With its pink feathers, slender neck and legs that go on for ever, it has one of the most famous bird silhouettes on the planet. As instantly recognisable as the penguin, puffin and pelican, it has even had its own publishing imprint. However, today it can be found on wallpaper, lampshades, dresses, cushions, crockery, shoes and bags. Mostly, you can spot this increasingly common visitor from the United States on the uncut lawns of manicured hipsters who love a bit of tongue-in-cheek tackiness to rub up against their bunting. It is, of course, the pink flamingo.
On Monday, Don Featherstone, the inventor of the original plastic lawn ornament, died at the age of 79. The New York Times described the man who put a hot pink flamingo in the garden of millions of working-class families in the 60s as “indelibly altering the landscape of mid-century America”. His creation, first cast in Massachusetts, 1957, after a failed experiment with a duck, was venerated as “a flagrant totem of suburban satisfaction and, in later years, postmodern irony.”
The flamingo soon flew the suburban garden and circumnavigated the globe. In 1972, John Waters’ Pink Flamingos presented Divine, “the filthiest person alive”, with a pair of the eponymous creatures outside her trailer. The camp fate of pink flamingos was sealed. Gay bars used them as mascots. Transvestites brandished them on their platform pumps. In 1981, Soft Cell’s Wave Hello Say Goodbye opened with the brilliant line: “Standing at the door of the Pink Flamingo, crying in the rain …”
Today the high street is awash with the bird once used as a croquet mallet in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. A “flamingo” search on ASOS brings up 55 results and includes iPhone cases, socks and underwear. Sophia Webster’s current collection features four pairs of flamingo-inspired shoes and Mary Katrantzou has a range of bags, shirts and skirts with a flamingo savannah print. They’re basically the pineapple of 2015. If the flamingos were actual flesh and feathers, we would have a Hitchcockian Birds situation on our hands.
For Jamie Graham, creative director at London interior designers Graham and Green, who this year are selling everything from teeny flamingos in lightbulbs to their own take on Featherstone’s kitsch prototype (called Florence), the birds will never cease to entice us. “The pink flamingo has come a long way from its brash, suburban, mid-century perch,” he tells me. “They nod towards the wild, playfulness and colour. Flamingos are an easy way to inject fun and personality into a scheme.”
But why flamingos? Is it their attraction to salt lakes? The fact that they form some of the largest flocks on earth, gathering in congregations of up to a million? Or is it just their good looks? In Birds People, the masterly global survey by ornithologist Mark Cocker, he writes: “Their physique seems to confirm a central human idea that they are deeply special. The curiousness of flamingos has only added to their allure as captive adornments for parks and gardens. It is partly this tradition, which goes back thousands of years, that has led us to think of them as an adjunct to our world.”