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Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

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How Pink Became a Color for Girls

Blame World War II.

If you ask a woman at a cocktail party what her favorite color is and she replies, "Pink!" she is likely telling you more about herself than if she replied, "Orange!"

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While it's possible that the pink lady just loves shades on the red spectrum, we, as a society, have a ton of associations around the color. You’d be reasonable to expect that she’s trying to say that she is traditionally feminine and likes party dresses, roses on Valentine’s Day, babies, and kittens.

But let’s step away from this bizarre cocktail party where fully grown adults are quizzed on their favorite colors (mine is periwinkle!). We should, instead, examine why pink is considered a "girly" color, whereas pretty much every other color, except blue, is without gender association. Or, really, any associations at all.

Women in pink on the set of Funny Face. Photo: Getty Images

For most of history, pink was just another color. It was worn equally by men and women. A line in Little Women published in 1869 refers to Amy as tying pink and blue ribbons around two babies to tell the male from the female "in the French fashion." That’s often cited as a reason pink became affiliated with girls. However, ribbons aside, babies were generally dressed in white, and if you did have twins that needed to be color-coded you didn’t have to go with pink or blue ribbons. A catalogue from 1918 even recommended dressing female babies in blue as it had a "much more delicate and dainty tone."

Men and women continued to wear pink well into the '20s, though pink had come to be seen as a flashy and flamboyant color on men. There’s a scene in The Great Gatsby where Tom dismisses Gatsby by saying, "An Oxford man! Like hell he is. He wears a pink suit."

Mamie Eisenhower on the eve of her husband's inauguration in 1953.

To be fair, Gatsby could have gone to Penn State. Its football team’s colors were pink and black through the 19th century. That’s a far cry from today, where the visiting team’s locker room at the University of Iowa is painted pink to demoralize the opposition. But Tom’s not calling Gatsby feminine—he’s calling him new money. He doesn’t think that Gatsby is girly, he just thinks he has bad taste. That’s because it wasn’t until after World War II that pink came to be equated with femininity.

People formed that association largely because it was first lady Mamie Eisenhower’s favorite color. Not for any special reason, though; she supposedly just liked the way it set off her skin tone and pretty blue eyes. The full-skirted, rhinestone-covered pale pink ballgown and opera gloves she wore to her husband’s 1953 inauguration was the antithesis of the overalls women had been wearing to work in factories during the war. It said, as much as any piece of clothing could, "the men are home now, and you can return to your traditional roles." Mamie certainly embodied that notion as she tossed off quotes like, "Ike runs the country. I turn the pork chops!" and "I have a career. His name is Ike."

In fact, she was turning those pork chops in a kitchen she’d painted entirely pink. During the Eisenhower administration, the White House featured so many pink furnishings that it came to be known as "the Pink Palace."

Movie star (and mother to Law & Order: SVU's Mariska Hargitay) Jayne Mansfield immediately latched onto the color and the mentality that went along with it. The baby-voiced, super voluptuous movie star—billed as "Marilyn Monroe, King Sized" in 1954—may have represented a different kind of femininity than Mamie did, but she was just as determined to show there was nothing masculine about her.

Jayne Mansfield, pink-loving bombshell. Photo: Getty Images

She wore lots and lots of pink. She drove a pink car, got married in a pink gown, lived inside a pink mansion, and dyed her pets’ fur pink. She also had pink shag carpeting surrounding her heart-shaped bathtub. She explained that this was because "men want a girl to be pink, helpless, and do a lot of deep breathing." Statements like Jayne’s, along with Mamie’s general attitude, formed a connection in people’s minds between a woman wearing pink and a woman being a delicate creature.

Lest this seem like a cruel way to oppress women, it’s worth noting that most women in the '50s welcomed this kind of domesticity. Working in a rivet factory during World War II probably wasn’t the best introduction to how fun and satisfying the workplace can be! An astonishing number of pink household products were produced and consumed in the post-war years. Mamie Eisenhower, mother of pink, even had pink cotton balls! Sanitary napkins began being made in pink so women could "feel dainty" while wearing them. Ponds makeup was presented in a little pink case.

Kitchens were painted pink just like Mamie’s. Along with pink bathrooms, they became a staple of the decade that people have been ripping out and redoing ever since. We now have white bathrooms, in which we keep pink-handled razor blades and pink loofas (and sanitary napkins, which still come in pink packaging). But what of the women who didn’t want to be pink and helpless and do a lot of deep breathing? Who had found that they actually enjoyed working?

An illustration of a 1950s housewife in her pink kitchen. Photo: Getty Images

Some of them went along with the massive pink trend in a more calculated fashion. In the 1957 film Funny Face, Kay Thompson’s editrix character Maggie Prescott, who was based off Diana Vreeland, declares that every woman must "banish the blue and burn the black!" That makes sense, because between mourning attire and Rosie the Riveter denim workwear would have been two colors women were wearing a lot of just a few years before. She goes along with the national mood and sings that if women today "have gotta think, think pink!"

The best joke, however, comes at the end of the musical number, when Maggie is asked if she’ll be wearing pink herself and she immediately replies, "Me? I wouldn’t be caught dead in it." A lot of the women who helped make pink a trend were anything but interested in the ideals connected to it.

But many quickly learned they could use the color and its new connotations to their advantage. Professing a fondness for pink was a very easy way for women to make themselves seem less intimidating, without changing their actions or personalities at all. Lynn Peril, in her absolutely fabulous book Pink Think, references Donna Mae Mims, a professional race car driver competing in 1963 who called herself the "Pink Lady." Peril notes that, "Ms. Mims may have had the audacity to compete against men and win, but pink helped to deflect criticism and reminded observers that she was, at heart, a girl like any other."

On Wednesdays, they wear pink. Photo: Paramount Pictures

Ever since then, some women have come to use pink as a tool to disguise their truer, and sometimes darker, natures. The Plastics in Mean Girls who brightly exclaim, "On Wednesdays, we wear pink!" are, just like Ms. Mims, using the color to give the impression of being sweeter than they actually are. Does anyone really imagine that Regina George wants to sit around cooking a man pork chops?

Or consider the Dolores Umbridge character in Harry Potter, whose fluffy pink suits help hide the fact that she’s totally psychotic. On a more upbeat note, a story about a smart, outgoing, beautiful woman becoming a lawyer would be a lot less plucky and adorable without Elle Woods’s all-pink Legally Blonde ensembles. Without those, it's...well, a pretty normal story, really.

And lest you think it’s just fictional characters who use pink as a sly cover, Hillary Clinton recently appeared on the cover of People Magazine laughing and wearing pink. The article was on the need "to break the highest, hardest glass ceiling," so pretty much the opposite of what ol' Mamie was selling. But that jacket helped deflect criticisms about her "being confused about her gender" and prompted an article from the Washington Post entitled, "Why Hillary Clinton Should Keep Wearing Bright Pink Jackets."

So when that lady at the cocktail party tells you that her favorite color is "pink!" she might be telling you that she wants to be dainty and demure and stay at home. Or she might just be a badass who's trying not to scare you too much.

Jennifer Wright is the author of It Ended Badly: The 13 Worst Break-Ups in History, due out fall 2015. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.


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