Fine Art
4:42 pm
Tue April 1, 2014

Girls Are Taught To 'Think Pink,' But That Wasn't Always So

Originally published on Tue April 1, 2014 7:23 am

With sleet, snow and freezing temperatures extending through March, the National Cherry Blossom Festival — which recently kicked off in Washington, D.C. — is decidedly less pink this year. In a few weeks the Tidal Basin will be ringed by rosy, pink blossoms, but until then, we traveled north to Boston, where a show at the Museum of Fine Arts called "Think Pink" explores the history and social impact of the color.

Pink has always been with us, though it was not always as gender-entrenched as it is today. Back in the 1700s, men and women wore pink. Curator Michelle Finamore says a painting in the exhibit gives early evidence.

"It's a late 18th-century portrait of two children, who are both wearing dresses," she explains. "One is a pink brocade satin dress, one is a yellow dress, and they have these pinafores over them, and you can't tell if they're boys or girls."

Finamore can tell by their accessories — they're wearing shoes and hats only boys wore then. But to most of us today, the kids look like girls.

Nearby at the exhibit is a pale pinkish-purple silk coat worn by a Frenchman in Louis XVI's court. Any woman would be tempted to swap her pink Nikes for this gorgeous long coat, embroidered with intricate flowers.

In A Journey Around My Room, published in 1794, French writer Xavier de Maistre puts pink into the male dream-space. He recommends that men have pink and white bedrooms to brighten their moods.

Fast-forward to 1925. Characters in The Great Gatsby speculate about Gatsby's past: "An Oxford man! ... Like hell he is! He wears a pink suit." A version of that pink suit is in the Boston show — Ralph Lauren designed it for Robert Redford in the 1974 movie.

Before Gatsby, a 1918 trade catalog for children's clothing recommended blue for girls. The reasoning at the time was that it's a "much more delicate and dainty tone," Finamore says. Pink was recommended for boys "because it's a stronger and more passionate color, and because it's actually derived from red."

To our 21st century ears, all this men in pink stuff may sound a bit blushy. "It's so deeply entrenched in us and our culture," says Finamore. "We think of pink as such a girlish color, but it's really a post-World War II phenomenon."

When the war ended and the men came home, Rosie the Riveter traded in her factory blues for June Cleaver's pink apron. In the postwar ideal, men reclaimed the workplace, and women stayed home with babies and shiny appliances. Femininity got wrapped in pink, and so did products — from shampoos to fancy fashion.

In 1947, after the shortages and rationing, and straight skirts of war, Christian Dior introduced the New Look. "It is this overtly feminine silhouette," Finamore explains. "You have soft shoulders, a bust line, a wasp waist and voluminous skirts."

The Boston "Think Pink" show has a strapless Dior gown from 1956 — the ivory silk is blooming with large, pink flowers.

Half a century later, photographer JeongMee Yoon was feeling overwhelmed by pink. She posed her young daughter in the middle of all the pink things that she owned and called the photograph Seo Woo and Her Pink Things (which you can see at the top of this page.)

"You barely see the little girl," says Finamore. "She's way back in the far right corner. And in front of her is this vast array of pink Hello Kitties, of pink dresses, of pink dolls, pink notebooks, pink anything you can imagine."

Thanks to marketing, Disney princesses and profits, the color pink has spread like measles. But at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where the "Think Pink" show is on through May 26, Finamore says these days of metrosexuals and shifting gender roles are loosening the color divide. Males are thinking pink again ... but will it ever be the new black?

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And here's something else that's been overturned - the meaning of a color. The color is pink. It just doesn't mean what it used to mean.

NPR's Susan Stamberg found that color at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: They have a little exhibit called "Think Pink," about the history and social impact of the color. Pink has always been with us although not always gender-entrenched, as it is today.

These days, boys like Shawn Rav cringe in the presence of pink.

SHAWN RAV: Terrible, girly and bad.

STAMBERG: Whereas girls, like Lenaya Lee, are crazy for it.

LENAYA LEE: Its my favorite color. Some of my toys are pink. Its only for girls.

