powdered pink pigment on white

Barbie’s signature pink may be Earth’s oldest color. Here’s how it took over the world.

Pink—which may go back over a billion years—was once the color of fierce ancient hunters, powerful French women, and yes, boys.

Pink has long beguiled humans—used to dye clothing and tint cheeks even in the ancient world. Even though pink has since taken on our cultural baggage about gender roles, we continue to seek new hues such as this extreme pink pigment made by British artist Stuart Semple.
Photograph by Rebecca Hale, Nat Geo Image Collection

Could pink be Earth’s oldest color? That’s the implication of a 2018 study that found bright-pink pigments in 1.1 billion-year-old rocks—thanks to the fossils of the billions of tiny cyanobacteria that once dominated oceans.

The natural world has long been painted with every permutation of pink—whether embedded deep in ancient rock, sported by shrimp-hungry flamingoes, or simply lining the shores of Bermuda’s pink-sand beaches.

And yet the color carries a lot of cultural baggage. As pink made the jump from nature’s palette to human adornment, it gathered connotations of colonialism, beauty, power, and gender.

How did pink become such a cultural flashpoint? As the world takes a revitalized interest in the hot-pink planet inhabited by Barbie, here’s a short history of the compelling color.

Admiration for pink in the ancient world

Early humans quickly transitioned from admiring pink in the natural world to attempting to wear it; for example, in the Andes Mountains about 9,000 years ago, fierce hunters in what is now Peru wore tailored leather clothing with a pink hue thanks to red ochre, an iron oxide pigment that is one of the oldest natural pigments used by humans.

(Prehistoric female hunter discovery upends gender role assumptions.)

Humans weren’t content just to smear this pigment on cave walls or use it while tanning their leather garments. As far back as ancient Egypt, humans used ochre to tint their lips and cheeks. When applied to human skin, the red pigment created a blush-like pink that onlookers associated with love, sexuality, and beauty. Lookalike concoctions prevailed around the world, employing everything from crushed strawberries to red amaranth.

The color of cosmetics—and colonialism

Though the word’s etymology is unknown, the word “pink” was used to describe the color in the 18th century. By then, pink had become inextricably tied with colonialism—as demand for the pigment for cosmetics drove Europeans to harvest natural resources in other parts of the world.

For example, in a bid to make pinkish pigments from the bark and red sap of brazilwood trees, European traders forced enslaved workers to cut down so many of Brazil’s eponymous trees that the country was left deforested and the tree nearly driven extinct.

During this Era of Exploration, consumers also got their pink cheeks and lips from other pigments like carmine, derived from cochineal insects harvested in Central and South America under similar conditions.

Meanwhile, the color also had a more literal association with colonialism: During this time, the British Empire grew so massive that the color pink—which mapmakers used to mark its territories worldwide—dominated the world map.

Pink becomes a bona fide fashion craze

As red tints became more accessible and cheaper, 18th-century European aristocrats indulged a passion for pink. Art historian Michel Pastoureau writes that “the most privileged classes of European society wanted pastels, halftones, and the newest innovations in color shades in order to distinguish themselves from the middle classes, who now had access to bright, strong, and reliable colors.”

Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of Louis XV of France during the 1740s and 1750s, used the color as a signature. The artists who painted her and created fine objects for her many homes used pink in all their designs, even her carriages, and she helped further popularize the hue throughout Europe.

The emergence of synthetic dyes in the mid-19th century—which gave rise to the purple-pink color known as mauve—made pink more accessible than ever before. By the 1930s, bright pink had become a bona fide fashion craze. Avant-garde fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli made “shocking pink” her signature color, helping spread the vogue for women’s wear.

It worked: By 1935, even local newspapers like the News and Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, were declaring that “PINK IS FAVORITE.” And in 1939, a royal commentator wrote in London’s Daily Telegraph that pink was so popular, it was nearly ubiquitous for both bridesmaids and debutantes. “So general is the pink craze,” the paper wrote, “that some women are rebelling against it.”

(Could we make even pinker pinks? How science is enhancing colors.)

Pink is for…boys?

Around the same time, pink gained relevance in another realm: baby fashion. Gender and baby fashion had intersected for years; around World War I, etiquette guides and fashion advice columns began advising that mothers dress their children in clothing with gender-specific hues.

But which colors? A 1927 retailer survey on infant clothing colors published in TIME shows a split nation, with retailers like Filene’s and Marshall Field’s recommending pink for boys, but Macy’s, Bullock’s, and others claiming pink was best for girls.

By the 1960s, however, mothers began buying pink clothing for their female babies, dressing their male children in pastel blues.

“None of this transition happened by childcare expert fiat or industry proclamation,” writes historian Jo B. Paoletti. Instead, pink gained steam as a signifier of a baby’s female sex as part of a post-World War II push to reinforce traditional gender roles in American homes—and the realization by retailers that they could make more money that way.

“The more baby clothing could be designed for an individual child—and sex was the easiest and most obvious way to distinguish babies—the harder it would be for parents to hand down clothing from one child to the next, and the more clothing they would have to buy as their family grew,” Paoletti writes. Soon retailers featured entire “pink aisles” packed with pink-colored clothing and toys for tiny consumers.

The dark side of pink

Pink was also rejected by some as a symbol of weakness or even sinister intent.

In Nazi Germany, for example, the color was used to brand gay men in concentration and death camps, and as the Cold War emerged, suspected Communist sympathizers were given the derogatory name of “pinkos”—a term that referred to a person with “red” tendencies toward radical politics.

Meanwhile, members of the women’s liberation movement attempted to distance themselves from a color that had become inextricably linked with femininity and sexuality—think: Marilyn Monroe slinking down a staircase in a shocking pink gown, surrounded by tuxedoed men.

(Instead of pink, suffragists wore white—here's why.)

Anti-feminists, meanwhile, embraced pink; author Helen B. Andelin, for example, made public appearances in all-pink ensembles in the 1960s and 1970s during lectures encouraging women to abandon feminism and embrace lives as housewives.

Reclaiming pink

Pink remains associated with femininity to this day—but in recent decades, groups once disdainfully branded with the color have made moves to reclaim it.

In the LGBTQ community, for example, people who were once forced to wear pink as outcasts have adopted the hue as a symbol of their movement for social justice. In 1987, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) adopted a bubble-gum pink triangle in its “Silence = Death” campaign to increase awareness of HIV-AIDS and destigmatize the disease. It was just one example of pink being used to represent gay pride.

Some feminists have also reclaimed the color, fighting gender stereotypes with a tongue-in-cheek adoption of all shades of rose, fuchsia, and bubble-gum pink. At the 2017 Women’s March, for example, a sea of protesters wearing pink, cat-eared “pussy hats” protested the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump, whose lewd remarks about female genitalia during a leaked interview drew worldwide condemnation.

Today, pink is what you make of it—and it has grown in popularity once more. In 2016, Pantone announced that a shade of dusty pink —dubbed Millennial Pink for the generation that had embraced it—was its Color of the Year.

This year, Greta Gerwig’s upcoming Barbie movie helped fuel the rise of the pink-drenched “Barbiecore” aesthetic, inspiring admirers to saturate their homes and wardrobes with every shade of pink. According to Axios, searches for the term “Barbiecore aesthetic room” rose over 1,000 percent between May 2022 and May 2023, reflecting consumers’ craving for as-pink-as-possible interiors.

There’s no telling which permutation of pink will captivate us next—but given the colorful history of the hues that fall somewhere between white and red, pink’s next heyday is probably right around the corner.

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