Have you been following our History of a Colour stories, by Annemi Conradie? This month we’re talking about PINK. Only relatively recently assigned to girls only, pink has been on trend in various guises over the centuries. In soft, pastel and vibrant shades, this colour has a firm standing in fashion, decor and nature.
‘Give your heart and soul to me, and life will always be la vie en rose,’ Parisian cabaret singer Edith Piaf purred in her 1940s hit song, describing a rose-tinted life of love and passion. The link between the word ‘pink’ and roses or sweet-smelling flowers seems firmly cemented as the name for the colour is rose or rosa in several European languages. The colour is a shape-shifter though, as European colourists in the 1600s used pink to describe a greenish-yellow pigment, yet two centuries later the word is applied to colours that are pale or light red with a purple tinge.
Tenderness and optimism are the values of pink: we are tickled pink when very pleased; in the pink when in good health and someone who looks at life through rose-tinted glasses sees only the positive. In Catholicism pink or rose symbolises grace, happiness and joy. According to ancient Tantric Buddhist and Hindu traditions, rose is the scent assigned to the heart chakra, the body’s powerful energy centre representative of universal love.
For more than 1 200 years, the Japanese have celebrated the cerise, coral and crisp white sakura, or cherry blossoms, that announce springtime in the traditional Hanami or ‘cherry blossom viewing’ period. Today picnics and music are enjoyed beneath the flowering canopies, where in previous centuries the blossoms served to divine the harvest and announce the rice-planting season. Offerings were made to the trees and poets would praise the delicate, but transient beauty of the flowers, symbolic of the fleeting beauty of life itself.
In the epic poem The Odyssey, Homer describes the dawn as ‘rosy-fingered’, evoking ribbons of pink, orange and red streaking the horizon. Then unbeknown to the 8th century poet, it is the scattering of light beams by molecules in the atmosphere that causes those spectacular sunrises and sunsets. At these times of day, the path of the sunlight to the earth is the longest and it is only the longest visible wavelengths – pink, red and orange – that finally reach the eye.
Asian elephants often develop pink trunks, necks and ears due to depigmentation, but this is unrelated to the saying ‘seeing a pink elephant’, a euphemism for boozy hallucinations. Flamingos get the pink in their plumes from carotenoids in the algae and shrimp that they eat, and those in captivity are given supplements to retain their pink. Baby orcas are born light pink with black spots, only donning their distinctive white and black killer whale suits when they’re older. Perhaps the most famous pink animal is the spindly cartoon character created for the animated opening sequences of French detective comedy The Pink Panther. The stealthy feline soon got his own cartoon show and even won an Oscar in 1964.
Equating pink with girls, however, is a contemporary Western phenomenon – ironically the media and retailers assigned the colour to boys up until the early 20th century. Regarded as
a strong and confident colour, it was suggested that boys wear pink and little girls blue, which was seen as delicate and soft. In the early 1980s, however, big business in the USA upped its international promotion of pink for girls and blue for boys, making a drastic U-turn from the gender neutrality advocated by the feminist movement of the previous decade. More recently, parents are again campaigning for an end to gender-specific toys, clothing and food, but don’t tell Barbie, who has her own official shade of pink.
Keen to read more about the history of colour? Learn about the history of blue.
Currently completing her PhD, Annemi Conradie is an artist and writer who shares insight into the history of a colour in every issue of ELLE Decoration. Annemi feels that everyone should be reading more, be it books or blogs. ‘We need to broaden our minds. We also need to make more time for exploration and doing what we enjoy.’
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