Symbolism of Colours
Piggy rose and candy pink – kitsch colour or coloured kitsch?

„Ei love Rosa“ (i.e. Egg love pink) – The Ferrero surprise egg for girls is pink
„Ei love Rosa“ (i.e. Egg love pink) – The Ferrero surprise egg for girls is pink | Photo (detail): © 4nitsirk

You can spot the girls’ aisle in a department store instantly: rose and pink, combined with glitter, plush and sequins. In other words: kitsch. A cultural history perspective.

Summer 2012: Ferrero brings out a surprise egg just for girls onto the market, spiced-up with the slogan Ei (untranslatable pun: Ei = egg, trans. note) love Pink on the chocolate egg’s packaging. Ferrero thus joins other manufacturers such as Lego, Duplo and Playmobil that originally were gender-neutral and have now developed their own product lines for girls – with lots of rose in all nuances.

Do girls love rose?

But what has been causing buzz and harsh criticism among feminists and gender researchers - for instance, the comment on the surprise egg for girls by the feminist magazine Emma was that “rose makes girls stupid” – is only a small building block of this glitzy, rosy-pink world that lends the girls’ aisles in every department store an in-your-face visibility: baby dolls in rose-coloured romper suits sit next to Princess Lillifee, dressed in rose, white plush cats with rose collars and Barbies in a world of candy-pink luxury. Under such circumstances, it’s not enough for ponies to just be ponies. Even they are pink with glitzy manes and shimmering curls. In other words: kitsch.

But where did this notion come from? Is everything in rose or pink automatically kitsch? And are all things rosy-pink kitsch automatically for girls? A look at the past reveals that the colour pink or rose was originally perceived very differently.

White as snow, red as blood

The colour combination of white and red had symbolic significance as early as the Middle Ages – thus the hero of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s courtly romance Parzifal is utterly enraptured by his wife Condwiramurs because her appearance is like a dew-covered rose – thus the narrator – uniting the colours white and red. In Middle High German texts, these colours are regarded as gender-neutral ideals of beauty – the most beautiful woman and the most handsome man have white skin and red cheeks and lips.

However, red is not only associated with beauty, love and eroticism – it also stands for strength and power. In her book on colour symbolism and psychology Wie Farben wirken (i.e. how colours work), author Eva Heller explains that in all cultural spheres, red is associated with masculinity. In dictionaries the main colour mediums for red are blood and fire. Thus Parzifal slew the knight Ither in front of King Arthur’s castle because he desired his red armour. He thereupon rode forth through the country as the Red Knight and basically did one thing only: fight.

Rose for boys, blue for girls

Against this backdrop, it is by no means far-fetched that for a long time, rose was a colour for little boys and not for girls at all, since rose was the “junior version” of red. Although into the 20th century children’s clothing was mostly colour-neutral and functional, in primarily aristocratic circles coloured garments – rose for little boys, blue for girls – did exist. The reason was that blue was the colour of the Virgin Mary. Numerous depictions of Mary, among them by Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci, show the Blessed Mother wearing a blue mantle or gown.

Only in the course of the 20th century did a change in colour ascriptions take place, and then only very gradually, as the historian Jo B. Paoletti has shown. A number of factors are responsible. Religious symbolism and thus the colour associated with Mary increasingly declined in significance. Red as a colour for soldiers’ uniforms was replaced by inconspicuous hues of grey – the need to go into battle as a resplendent, great and intimidating army fell victim to the armaments industry and the transformation of warfare strategy bound up with it. State-of-the-art guns were fired from trenches. Blue sailors’ and workers’ clothing shifted the colour blue into the masculine sphere. Rose thus became a colour for girls for the purpose of differentiating the genders.

Princess rose and rose kitsch

But how did rose come to be associated with kitsch? Caroline Kaufmann’s dissertation Zur Semantik der Farbadjektive rosa, pink und rot (i.e. on the semantics of the colour adjectives rose, pink and red) provides an answer: the colour-word rose is scribed to the objects it refers to. For instance, pigs are rose in colour – a shade of rose that reminds one of pigs is therefore piggy rose. The same holds true of rose-coloured kitsch. It is not the colour per se that is viewed as kitschy, but the combination of colour and object, and above all its appearance.

Back to the pony: as a rule, a toy pony isn’t kitschy; a pony with mane of glitzy curls, over-long eye-lashes and a rose-coloured coat is. A surfeit of attributes is what makes kitsch kitschy. And of that there is plenty in the girls’ aisles, both toys and apparel. Today, extreme gender segregation on the part of apparel and toy manufacturers supports the conflation of rose and kitsch and above all of girls and kitsch. A neon-pink princess dress with fairy wings and plastic diadem doesn’t have much in common with the original “junior version” of red any longer.