Pink to make the girls think

It’s 2011’s hottest shade for faces, fashion and furnishings. But in a post-feminist world, can we make our peace with puce? By Bethan Cole

Pink is no longer simply a colour. It has become an ideological battleground for feminist and post-feminist thought. On the one hand, post-feminism tells us to forget the politics and enjoy the colour, because it’s having a moment in the sun. On the other hand, feminist thinkers are warning us to beware the pernicious use of the colour in conditioning little girls into submission. Who is right?

It all started in the autumn of 2010 when various fashion designers decided to make pink a bit of a leitmotif on the spring/summer 2011 catwalks. At one of the most critically acclaimed shows, Jil Sander, the designer Raf Simons liberally used a shade of bubblegum to light up his collection. What’s more, pink also appeared at key shows such as Prada, Lanvin, Marc Jacobs and Christopher Kane, mostly in Schiaparelli, hot and neon incarnations.

As if that wasn’t enough, at the end of 2010 along came rapper Nicky Minaj with her debut album, Pink Friday, often clad in head-to-toe pink and sporting a candy pink wig, as if to compound the au courant status of the hue. Her limitededition MAC pink lipstick became a cult hit, selling out and fetching up to £40 on eBay, four times their original price.

Then, at the beginning of 2011, Leatrice Eiseman, the executive director of the Pantone Colour Institute, declared honeysuckle – a pinkish red – to be the shade of the forthcoming year. “Flirtatious honeysuckle is a feel-good hue that brings a festive sense of playfulness to this season’s palette.” says Eiseman. “This vibrant pinkish-red for both apparel and cosmetics makes consumers feel alive, and is a perfect post-winter pick-me-up.”

Pantone, a world authority on colour, see their shocking pink delivering a shot of optimism to tired winter eyes. Retailers, however, have a more prosaic take on the subject. Pink equals pound signs. Helen Spencer, a John Lewis lingerie buyer, says: “Pink continues to sell well, with pink and black silk lingerie sets seeing the biggest uplift week on week.” And John Lewis girlswear buyer, Lindsay Dickson says: “So far, half year to date, 25 per cent of our sales are of pink products and this week alone, 10 out of our 20 best sellers were pink – proving the colour continues to soar up the popularity stakes.”

So, fashion people love pink, rappers love pink, colour experts love pink and so do the shops. Post-feminism says forget the dogma, just take pleasure in the perkiness of the colour. After all, it’s just a shade, it doesn’t intrinsically signify anything. Or does it? “Pink makes you look chic but not in a hard way,” says the fashion designer Peter Jensen, who used the colour for several outfits in his spring/summer collection. “We used it because we wanted to make something that had a 70s feel, something that would look young but at the same time sexy without being vulgar. I would also use words like playful and happiness to describe the shade we used.”

Pink was also popular with beauty tastemakers, too, with shocking pink lips a feature on the Jil Sander, Diane Von Furstenberg and Marc Jacobs runways. Neil Young, senior make-up artist at MAC, attributes the trend to celebrities. “Lady Gaga has dramatically influenced the way women wear colour with her Pepto-Bismol pink lips. Matt is the most contemporary way to wear pink, as the finish feels more expensive.”

But it’s not roses all the way for pink. For some of us, it has come to represent a more spurious saccharine version of femininity, rather than the chic flirtation the fashion designers attest. Just think of Katie Price head to toe in bubblegum pink and knee socks; you think of a woman disporting herself rather tragically like a little girl. A spoilt little girl with orange fake tan at that. Pink, for grown women and little girls alike, has got some rather sinister undertones.

Abi Moore, the co-founder of the protest organisation Pink Stinks, says: “We started as a reaction to the rampant stereotyping increasingly evident in products and clothing marketed towards children, and the use of the colour pink as a signpost for girls as to what is ‘for them’. “We think that this ‘pink’ phase is the beginning of a journey, instilling seemingly innocent ideas of princesses, beauty, fairy tales and sparkles above all else. It limits girls in their early development to conform, be ‘girly’, and look pretty, preparing them for a life of bodyimage anxiety and insecurity ahead ... a marketer’s dream.”

So, according to the feminists, pink isn’t just a colour, it represents submission, insidious gender stereotyping and prettification. It is preparing little girls for a life full of kowtowing and compromise. “Obviously there is nothing harmful with the colour pink in itself, but it’s important to question the way it’s used at the moment,” says the feminist writer Natasha Walter. “We seem to assume that young girls are programmed to like pink – and dolls, and fairies, and ballet, and so on – while boys are programmed in the opposite direction. It leads to the assumption that women will be drawn naturally towards self-decoration and domesticity, holding us back from creating a truly equal society.”

As pink has its moment in the fashion sun this season, what you have to decide is: is it an innocent, post-feminist, fun colour to wear or is it, as the feminists say, a signifier of a darker conditioning, ultimately preventing us from creating gender equality? This season, at least, the shops are going to be full of it. But will you conform, or will you protest?