Millennials give the prep staple, a pink shirt, vibrant new life

  • Apr. 14, 2017 12:30 a.m.

The psychological phenomenon of the moment is group-think pink.

The color is more popular than rosé at a Provence garden party. It seems possible that 2017 will eclipse 1955 as “the peak year for pink,” as Life magazine effused that spring, beneath a Gordon Parks photo.

Over here, the eye spies the cozy androgyny of millennial pink; over there, the feminine pink of models on runways and the feminist pink of women on marches. And now its shades are ready to storm the torso of the business-class dude.

“Pink is a bestseller this season for Thomas Mason,” said Tim Neckebroeck, brand manager for the venerable British shirtmaker. “The elegance, undoubtedly, is also having a good dose of courage.”

Though it may require a smidgen of daring for some men to wear pink anywhere other than at an Easter parade, we can safely lay to rest the notion that the color is impossibly epicene, inescapably preppy, or in any case unworthy to be worn by a modern adult male. Sure, it is inadvisable to wear a pink shirt to certain job interviews, board meetings, and bail hearings, but the garment is generally correct and surprisingly versatile.

A pale, pink shirt is at its best cheering up a gray suit, enlivening a navy blazer, or endowing a neutral shade with a lot of joie de vivre. But you might think twice before wearing it with a very light tan suit, stone-colored chinos, or anything else that might get you mistaken for some kind of antique ice cream man.

And while you generally do not want to be wearing a black suit in any event (unless at a funeral, with you in the casket), if you wear a pink shirt with a blackish suit, you will take on a resemblance to a gangster looking flush after a big score.

As it happens, this pink-shirt spring brings a Broadway revival of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation (now in previews, opening on April 25), a 1990 play that contains a great pink-shirt moment. (It is arguably the finest in the American dramatic arts, rivaled only by the Risky Business dance scene.)

The plot concerns an imposter, named Paul, who talks his way into the lives of a New York art dealer by pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier and a Harvard schoolmate of their children. (In the 1993 film, Will Smith played Paul; Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing portrayed the couple.)

Early in the play, the couple gives Paul their son’s pink shirt after his own shirt is ruined in a (faked) mugging; after the impostor has been discovered and the children informed, the son throws a memorable fit: “You gave him my pink shirt? You gave a complete stranger my pink shirt? That pink shirt was a Christmas present from you. I treasured that shirt.”

The tantrum is a great moment of comic relief, and the particular shirt is a fine Ivy League-status detail. With the play coming back and the pink shirt returning to New York, I got in touch with some insiders.

William Ivey Long, who designed the costumes for the original stage production, very much wanted to use a Brooks Brothers shirt. It was, sociologically, the correct choice; the Brooks oxford-cloth button-down broke ground in making pink shirts proper many decades ago. But given the details of the lighting design, and the particular skin tone of actor James McDaniel, it didn’t look pink on stage. “It looked like a dirty white shirt,” Long told me.

Instead, he chose one by Paul Stuart that was “slightly more adventurous.” The word “adventurous,” in this usage, is a euphemism for “loud”-and not loud in the way of whale-embroidered Nantucket reds, either. “If worn by a Caucasian preppy, as opposed to an African-American preppy, it would not look right. It would look like a fantasy shirt.”

There is, in this observation, a lesson for anyone, especially white guys planning to get in on the pink shirt thing. If your shirt tends toward a bolder, brighter, more shocking pink-a raspberry, a fuchsia-then it will not provide an all-American trad vibe. Which is fine! Especially if you’re into looking like a British adman or something.

The costume designer for the new production is Clint Ramos. “We auditioned about seven shirts,” Ramos said, naming J. Crew, Banana Republic, Charles Tyrwhitt, a couple of vintage Brooks Brothers, and also Paul Stuart, which was “too pink” for this staging, with actor Corey Hawkins in the key role. Ramos ultimately settled on a current Brooks Brothers model. “Relaxed fit,” he specified. “Because, you know, it was the ’90s.”

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