Millennial Pink Was No Accident: The Hidden Meanings Behind The Colours You Wear

Tickled pink. Red with rage. Got the blues. Green with envy. Shrinking violet.
Colour permeates every aspect of our lives but, until recently, fashion had a very long love affair with black. Think of designers’ end-of-show bows, when they would emerge onto the catwalk, serious in staid black, a signifier of their focus and dedication to the art they create. Think of industry giants like Diana Vreeland, the Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue editor, who favoured clothes as black as her raven hair, or creative director Grace Coddington, who is rarely seen out of the obsidian shade.
What about the unspoken rule that New Yorkers simply don’t wear colour, a notion satirised in the 1957 Audrey Hepburn musical Funny Face. Maggie Prescott, the fictitious editor of a fashion magazine, said to be inspired by Vreeland, bursts into song proclaiming pink to be the season’s colour du jour. After the number – "Think Pink!" – a colleague asks if she’ll be donning the saccharine shade. "Me?" she replies. "I wouldn’t be caught dead." From Coco Chanel’s legendary 1926 little black dress through to Helmut Lang’s '90s minimalism and Olivier Rousteing’s penchant for black’s all-out sexiness at Balmain, fashion has been obsessed with black for aeons.
This hasn’t always been the case, though, and throughout fashion history colour tells a rich story of class, politics, consumerism and self-expression. Although it’s difficult to pin down an exact moment in time when humans started employing colour in garments, a look through art history shows how vital colour was in making a statement about its wearer. "Colour in clothing, especially bright, saturated and vibrant colours, were often highly symbolical and reflected the status of those wearing the clothes," Dr Alexandra Loske, art historian, curator at the Royal Pavilion & Brighton Museums, and author of upcoming book Colour: A Visual History, explains.
The colour purple, for instance, Loske says, was worn by emperors and empresses, as well as the heads of churches. "The Byzantine Empress Theodora is often depicted wearing a purple robe, the dye a Tyrian purple made painstakingly from the secretions of Murex snails. Unsurprisingly, the dye and colour is called 'Imperial' or 'Royal' purple. It reigned supreme until the chemist William Henry Perkin invented 'Mauveine', an artificial purple, in 1856, when it became purely a colour of fashion." Red was typically worn by those in royal positions, Loske explains, thanks to its allusion to expensive cochineal dyes, while the Virgin Mary is often depicted in religious paintings wearing blue: "A wondrous, exotic, and expensive pigment ultramarine, made from the gemstone lapis lazuli."
While we associate white with "purity, virtue and perfection", Loske highlights its reservation for the refined upper and middle classes, because it wasn’t suitable attire for those working in laborious – and thus dirty – industries. "Think of the gauzy neo-classic dresses worn by women in the early 19th century – greetings from Jane Austen’s characters! – or the frilly white shirts worn by men in the romantic period," she says. Now, white retains its moral connotations (it is still the colour expected of most brides) but finds itself workplace-appropriate – albeit a very different kind of work.
Historical class associations of colour can be seen in even the most interchangeable hues. Loske highlights the difference between indigo and black: "Curious, given how close they are in chromatic terms, that they are miles apart when we think of 'blue collar workers' and blue jeans as the epitome of 'working class' yet black suits or LBDs are associated with elegance, success, sophistication and formality." Significant meaning can be found in every nuance of colour, proving that what we wear is never simply about taste.
With the turn of the 19th century came the availability of synthetic dyes, and with it, the age of consumerism and the inevitable boom of the high street and fast fashion. While the rise of accessible colourful clothing was progress for the democratisation of self-expression, it sometimes backfired. "Green was popular in women’s clothing through the 19th century," Loske explains, "but many of the 'modern' green dyes were arsenic-based, and copious cases were reported of women dying of the poison being released once they started sweating in their clothes."
While there’s no danger of being poisoned by your favourite pea green midi dress in 2018, our renewed appetite for colour mirrors the dawn of consumerism, over 100 years ago. From Sies Marjan, the brand that brought acid yellow silk dresses, electric blue suiting and burnt orange knitwear to a previously pitch-dark New York Fashion Week schedule, through to Kenzo’s use of paintbox-bright colour-blocking separates, via Delpozo’s milky pastel hues, scene-stealing colour has made waves from the catwalks to the high street over the past few seasons.
"Roksanda’s collections are always full of colour," Natalie Kingham, fashion and buying director of Matches Fashion, explains. "The AW17 show comes to mind, which featured beautiful reds, mustards, and blue tones. Richard Quinn and Halpern also use colour well; their collections are always bright and unforgettable." And it’s not just designer collections that are awash with colour; stroll down Oxford Street and you’d be hard pressed not to find a fuchsia blazer or duck egg blue prairie dress. What exactly has made us brave the bold and ditch black in favour of a kaleidoscopic wardrobe?
Well, the restrained palette of normcore enjoyed sovereignty for some time, influenced by Phoebe Philo’s Céline and the success of outdoorsy brands like Fjallraven and Patagonia, and our magpie-like attraction to colour could be seen as a direct backlash to that. We waved goodbye to neutrals and said hello to the all-out maximalism of Alessandro Michele’s Gucci, all royal purple and high shine gold. Of course, like at the turn of the century, it could come down to consumer demand. Trends move faster than ever before, reflecting our 21st-century impatience and need for new: what better way to grab a shopper’s attention than a vivid shock-factor shade?
