You could say it all began with a new shade of iPhone.
Chatter after the premiere of an Apple product is typically related to specs and stocks. But in September 2015, when Apple premiered a “rose gold” version of the gadget, the conversation veered into gender politics. Some wondered if Apple deliberately didn’t call it pink to avoid criticism. “It’s silly and stupid, but pink is still seen by many as an overtly feminine color,” Christina Warren wrote for Mashable. Others praised Apple’s ability to “convince the masses that pink is not girly, lame, or gay.” Feminist author Roxane Gay simply tweeted that she wanted one.
Just over a year after the color’s introduction into mainstream consumer culture, it has been digested, reiterated, flattened, darkened, lightened, and adopted by a specific set of brands with a specific set of customers. Pantone, which in 2015 had declared “Rose Quartz” the color of the year for 2016, acknowledged the hue’s staying power by listing a lighter version of it — dubbed, ahem, “Pale Dogwood” — in its Spring 2017 fashion color report. Brands like Acne Studios, Glossier, Kinfolk, and Thinx incorporated it in their shopping bags, websites, magazine covers, and ad campaigns. In October, fashion startup Everlane teamed up with Opening Ceremony for a line of clothing from the same family of pinks and beiges. The music video for “Cranes in the Sky” opens with Solange swathed in a series of outfits, each a sensual variation of that fleshy color. Somewhere along the way, it became representative of a certain female cohort. It became “millennial” pink.
From a purely aesthetic point of view, millennial pink is an easy color to look at and wear. “It’s not bubblegum pink,” Leatrice Eiseman, the executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, said. “It’s obviously not a bright pink. It’s not fuchsia. It has a certain innocence, it’s unobtrusive, it’s very subtle. There’s kind of a healthy glow that’s attached to shades of pink like that.”
Whatever healthy glow a faded pink T-shirt conjures, however, the color’s appearance in pop culture has also given it deeper meaning — one that rebels against what’s expected of the female sex. “A cohort raised to distrust pink has turned contrarian and embraced a muddied, faded version of the color,” The Cut’s Véronique Hyland wrote in August, referring to a long history of consumer goods that pandered to women with baby and hot pinks. It seems the marketing departments for tampons, Barbie dolls, and makeup leaned so hard into the idea of femininity that those colors became alienating and overly simplistic.
“Symbolically, I think the kind of muted pink speaks to our role in altering society’s understanding of femininity,” Veronica del Rosario, the director of brand for the period panty brand Thinx, told me. The New York–based startup, known for building its name around “period feminism,” is best known for an ad campaign it ran in October and November of 2015, which featured the shade in question as a backdrop to slices of grapefruit that resembled a vagina. They were famously deemed too scandalous for the MTA, adding to their rebellious appeal.
“This is a different kind of pink,” she said. “We’re changing the way people think about the female experience. It’s a time to embrace femininity while redefining it.”
Eiseman, who conducts her research for Pantone by scouting the latest from fashion designers, trade shows, artists, and graphic designers, says it also plays well to a modern, high-end consumer base that is innately turned off by a category of color with too strong of a gender connotation.
“With female consumers, pink is sometimes also seen as a little girl color,” she said. “And some women have some hesitation with that. The Dogwood shade has a little bit of sophistication attached to it.”
The use of more subtle colors in advertising campaigns also signifies a shift in how brands want their customers to see them. While major tech companies like YouTube, Facebook, or Verizon err toward bright reds and blues to catch people’s attention, niche lifestyle brands want to present a more intimate and stately aura to their customer base.
“I think that there’s something to say for brands that choose a more neutral palette,” del Rosario said. “It’s more inviting. It doesn’t make us look like we’re just making a commercial. We’re trying to move away from that.”
Like any color du jour, millennial pink might not be around forever. But in Eiseman’s eyes, it signals a shift in how new businesses — especially in the startup world, where branding is key — might differentiate themselves.
“There are so many companies that use blue and red as typical branding colors,” she said. “I think the movement is not so much about trend. It’s more about, ‘Let’s not do what is ordinary.’”
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated Veronica del Rosario’s title for Thinx; she is the director of brand, not the director of marketing.
This story has been updated to clarify that in 2015 Pantone declared “Rose Quartz” the color of the year for 2016.