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An image from the music video for Janelle Monae's PYNK.YouTube

The demise of millennial pink, the beige pink shade that promised hipness, gender neutrality and attention-grabbing Instagram posts, has been well publicized. And yet, other forms of pink are more popular than ever: punk pink, protest pink, queer pink.

When pop star Janelle Monae dances through the very pink video to her hit song PYNK in a pair of pants that suggest female genitalia, it’s clear that colour plays a role in her message. Billboard magazine called it, “the most explicitly queer song Janelle Monae has ever written.”

Pink also dominated the runway in the 2018 collection of the Nepalese designer Prabal Gurung, who attributes his inspiration to the Gulabi Gang, a political activist group in India that fights for women’s rights while donning magenta saris. Gurung’s models wore dresses and skirts in rich pink shades reminiscent of the traditional Indian garment.

Even food has been infused with the colour. Toronto’s Early Bird Coffee and Kitchen, for example, offers a beetroot latte and pink pasta. The specific hue of millennial pink may be dead, but the colour is still having a moment – and not a fleeting one.

Laurie Pressman, vice-president of the Pantone Color Institute, which is known for its global influence on colour trends, has gone as far as calling pink a “lifestyle choice." The colour has become popular in all its tints and tones for restaurants, hotels, offices and homes, where a long-term view is overriding any seasonal or momentary colour trends.

So, how did a colour once derided because of its association with the infantilization of women and in turn the suppression of their rights shed its stigma?

“I think the reason why the symbolism is changing so dramatically now is because of overdetermination – it’s caused by many things happening in the culture, politically and socially, ” says Valerie Steele, the director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

According to Steele, “it’s no longer just a pretty, feminine colour ­– it’s punk, transgressive, androgynous and politicized and increasingly associated with power.”

In the fall, the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York will open the exhibition Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color, which traces the symbolism of pink as it’s represented in fashion from the 18th century to the present with an eye to shedding long-held stereotypes about the colour.

Ironically, pink was once an 18th century favourite for boys – because it was considered strong – while girls wore blue – a colour thought to be delicate and pretty – and it wasn’t until the mid-20th century, after the Second World War, that marketing experts began heavily associating pink with girls and women.

Split into two distinct sections, the exhibition first zeros in on the role pink has had on the feminization of colour. Arranged chronologically, it moves from an 1857 frilly pink crinoline dress through to the 1950s gender codes of pink and blue to the 1980s, when power suits by designers such as Claude Montana came in bright pink, acknowledging the growing authority women were gaining at work. The second part is arranged by themes, touching on topics such as the role of pink in non-Western cultures and its link to erotic imagery. (In Mexico, for example, the colour Rosa Mexicano is linked with national identity, while lingerie is often pink because of its association with Caucasian skin, nudity and eroticized zones of the body such as the mouth and nipples.)

Steele suggests that different global cultures and subcultures associate pink with different meanings and, with the proliferation of the internet, these disparate associations are interacting.

“So the Japanese obsession with pink mixes with the African-American rapper interest in pink, which mixes with the queer interest in pink. Suddenly you’re getting men wearing pink camouflage sweatshirts – this would have been inconceivable 30 years ago,” Steele says.

For colour trend forecasters who influence culture as well as follow it, gender-coding pink has become a thing of the past. Pressman reports that for many years, Pantone did consider pinks more in the feminine colour family, but now several shades of the colour are identified as gender neutral.

“We’ve seen an expansive application of the colour in sport, tech and street-wear,” says Merrill Greene, the colour and trend director at Nordstrom. “Pink is both sensitive and strong, and holding both at the same time is where the power is.”

And just as pink sheds its negative stereotypes, it takes on the positive connotation as an agent for change in a charged political climate.

The hand-knit pink pussy hat enthusiastically worn by thousands at the 2017 Women’s March certainly indicates a clear change in that direction.

Pink has already moved on, Steele says. It has “broken through gender barriers and taken on multiple meanings. You can’t take that away or innocently go back to what it was.”

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