courtesy of Waddesdon Manor

The show plots the evolution of pink from bright and excessively cheerful, wrought by cheap dyes and for the middlebrow, to pastels preferred by the most discriminating women. Then came bold pink, the color of avant-garde designers like Paul Poiret, against which Coco Chanel’s “little black dress” rebelled. Is there another color that could be called “shocking”? Elsa Schiaparelli thought pink was exotic and linked to Peru, India, and China. Hot pink certainly imparted a Latin, salsa feel. Next to black, pink was Balenciaga’s favorite color; he often combined them. The show’s backdrop platforms, walls, and cases are black. It’s a magic color combination and a great curatorial move. Dior loved pink in abundance, while Yves St. Laurent preferred pink accents. In the 1950s, mothers dressed their daughters in pink ensembles to reinforce gender identity. The pinkification of “girlie culture” in the 1980s is gloriously represented in a wild diorama of pink girl’s toys.

Afternoon Dress, pink silk taffeta, 1857, courtesy FIT

Post-Pop, men come back into the picture. Pink reappeared in men’s wear during the 1960s and 1970s, when it went neon and fluorescent. For men, it was a hippie, then disco, then punk color, not gender-confirming but gender-bending. In a startling leap, Brooks Brothers popularized the pink buttoned-down shirt for men and pink as the ultimate preppie color. Pink then jumped to another realm altogether as a rapper color. The show also treats the symbolism of the pink triangle, a Nazi-era symbol for gay men meant to signify disgrace and sexual perversion. It’s no coincidence that pink soon elided into “pinko,” a pejorative for another kind of transgression. Then, turned again on its head, pink became the color of liberation for the gay rights movement. Who knew the color was so versatile?

Pink, the color of Caucasian skin, was linked in women to nakedness, vulnerability, and eroticism. Red might be the color of passion, and white of innocence and blue of reserved distance, but pink is the color of romance, subtle and rich but also sometimes playful and silly. When girls grow to be women, they’ll keep wearing pink, evoking the eternal child, while boys over the age of five outgrow baby blue. In the 1980s, as more women began to break the glass ceiling, pink, which didn’t project seriousness, became a professional taboo. By the 1990s, though, Madonna could strut a stage wearing a pink corset to brandish women’s distinct strength and authority.

One test of the show’s intellectual strength is whether the same designs could serve a project called “Blue” or “Green.” The answer is no. Many of the dresses are special-occasion wear, for dances or parties rather than, say, coronations or Sunday mass. There are lots of flounces, buttons, and bows. The pink accessories are sometimes so ornamental that they seem to assault the very concept of utility until we remember that joie de vivre is as evanescent as champagne bubbles—make that pink champagne—but just as delightful.

I didn’t love the show’s space, in basement galleries with an unceremonial entrance and incongruous traffic pattern. The curator, the director of the museum, made the best of it. Like most school museums, exhibitions usually are tied to the curriculum, and there was a show on the first floor on unfinished clothing that I thought was very informative for students, since it concerned how things get made. That space wasn’t big enough for the “Pink” show, and at least the downstairs galleries give it the room that it needs.

Elsa Schiaparelli, gown, Summer 1937, courtesy FIT

A pink pussy hat from the now-annual women’s march in Washington is tucked in a dead end. If the long history of pink in fashion, its complexity and versatility, is taking us anywhere good, that piece of fluff won’t be the vehicle. It’s something perfectly simpatico with the march itself. No one sounds especially incisive, and the object—well, no one looks especially smart in it. Not every one of the march’s optics-makers thought it was the right way to strike a serious note. What would Kay Thompson—author of the pink-logoed Eloise books—have said about the pussy hat as the calculating, hard-boiled fashion editor in the movie Funny Face? Her office is pink, her staff wears pink, her magazine shouts pink, she belts out “Think Pink,” but as for herself? “I wouldn’t be caught dead in it!” She knew instinctively that pink had its limits, and preferred to wear gray.

Top photo by Danny E. Martindale/Getty Images

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