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Colour Chronicles: The power of pink

In the second of a series of explorations in colour, interior expert Michelle Ogundehin examines the hue that has a calming effect, while scientists argue pink doesn’t exist.

by Michelle OgundehinPublished on : Dec 04, 2020

Pink, such a pretty colour, is said to be indicative of femininity, love, compassion and tenderness, as well as being symbolic of hope. Why then, is it so divisive? For some, this opening gambit will have struck home eliciting a sigh of gentle appreciation; for others, it might well have induced instant irritation. But that's the thing about this hue, it has always been something of a contradiction, which makes its many characteristics so fascinating, if not complex.

And as for being a shade with a historically defined gender bias, let's get that out of the way first. It simply isn’t true. A century ago, European baby girls would actually have been swaddled in blue, and boys in pink, as pink was understood to be a diminutive of red — deemed aggressive, thus manly and masculine. Added to which, the Virgin Mary was always depicted clothed in blue. It was only in the 1950s that the appropriateness of these colours became determined by sex, and even then, probably only as a canny marketing ploy to shift more product.

In psychological terms too, the meaning of pink is widely contested around the world. In Korea it represents trust; in India, hospitality; and in Japan masculinity as the annual blooming of the pink-blossomed cherry trees is said to represent young Samurai warriors fallen in the prime of life. In China, the colour wasn’t even recognised until they had contact with the western culture, and to date the Chinese word for pink translates as ‘foreign colour’.

An aesthetic pastel pink mood board inspiration | Colour Chronicles by Michelle Ogundehin | STIRworld
An aesthetic pastel pink mood board inspiration Image: Michelle Ogundehin

Pink has also done time as a political provocateur. In 1970s America pink incurred something of a feminist backlash with rising dissent against the colour’s implied femininity, due to a series of experiments that appeared to prove that men held within a pink room would become sapped of strength; in other words, pink made them weak. This tranquilizing effect was subsequently employed in prison holding cells, visitor’s locker rooms at college football stadiums and in small town drunk-tanks. Unsurprisingly, women wanted nothing to do with it.

Curiously, such debates have never seemingly affected architecture. The so-called ‘pink city’ of Jaipur, all ancient palaces in myriad rosy hues due to the natural pigment of the local sandstone have never been decried as unduly feminine. Neither has the Pritzker Prize winning Mexican architect Luis Barragán’s superbly expressive use of the colour in his work — chosen for its contrast to his native vivid blue skies — been thought of as anything other than iconic.

However, if we turn to the scientific argument that the colour doesn’t actually exist, I think we start to get to the heart of its polarity. To explain: in terms of the electromagnetic spectrum, pink is a mix of red and violet, which being on opposite sides of that spectrum cannot be combined without bending it in on itself, which is impossible. Ergo, a pink wavelength of light does not exist. It’s therefore defined as an ‘extra spectral colour’, which seems rather fitting.

In other words, when you look at a pink object, it only appears that way because certain wavelengths of light are reflected, while others are simultaneously absorbed, and your eyes and brain do the mixing. In short, pink only really exists in the realm of pigments, dyes and chemicals. And for the record, flamingos are coloured this way because they eat shrimp! No shrimp equals white feathers.

A pink and blue insta-colourscape moodboard inspiration | Colour Chronicles by Michelle Ogundehin | STIRworld
A pink and blue insta-colourscape moodboard Image: Michelle Ogundehin

But most recently trend talk has been dominated by the rise of ‘millennial pink’, a desaturated, muddied version of the colour that's neither saccharine sweet nor stripped bare but somewhere in between. I would posit that its ascendancy reflects current conversations about gender fluidity. This iteration of pink is a new neutral. As such it’s been eagerly adopted by both men and women (and any gender we care to insert in between), to make a statement about emotional openness and modernity.

Interestingly, in 2014, the Color Marketing Group (CMG), a worldwide non-profit forecasting group, picked a very similar colour as its prediction for 2016, and they called it Shim, as a hybrid of she and him. Mark Woodman, the former president of CMG, called the pick “a moment of quietude". And I think this is the key. Although 2016 turned out to be anything but this — think the inauguration of President Trump and the United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union for starters!

It seems then that the power of pink lies in its very ability to be both striking and calming. Regardless of the reservations of the 1970s, it can be understood as a hue that we intuitively turn to as a soothing balm in hectic times. A truly powerful force, not a weakening one. After all, from Germolene to Pepto Bismol, it’s no accident that healing potions are often this colour. And so, in a time when the world feels like it's slowly spinning out of control, with the pace of contemporary life ever increasing, pink comes to the fore. Albeit, also signalling a note of optimism as the go-to colour for a new generation seeking a better, more inclusive future for all. As the singer Miley Cyrus once quipped, “Pink isn’t just a colour, it’s an attitude!”

Click here to read more from Colour Chronicles series.

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