The Pink of Fashion

MagrittePipeWhen young women return to our campuses this fall, many will distinguish themselves by wearing clothing and carrying backpacks labeled in capital letters: PINK.

Why? And especially why, when most of the items labeled PINK are  not colored pink at all?

It’s reminiscent of Magritte’s famous 1929 painting of a pipe with the inscription ”Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” that is, “This is not a pipe.” And indeed, however realistic the painting may be, it isn’t a pipe. It’s just an image of one. He called the painting “The Treachery of Images.”

But are the young women wearing PINK doing the same thing? Not exactly. For one thing, pink is not an object, it’s a color. And a painting, or sweatpants, or a smartphone cover can indeed be the color pink.

(Actually, if you look in a good dictionary you’ll find that pink can be many other things, including a plant, a flower, a bird, a minnow, a salmon, a potato, a detective — the list goes on and on. But let’s stick here to the relevant everyday meaning of a pale red color, a color between red and white.)

PINK, as is well known, happens to be a brand name launched by Victoria’s Secret in 2002 and aimed especially at young women of college age (and younger ones wishing to look like they are of college age). PINK sells underwear and outerwear, sleepwear and awakewear, swimwear and sweatshirts, loungewear and backpacks and beauty products. All labeled PINK, but few in the color pink.

So why are these items labeled? And why labeled PINK instead of some other color?

I think I know. For the answer, we have to go back to infancy. For the better part of the 20th century, there was a fashion to dress newborns in blue if they were boys, in pink if girls. This hadn’t always been the case; in the 19th century fashionable babies were put in dresses and wore white, regardless of gender.

A 2011 article in Smithsonian tells us it wasn’t until the 1940s that the designation blue for boy babies, pink for girls was established. And though many parents now prefer gender-neutral colors, the blue vs. pink distinction remains clear to us all from our earliest days.

So that must be the reason Victoria’s Secret chose PINK as the color to label its line of clothing for young women. Even if it’s something as gender-neutral as sweatpants, whether it’s particularly feminine or not, to label anything PINK means it’s unquestionably female. And likewise the wearer of those clothes, the bearer of that backpack, is unquestionably female, regardless of what she says or does. You don’t have to conform to gender stereotypes as long as you wear that label.

The clothing and underwear and backpacks in the Pink line are for active young women and are not frilly or lacy. Putting a bold and also not frilly PINK on them labels them designed for females and thereby distinguishes them from similar sweatpants and T-shirts intended for males.

This explanation clarifies other mysteries. For example, what’s with the singer who began life as Alecia Beth Moore but now calls herself Pink? (Oops, that’s P!nk)

It’s the same thing, I think. She can be aggressive and outspoken as she wishes, but P!nk is assertively female.

Pink has made itself visible in politics too, with the same association, pink = female. At the Republican convention, an antiwar and pro-immigrant women’s group managed to get some protesters into the arena and display a banner reading “Welcome Refugees.” Later in the week Trump supporters at the convention enfolded one of the group’s founders in American flags when she tried to hold up a sign that said “No  Racism No Hate.” The group calls itself Code Pink.

It doesn’t hurt to note that pink has another meaning of “the most excellent example of something,” to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, as in “the pink of courtesy.” Or in “the most perfect condition,” as in “the pink of health.” But not everyone knows that meaning, nor does it explain why PINK appears on clothing marketed to women. No, it’s the color imprinted on the child’s mind from infancy that makes the difference.









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