[Skip to content] [Skip to main navigation] [Skip to user navigation] [Skip to global search] [Accessibility information] [Contact us]

Think Pink

Time for perhaps the most divisive of the colours. We take a look at Pink.

How did pink get its name?

We are used to thinking about pink as a colour in its own right, but it is a paler shade of red and as such is the only hue we’re covering in this series.

The word pink was first used related to colour around the 1680s prompted by a type of Dianthus flower known as pinks. These flowers got their name due to their frilly edges, which was known as pynken in Middle English – finishing an edge of cloth with a patterned, cut or scalloped effect, as is done with pinking shears.

  • Dianthus-plumarius - pinks, Pinks or Dianthus-plumarius, Sten CC BY SA 3.0
    Pinks or Dianthus-plumarius, Sten CC BY SA 3.0

In Europe, pink is often referred to as rose relating it closely to another type of flower, and going back to Homer’s “Rosy-fingered dawn” in the Odyssey.

In nature

Pink is very common in nature, mainly in flowers although lots of other species sport the colour. Bright, vibrant colours attract insects and pollinators which are crucial to plants fertilising, or in the case of fruits like raspberries or strawberries, may offer great opportunities for seed dispersal when eaten. Their pigment comes from anthocyanins which are pigments that can appear to be shades of red, purple or blue.

  • Roses in the Horniman Gardens, Roses in the Horniman Gardens, Connie Churcher
    Roses in the Horniman Gardens, Connie Churcher

There are lots of pink animals too. From flamingos to dolphins, pigs to moths. Some animals get their colour from a diet rich in carotenoids, which we looked at in our yellow blog. Other animals, like pigs, have been selectively bred this way or use it as part of their rich plumage like hummingbirds.

  • Elephant hawk moth from our collections, An elephant hawk moth from our collections
    An elephant hawk moth from our collections

There are several pink minerals, including rose quartz, rhodochrosite, and pink topaz. There are rare pink beaches, coloured by years of coral erosion, and pink brick or sandstone buildings can be seen from India to Argentina.

Popular and powerful

According to a study by Eva Heller in 2009, pink is most closely associated with sensitivity, childhood, femininity, sweetness, and romance, in Europe and the US. The association with pink as feminine stems from just before World War I but didn’t become established until the 1940s and the baby boomer generation. Previously, boys were pictured in pink because red was associated with activity and aggression, and pink was a hue of red, deemed to be a stronger colour compared to blue.

Commerce has had a role to play in pink or blue being associated with gender.

In the past, lots of clothes were white, as these could be bleached easily when stained or dirty, and white was (and still is) associated with innocence, particularly in children's clothes. By pushing consumers towards a new colour code for children, shops could sell more products as you would buy different clothes for boys and girls, rather than reusing clothes multiple times across families or generations. Toys aimed at girls featuring pink packaging is also a more recent trend, coming into prominence in the 1980s and 1990s.

  • Gendered toys, An aisle of pink toys, Josh Puetz via CC BY-NC 2.0
    An aisle of pink toys, Josh Puetz via CC BY-NC 2.0

Although is it not uncommon to see men wearing pink, it is still not very popular with men. Only 1% of men would choose it as their favourite and only 7% of women.

In Thailand, pink is associated with the day Tuesday, while in France, a reddish-pink is the colour of medicine in academic dress. In Japan, pink is associated with spring because of the cherry blossoms, but it is also the colour of ‘off-colour’ jokes. In China pink is associated with westernisation, and is considered a foreign colour.

Pink is often used as a symbol of sexuality, particularly in LGBTQIA communities and the original pride flag had a pink stripe to represent sex. Women wore pink pussy hats in the 2017 Women’s March. In Japan, erotic movies are called pink films and recently, Janelle Monáe sang about female sexuality in her song Pynk.

Because of the way the colour has been applied to gender, there is some pink backlash, with campaigns like Pinkstinks opposing the ‘pinkification’ of girlhood. ‘Pink tax’ refers to the higher costs paid by women and girls in products from dry cleaning to bicycle helmets.

Pink in the arts

The phrase ‘in the pink’ means being in good health and dates back to the sixteenth century, meaning to be the very pinnacle of something. It is used by Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet (Act 2, Scene 4):

Nay, I am the very pink of courtesy.

Pink was most commonly used for flesh tones of white people in European art, and features as the colour of male infant dress. It really got trucking in the 18th century with Madame de Pompadour, who made pink and blue fashionable colours at the French court, and the hue Rose Pompadour is named for her.

  • Portrait of Marquise de Pompadour, Portrait of Marquise de Pompadour, Francois Boucher (via Wikimedia)
    Portrait of Marquise de Pompadour, Francois Boucher (via Wikimedia)

In the early twentieth century, Elsa Schiaparelli created shocking pink and used it across her designs, lending the name to her perfume. Marilyn Monroe wore a now iconic pink dress when singing that Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend, Mr. Pink rallied against the name in Reservoir Dogs and Mean Girls wore pink on Wednesdays.

From Kay Thompson to The Pink Panther, The Psychedelic Furs to Nicki Minaj, pink pops up in music just as much as film, fashion, and art. Listen to our playlist of pink-influenced songs.


Learn more about colour in our family-friendly exhibition, Colour: The Rainbow Revealed.