#Powercolors: The story of Barbie Pink

#Powercolors: The story of Barbie Pink

Giovanni Blandino Published on 11/3/2023

Summer 2023 will be remembered for many things, including a colour: Barbie Pink.

Who hasn’t heard of Barbie? The doll – or rather range of dolls – created in 1959 by the American company Mattel is probably the most famous toy in the world. Now, thanks in part to the global success of the Barbie film directed by Greta Gerwig, she has become an icon that crosses the generational divide.

Image: Warner Bros.

The star of both the film itself and the intense promotional campaign that accompanied its release was the official Barbie colour: Barbie Pink. It was used so widely that stories started to appear in newspapers warning of a worldwide pink shortage. “The world has run out of pink!”, some designers wrote in alarm, while diehard fans wore Barbie Pink-coloured clothes to go to the cinema, Google paid tribute to the film’s release with a pink “Easter egg”, the benches of some bus stops in Los Angeles and Sydney turned pink and countless other brands – including Microsoft’s Xbox video game consoles – jumped on the bandwagon and used the colour to promote their products.

A Barbie Pink bench in Los Angeles. Image: Moshe Isaacian/x.com

But did you know that Barbie has not always been so pink? Or that in the eighteenth century pink was worn by men and women in equal measure, just as is starting to happen again today? And can you believe that Barbie Pink is actually one of the oldest colours on the planet? Let’s delve deeper into the history of the iconic Barbie Pink and its use by the Mattel brand.

What colour is Barbie Pink?

Barbie Pink has its own Pantone code (the international colour classification system for printing): 219C, which is somewhere between pink and magenta, bordering on fuchsia.

The Pantone code for Barbie Pink.

Leatrice Eiseman, the director of the Pantone Color Institute, described it as a “hot pink, a close descendant of the ‘mother color’ red, taking on some of the dynamism, energy and theatrical aspect of red, but tempered somewhat so that it is not quite as aggressive”. Many people have described it as a pink that cannot be ignored.

You often hear people saying that Barbie Pink is owned by Mattel. However, this is not strictly true, or at least not at the moment. Mattel has tried to trademark Barbie Pink, but has not yet succeeded – unlike, for example, the turquoise trademarked by the jewellery firm Tiffany & Co. – although no other businesses can use this particular shade on dolls and accessories.

Thanks in part to the 2023 film, Barbie Pink is now more recognisable than ever before, to the extent that some billboards featured nothing other than the date of the movie’s release and Barbie’s iconic colour.

An extremely minimalist billboard, with nothing but a colour and a date. Image: adsoxford.co.uk

At the same time, Mattel does everything it can to protect its exclusive use of this colour: in 1997 it sued the band Aqua for using Barbie Pink in one of their videos, although the lawsuit ultimately came to nothing. Would things have gone differently today?

Barbie wasn’t always pink

Curiously, Barbie has not always been associated with pink, or at least not so overwhelmingly as she is today. The famous Mattel doll only really started to be associated with pink in the 1970s.

The first Barbie appeared in shops in 1959: she was unveiled on 9 March at the New York toy fair, with a three dollar retail price. At the time she was a high-end doll, with an extremely classy appearance: Barbara Millicent Roberts, or Barbie for short, was dressed in a stylish one-piece black and white costume.

Left: the first Barbie from 1959. Right: the first distinctly pink Barbie, Barbie Superstar, released in 1977. Image: Mattel.com

With the arrival of the 1970s, however, the packaging began to be dominated by the famous pink. This was a marketing decision, seeking to open up the doll to the expanding pre-teen girl market. The first all-pink Barbie was Superstar Barbie, and after that her accessories became pinker and pinker: her car, for example – an incredible pink Corvette – and the furniture and architecture of her dream home. By the 1990s, the Barbie world was almost universally pink.

It was then that Barbie became synonymous with the colour, and the 2023 feature film Barbie cemented this successful pairing. Pink, as director Greta Gerwig highlighted, is an essential part of the movie, and is designed to be so bright as to be “almost excessive”. Sarah Greenwood, the film’s designer, described how the colour team mixed over 100 different hues, before narrowing them down to the film’s final palette, which features around 10 different pinks.

The first Barbie logo. Image: blog.logomyway.com

However, one aspect of Barbie has been pink from the very start: the logo. Although the shade has changed several times, the logo, developed by Mattel, has always been in the doll’s symbolic colour since the very first version in 1959.

Pink is a controversial colour

When you start delving into the history of pink, its adoption and widespread use by the Barbie brand do not seem quite so obvious: the association between pink and femininity only began in the twentieth century. But let’s start by going a bit further back in time.

Although pink is probably one of the oldest colours on the planet – a group of scientists discovered a Barbie-Pink-coloured rock dating from over a billion years ago – it was only in the eighteenth century, and particularly at the French court, that the colour became fashionable for the first time, among both men and women.

The London restaurant Gallery Sketch, refurbished in 2014, became a poster child for millennial pink. Image: domusweb.it

Even in the early twentieth century, pink and blue did not have clear gender connotations: indeed, surveys from the era cited blue as a colour that girls should wear. It was only during the twentieth century, in part due to marketing campaigns and brands’ use of the colour, that pink became associated with girls and blue with boys.

Nowadays, however, pink’s identity is once again being redefined by the brands themselves, proving how dynamic and difficult to pigeon-hole the colour is. In the mid-2010s, for example, a fashion emerged for millennial pink, a hue somewhere between salmon and peach that caught on in all forms and for all genders, and which became Pantone’s colour of the year for 2016.

Now that you know its history, would you be tempted to use Barbie Pink in one of your projects?