Subverting Pink

I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the ways that pink has been reclaimed within queer clothing, by women loving women and trans and non-binary individuals. This is a topic that I have reframed for conference papers and a journal submission (which hasn’t been published yet, so this blog post is going to be slightly more casual in tone). As this blog is Dressing Dykes, however, and as I’ve become more and more aware of the ways in which lesbian voices and experiences are marginalised or despecified, the focus here is on pink and lesbians. Other queer people who wear and utilise the colour have equally important stories to tell, but they are not the one that is present here. 

Figure 1: “DYKE” on a pink denim jacket. Personal photograph by the author. April 2019. (Yes, this is me – I felt like this post needed a visual but didn’t want to pick out any one person)

I think that it is important to consider the colour pink in clothing as something with radical potential primarily because of its context. I have been wearing pink almost every day for years – it started with interests in Japanese street fashion and kawaii culture, but has evolved into something rooted in personal politics and my lesbian identity. I want to focus on the aesthetics and ideology of the colour pink and what it means specifically in lesbian women’s dress, how this typical visual representation of femininity can be subverted in its exaggeration, and how these things combine to create something that exists outside of the heterosexual canon of the colour pink in our modern society. 

Pink has, over time, become a pawn in a capitalist-patriarchal system. Its meaning is not natural, but socially constructed. I could write more about its lineage here, but I’m keeping it quick; for further reading I’d recommend Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Colour, edited by Valerie Steele, which was the book accompanying an exhibition of the same name at the Museum at FIT.1 For women, the most prominent association of pink is of a very solid, stereotypical heterosexual femininity. In my research, I have explored the times where this isn’t the case, and where this association is directly contested by lesbians who have reclaimed and taken ownership of the colour pink, in their lifestyles and in their dress. I will not be quoting the people who I interviewed in this post, but I will present the conclusions of this research. 

The phenomenon of overwhelming pinkness in the dress of lesbian women is most present in online communities, seen in photographs posted to social media like Instagram, often by women in their 20s. They’re people who have all been subject to the stereotypes that pink holds in the twenty-first century, having lived their childhoods in the millennium’s opening years. Growing up, the world around them has grown less restrictive in terms of gender and sexuality, but many restrictions still remain.

This closeness to stereotypes of pink, which are the most prominent in childhood and adolescence, mean that this context can’t be removed from their own pink styles of dress, which are – particularly when subversive dress styles – shaped by the specific cultural and historical moment that they exist in. This can be illustrated with Marx’s famous quote: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please, they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”2 Pink can’t be reclaimed by lesbianism without there first being a historical social context to remove it from.

To rewrite pink means to move away from the positioning of pink as “feminine”. Femininity here is not the problem, but in a society where pink and femininity are considered to signify heterosexuality and weakness, alternate readings of both must exist separate from the other. Lesbianism is inherently unfeminine. This is not to say that lesbians cannot ever be feminine, but that femininity as a structure excludes lesbian existence because it is an existence that does not rely on men.3 When lesbians wear pink it makes pink unfeminine in the view of a heterosexist society. It has the potential to recreate the meaning of a symbol that has been used to oppress us. 

I want to outline a theoretical analysis of how this reclamation of pink works: the most relevant concept that explains what I am talking about is “mimicry,” which is written about by French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray. In its most basic form, mimicry is the act of reappropriating visible tools of oppression in order to question how and why they are being used to oppress in the first place. In many cases, it is a purposeful exaggeration of these tools. It is the visual creation of the hyper-”feminine”, of exaggerated pinkness which draws attention to the initial place of that femininity, or that pinkness. Irigaray has explained the act of mimicry:

One must assume the feminine role deliberately. Which means already to convert a form of subordination into affirmation, and thus to begin to thwart it. […] To play with mimesis is thus, for a woman, to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allowing herself to be simply reduced to it.4

What Irigaray is suggesting is that, to “recover the place of her exploitation,” the role which has been used to oppress must be reclaimed and taken on deliberately, without the permission and the satisfaction of the oppressor. In the case of pink and lesbian identity, this means to wear pink only for oneself; if a person has ownership of the constraints they were previously kept in, those constraints can’t be used against them. You could say that mimicry is to replace the meaning of a cultural object, but rather than being only a replacement, it’s also a parody – This means that when pink has such a prominent place in outfits worn by lesbian bodies, it draws attention to the compulsory heterosexual femininity that pink is so often considered a symbol of.

When pink is unavoidable the structure of heterosexual femininity becomes unavoidable, too. When it is known that the wearer is a lesbian, the cracks in the structure are displayed for everyone to see. The clothes that we wear always speak, and the lesbian body is a megaphone. When our existence is radical, the clothes – and the colours – that we wear can also be radical. A lesbian embracing the colour pink puts the structure of femininity on display, but it also prioritises the lesbian self; as someone who wears pink all the time, I can attest that it is so full of joy, and so symbolic of my freedom. Even though lesbians are certainly not free, it continues to be something that we strive towards every day. 

Clothing is one of the most constantly visible forms of self-representation – of how you relate to the world, of your own political ideology, of your identity and how you enact it. The lesbian subversion of pink speaks for womanhood that is reclaimed outside of the constraints that heterosexual patriarchy put us in. It’s a symbol of taking ownership of a self that has been stifled, a political gesture of reclamation. Most importantly, it’s loud, and it’s visible, and its voice is ready to be heard.

Thank you for reading this post on Dressing Dykes! If you enjoyed, feel free to follow me on Instagram or Twitter, or leave a tip on Ko-fi.

Endnotes

1: Valerie Steele, ed. Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Colour (London: Thames & Hudson, 2018).

2: Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, (Great Britain: Fontana [1851] 1969) 360.

3: See Monique Wittig, ‘One Is Not Born A Woman,’ What is Gender Nihilism: A Reader (Seattle: Contagion Press, [1981] 2019).

4: Luce Irigaray, The Sex Which is Not One, (United States of America: Cornell University Press, [1977] 1985) 76. 

2 thoughts on “Subverting Pink

  1. I’m reading this via my pink Firefox browser, sitting in my pink bedroom, wearing the denim jacket I dyed pink, feeling connected to a whole history of lesbians who came before me. I adore your posts, thank you so much for sharing this history!

    Liked by 1 person

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