STAMBERG: But back in the 1700s, men and women wore pink. Boston curator Michelle Finamore says a painting at her museum of fine arts exhibit gives early evidence.

MICHELLE FINAMORE: Its a late 18th century portrait of two children who are both wearing dresses. One is a pink brocade satin dress, one is a yellow dress, and they have these pinafores over them. And you can't tell if they're boys or girls.

STAMBERG: Finamore can tell by their accessories. Shoes and hats, only boys wore then. But Finamore is a curator. To us, the kids look like girls. And any woman would swap her pink Nikes for the gorgeous long coat some French man wore in Louis XVI's court - pale pinkish-purple silk.

FINAMORE: And it is embroidered all over with this beautiful, finely worked floral embroidery.

STAMBERG: Curator Finamore came across a passage in Frenchman Xavier de Maistre's 1794 book, "A Journey Around my Room," that put pink into the male dream space.

FINAMORE: Actually recommending that men have a pink and white bedroom.

STAMBERG: Because it will brighten their mood, make them feel happy. Cut to 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald and a passage in the "The Great Gatsby."

FINAMORE: They're speculating about Gatsby's past - nobody knows where he comes from. And somebody says: Oh, I think he's an Oxford man. And the response is: Like hell, he is, he wears a pink suit.

STAMBERG: A version of Gatsby's pink suit is in the Boston show. Ralph Lauren designed it for Robert Redford in the 1974 movie. And just to underscore the point, a bit before Gatsby, a 1918 trade catalogue for children's clothing recommends blue for girls.

FINAMORE: Because its a much more delicate and dainty tone. And pink actually for boys because its a stronger and more passionate color, because its actually derived from red.

STAMBERG: To our 21st century ears, all this men in pink stuff sounds a bit blushy.

Curator of Fashion Arts Finamore.

FINAMORE: Its so deeply entrenched in us and our culture. We think of pink as such a girlish color but its really a post-World War II phenomenon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINK PINK")

KAY THOMPSON: (as Maggie) (Singing) Think pink. Think pink when you shop for summer clothes. Think pink. Think pink if you want that quelque chose...

STAMBERG: When the war ended and the men came home, Rosie the Riveter traded in her factory blues for June Cleaver's pink apron. In the post-war ideal, men re-claimed the workplace and women stayed home with babies and shiny appliances. Femininity got wrapped in pink. So did products, from shampoos to fancy fashion. In 1947, after the shortages and rationing and straight skirts of war, Christian Dior introduced the new look.

FINAMORE: It is this overtly feminine silhouette. You have soft shoulders, a bust line, a wasp waist and voluminous skirts.

STAMBERG: The Boston "Think Pink" show has a Dior gown from 1956, strapless ivory silk blooming with flowers.

FINAMORE: These really kind of large over-blown roses.

STAMBERG: Pink, of course. All these years later in 2005, the gender/color divide drove Korean photographer JeongMee Yoon to her camera. Seems JeongMee has a little girl.

FINAMORE: And she realized that her life was becoming overwhelmed by pink. And so, she photographed her daughter in the middle of all the pink things that she owned.

STAMBERG: The picture is called "Seowoo and her Pink Things."

FINAMORE: You barely see the little girl. She's way back in the far right corner. And in front of her is this vast array of pink Hello Kitties, of pink dresses, of pink dolls, pink notebooks, pink anything you can imagine.

STAMBERG: Thanks to marketing, Disney princesses and profits, the color pink has spread like measles. But at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where the "Think Pink" show is on through May 26th, curator Michelle Finamore says these days of metrosexuals and shifting gender roles are loosening the color divide. Males are thinking pink again. But will it ever be the new black?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINK PINK")

THOMPSON: (as Maggie) (Singing) And back to the kitchen sink...

STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINK PINK")

THOMPSON: (as Maggie) (Singing) Think pink...

INSKEEP: And you can see some changing men's fashions, like a copy of the pink suit Robert Redford wore for the film version of "The Great Gatsby" at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.