Pink is the New Punk

by Valerie Steele Photographed by Kevin Kinner
Thursday, August 9, 2018

I’ve always hated pink. Of course, I love peonies, pink champagne and pink diamonds. But when it comes to clothes, like many New Yorkers, I tend to dress in black, like a ninja.

I’m a fashion historian and the director of the Museum at F.I.T., so I know that pink has had a long and illustrious history in fashion—from Pompadour pink in the 18th century to Schiaparelli’s Shocking pink, Christian Dior’s Boréal pink and Prada’s Candy pink.

But pink has also been a polarizing color. In the “Think pink!” scene from Funny Face (1957), for example, all the women at the fashion magazine are suddenly dressed in pink, except the fashion editor Miss Prescott (based on Diana Vreeland), who wears a dark charcoal suit. When one of her young colleagues asks why she’s not wearing pink, Miss Prescott crisply replies that she “wouldn’t be caught dead” in it.

Until recently, those would have been my sentiments exactly. Today, though, you’d have to be blind not to have noticed all the fashionistas wearing pink.

What happened? How did pink become cool and androgynous?

I started noticing pink about three years ago. First in women’s fashion. Just a trend, I thought. Then men started wearing pink. The breakout year was 2016, when Véronique Hyland of The Cut coined the term “Millennial pink,” which she described as “pink without the sugary prettiness.”

Millennial pink was a reaction against the clichés associated with “feminine pink,” a concept which was itself a mishmash of stereotypes from past decades, especially the 1950s–1980s. Sweet and innocent little girl pink was heavily promoted in the 1950s, as part of the pink-for-girls and blue-for-boys gender stereotype.

Millennials wanted to look pretty, but they didn’t want to look like cupcakes. Nor did they want to look as though they’d come out of a bordello in flashy, flamboyant pink.

Millennial pink began as a dusty beige-pink, but soon other shades, from salmon to watermelon, appeared. It wasn’t any particular shade that was problematic, it was the fact that pink carried so many negative associations. Pretty, but childish and sexually objectified.

By contrast, black clothes are perceived as serious and powerful, which is why there is a long history of Men in Black. Black is also elegant: the Little Black Dress and the tuxedo. Black is edgy: black lingerie and a black leather jacket. Artistic: a modern dancer in a black leotard. Intelligent: a philosopher in a black turtleneck.

Even when black is bad, it’s good: The devil is the prince of darkness, and the dandy is the black prince of elegance.

The term “Millennial pink” is now démodé, but the past few years have revolutionized how we look at pink. Symbols like the pink ribbon and the pink triangle proclaimed the power of pink. African American men, like Dapper Dan and Harlem rapper Cam’ron, were confident enough to wear pink, which has had an impact on men everywhere.

The avant-garde Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, once known for designing in seven shades of black, pioneered transgressive pink, in collections such as “Biker/Ballerina” and “18th-Century Punk.”

Alessandro Michele of Gucci has also made pink central to his revolutionary maximalist style for both men and women, while Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino gracefully combines punk pink with the most glamorous haute couture.

Pink will never be “the new black,” but it has acquired some of black’s charisma. This is why fashion’s passionate love affair with pink shows no sign of ending.

Forecasters keep predicting that pink is about to give way to another color, such as orange, green, or purple. We are certainly seeing those colors on the runway, and you may wear them this fall, but you’re equally likely to be wearing lavender pink or pink-and-pistachio.

More significant, the triumph of pink continues, because it goes way beyond women’s fashion to influence every aspect of visual culture—from pink interiors to the popularity of pink in Instagram posts. Look for pink wallpaper, furniture, paintings, and porcelain. Pompadour pink meets New York black. It’s the fierce look of punk pink leather.


Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color” opens on September 7th at The Museum at F.I.T. A book with the same title is published by Thames & Hudson.


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