Like all things, it may be shaped by our relationship with social media. "I think that Instagram has made our customers braver in their colour choices, and given them guidance on how best to clash colour and wear it confidently in everyday situations," Kingham states. Steeped as we are in a digital alternate reality that trades in the currency of aesthetics and peacocking, is it any wonder that the brightest colours receive the most likes? When highly saturated unicorns, rainbows and glitter rule the Instagram grid, it makes sense that we’d step up our sartorial game to cultivate the most aesthetically pleasing feed. "Social media suits and perhaps demands colour," Loske says. "How else to stand out?"
The same could be said of street style, which now has just as much influence on our shopping habits as the fashion month collections themselves. Gone are the days when Susie Lau was the only show attendee with a penchant for pop-colour print. From Julia Sarr-Jamois to Paloma Elsesser, street style is saturated with every shade in the spectrum.
For Leatrice Eiseman, executive director at the Pantone Colour Institute, the high-riding wave of colour is down to the kids. "Our relationship with colour has changed hugely," she explains. "Today, people are more open – especially younger people, or people who think young – to defying the old and absolute colour rules about what is appropriate for certain uses. I think this is all to the good – using colour is a creative exercise and shouldn’t be bound by too much dogma." Could it be that, in the face of dark and heavy clouds over the political, social and environmental aspects of our lives, we’re embracing colour as an act of defiant optimism?
Eiseman certainly believes so: "Just as we reached for coloured crayons as children, giving us the freedom to create, colour still offers the opportunity for creative expression and enables us to escape and fantasise." This, too, could be reflected in the naming of two colours after the youngest generations: millennial pink and Gen Z yellow. As millennial pink was first employed by a switched-on, smart generation of young women to reclaim the femininity of a new wave of feminism, yellow represents the hopeful outlook of the activist teens of Gen Z. "Millennials are very aware of how pink has become a colour that is no longer meant for women only, but can be worn by men, too," she says. "Gen Z yellow speaks to hope and optimism – something so necessary in thinking about the future."
Elizabeth von der Goltz, global buying director at Net-A-Porter, says that sales of both hues have increased significantly over the last year. "There’s something very uplifting about both colourways, something we’re seeing more often," she explains. Within colour’s triumphant return to fashion, which other shades have stood out, dominating both the catwalks and high street? Nicoll Blue was created by London Fashion Week and Pantone to honour the life of late designer Richard Nicoll, who often used the duck egg hue in his collections. While it was created in 2017, the soft pastel has enjoyed a renaissance this year, appearing on the catwalks of SS18, from Eckhaus Latta to J.W.Anderson.
Tomato red and hi-vis orange have emerged as joyful favourites over the past few seasons, with the former featuring heavily on the streets of fashion month AW17 via head-to-toe tonal get-ups inspired by vivid collections from Ashish, Dior, Balenciaga and Valentino. The steady influence of streetwear, meanwhile, where the mundane – and bizarre – becomes elevated, may explain the popularisation of the latter, once the preserve of builders and baggage handlers. Fenty x Puma and Raf Simons presented very tongue-in-cheek takes on hi-vis orange jackets at AW18, which resulted in the shade multiplying across the high street this summer.
Finally, one that has shaped much of our collective consciousness this year is Pantone’s colour of the year 2018: ultraviolet. Pantone draws inspiration for its selection everywhere, from the natural world to art and film. "Even strong social issues, such as causes and movements can inspire specific colours," Eiseman explains. While many attributed ultraviolet to the Purple Rain musician and creative force Prince, who died the previous year, it was, in fact, inspired by new scientific research. "Ultraviolet was inspired in part by new research on anthocyanins, as they are found in purple foods and we now know how beneficial they are in the human diet." Could the aubergine emoji have been responsible?
Our relationship with colour is constantly evolving. Perhaps millennial pink won’t mean what it means today in 50 years' time; after all, pink’s feminine connotations only came about after the Disney-fication of the colour in children’s clothing. Who knows what the colours that have shaped the past few years will come to mean in the future. This changing story may see the prevalence of black return to fashion, too. A classic, flattering and multifaceted colour, it manages to be both mysterious and self-important, anonymous and attention-drawing. And while that return may be inevitable, history guarantees that colour will prevail in its prismatic and joyful way.
Scarlet: dress by Eudon Choi, coat by Simone Rocha, shoes by Aeyde. Tangerine: dress by LF Markey, trousers by Chalayan, sunglasses by Beyond Retro. Gen Z Yellow: Coat by Angel Chen. Ultra Violet: shirt by Beyond Retro, trousers by Bogdar. Nicoll Blue: top by Paula Knorr, trousers by Kaimin, dress by Adeam, shoes by Aeyde, bag by Roksanda. Millennial Pink: blazer by Gabriella Hearst, top by Ermanno Scervino, skirt by Alice McCall, tights and socks stylist's own, bag by Shrimps.
Flowers by Design By Nature

More from Trends

R29 Original Series