Why Aren’t We Over Pink Being a 'Daring' Thing for a Guy to Wear?
On the first day of my first real job in life, I had some pretty big plans for what I was going to wear. I had been hired, after a lot of persistence on my part, as a sales grunt at The Polo Shop. It was 1987, and I was a high-school senior in San Antonio, a walking mood board of inspirations gathered from magazines and movies, books and MTV. I had recently emerged from a New Wave chrysalis—Duran Duran hair, a wardrobe like an advertisement for the Memphis Group, that wonderfully wackadoodle design outfit started by Ettore Sottsass. I’d never heard of him, but when I encountered his aesthetic being described some years later as “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price,” it struck me as dead on. Unveiled at the Salone del Mobile in 1981, Memphis was made for that decade’s love of exaggeration and big statement, loud color and cocaine optimism. Its vibe was also neither particularly masculine or feminine, like so many other cool things then saturating the culture: the British music scene; Merchant/Ivory films; and the two fashion brands I had recently started to notice—Perry Ellis and Ralph Lauren, both of which projected a vision of a well-dressed male who had the confidence to wear whatever he wanted, regardless of what it might suggest to some hidebound observers about his testosterone level.
I’d gotten some shit from various hosers freshman year when I was moussing my hair and wearing white shoes—my John Taylor phase. I didn’t like the names I sometimes got called, but I didn’t really care if anybody believed they were true. I knew who I was—a straight kid who didn’t want to play football any more—so what did I care if a “kicker,” as we referred to classmates whose jeans had dip can rings worn into the back pocket, called me a “fag”? The taunts made me angry, but I knew I had it easier than my classmate Sean did. He wore nail polish and openly declared to anyone who wanted to know that he was gay. I knew he was the brave one, risking much more by standing out, getting made fun of for something he was rather than something he wasn’t. It was in that moment that a resolve began to form in me not ever to limit what I looked like based on other people’s social hang ups.
"It was in that moment that a resolve began to form in me not ever to limit what I looked like based on other people’s social hang ups."
By senior year, my taste had changed, but my thinking hadn’t, and that’s why I soon hit another trip wire in the recesses of the herd-minded male brain. Part of the reason I had been able to talk my way through the door at The Polo Shop was that I had spent the previous summer at a high-school program at Yale, getting a direct taste of the establishment world that Ralph Lauren had turned into the most aspirational brand America had ever seen. I’d even made a pilgrimage to the Polo mothership—the recently opened Rhinelander Mansion on Madison Avenue, the paint still fresh—and picked up a few trophies on sale with my parents’ credit card, including a pair of brown-and-white spectators.
I was now slipping those on, along with a pair of blue-and white tattersall trousers, a pink button down, and a scene tie that chronicled the action of some by-gone chukker. When I showed up at the shop that first day, the franchise owner, Harold, who resembled Mr. Matuscheck in “The Shop Around the Corner” down to his well-groomed mustache, was out. The manager, Mike, a crisply efficient guy, showed me around, and then took me to the front of the store, which looked out upon the main corridor of San Antonio’s biggest mall, the one with a two-story pair of cowboy boots out front.
The entrance to the shop was flanked by long glass cabinets filled with shelves of overlapping neckties, and behind those, along the walls, was a grand honeycomb of built-in, blond-wood cubicles, within which stacks of neatly arranged dress shirts were organized, as Mike explained, by size and style. Just then, Harold walked in, looking rather upset. Although we’d spoken the day before, he gave me an unexpectedly cold stare--my first hint that the friendly guy who had interviewed me might not be the same once you were under his thumb. Mike busied himself neating already perfectly stacked shirts, and the focus turned on me, the guy just standing there. Harold asked me to follow him to the back, where there was a small employee break room, and when we got there, he shut the door, and quickly let go. “Don’t ever wear anything like that again here to work—you look like a god-damn clown! Now get back out on the floor."
It was a swift, confusing kick in the backside of my tab-waisted, double-pleated, two-inch cuffed trousers. I knew I had on a bold combo, but it was pure Ralph, based on my careful study of those ten-page Polo spreads that ran in The New York Times Magazine back then, showing how there was no such thing as too much pattern or color, if put together with the right touch. If you couldn’t get a little creative in a shop like this, where in the world could you? For the first time, I let another male’s taste rules affect my own. I began to doubt my style instincts. And I hung up what I imagined to be the real offense—that pink shirt.
All this came back to me last month when my Esquire colleagues and I began talking about how we wanted to shoot Kit Harington for our May cover. At the men’s shows, in January, I’d been noticing the color pink peeking out, here and there, first at Brioni, where a pink tuxedo shirt was paired with a tobacco-brown smoking jacket, and then at Ami, where pink was woven through the show, and looked especially good in a matching sweater and collared shirt combo beneath a black-and-white houndstooth sport coat.
This wasn’t pink as inspiration for an Easter-egg hunt or the inherited taste of a prep-school uniform or pink on the cleats of NFL football players and Bubba Watson’s Ping driver in solidarity with the noble cause of fighting breast cancer. This was, to me, an evolutionary leap forward. It didn’t harken back to the tropes about what pink had been in the male wardrobe, but what it could be: quiet, intriguing, self-assured, gentle--“likely to elicit a favorable reaction from your date or potential mates in the vicinity,” to borrow a description from Jay McInerney writing in Esquire about pink champagne.
"You can’t fake it when you wear pink. You’re either man enough to withstand someone questioning your manliness or you’re not."
Pink, in sophisticated shades, was about to pop up on Jason Momoa at the Oscars; on Jay-Z at the GLAAD Awards; and Tiger Woods in the third round of the Masters. My editors and I could feel the moment before it was one, so Matthew Marden, Esquire’s style director, made sure to get some great pink pieces for the shoot. On the day it happened, Kit, who very much has his own personal sense of style, kept coming back to one of those finds—a thin-gauge Gucci turtleneck. At first, Matt told me, Kit wasn’t quite sure. He tried on some other things first. But he kept coming back to the pink sweater. Finally, he decided to try it on and he really liked it. As the final image suggests, that color is all him. You can’t fake it when you wear pink. You’re either man enough to withstand someone questioning your manliness or you’re not.
Let’s confront the obvious stereotypes associated with the color by recalling the discussion from the memorable scene in Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” when the grizzled ringleader of the planned diamond heist assigns names to his crew, starting with Mr. Brown and ending with Mr. Pink, the character played by Steve Buscemi, who pipes up in protest that it not only makes him seem gay but that “Mr. Pink sounds like Mr. Pussy.”
For a mere color choice to arouse the ugly twin heads of homophobia and misogyny is somewhat extraordinary. Is this because of the insidious history of the Pink Triangle in Nazi Germany—or Act Up’s reclaimed use of it during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s? Or is it because of a lost piece of fashion history? Until the twentieth century, pink, which comes from red, was considered a masculine color; little boys were often dressed in it. Then, in the 1920s, various American department stores saw a bigger business in pushing the color for girls, and pink soon became a symbol of femininity.
But hold the phone: isn’t this 2019, the year of the human race’s great collective awakening, the year when prejudice itself is scheduled to be amputated from every heart so that “contrived” differences and unequal outcomes can finally be erased?
Maybe not quite yet.
Whatever the cause, pink remains—for now at least—the most richly provocative color in any man’s wardrobe. The attention you attract in it might be from nosey bigots, wondering about your private life. Or from meatheads questioning your toughness. Or from conformity stiffs, envious of anyone who has the guts to do something cool another guy doesn’t. To my mind, those are three reasons to wear pink as often as you can.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.