How Pink And Blue Became Gender-Specific

It actually wasn’t until the 1940s that the colors became set in stone.

Pink is for girls. Blue is for boys. Of course our society allows exceptions now and again, but imagine showing up to a boy’s baby shower with a pink bib and matching pink shoes. There would be whispers that either you’re nuts or you must not have seen the ultrasound on Facebook.

But things weren’t always this way. Jo B. Paoletti, historian and author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys, has found that pink and blue designations are extremely recent phenomena. Around the turn of the century, both sexes wore easily bleached white dresses up to age 6, meaning that gender neutral clothing was the norm. Then things slowly shifted. From a superb piece over at Smithsonian (that you should read in full!):

The march toward gender-specific clothes was neither linear nor rapid. Pink and blue arrived, along with other pastels, as colors for babies in the mid-19th century, yet the two colors were not promoted as gender signifiers until just before World War I--and even then, it took time for popular culture to sort things out.

For example, a June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department wrote, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” Other sources said blue was flattering for blonds, pink for brunettes; or blue was for blue-eyed babies, pink for brown-eyed babies, according to Paoletti.

In 1927, Time magazine printed a chart showing sex-appropriate colors for girls and boys according to leading U.S. stores. In Boston, Filene’s told parents to dress boys in pink. So did Best & Co. in New York City, Halle’s in Cleveland and Marshall Field in Chicago.

It wasn’t until the 1940s that retailers and manufacturers decided on pink for girls and blue for boys. Then the women’s lib movement of the '70s actually pushed retailers back to gender neutrality. But in the '80s, the once lace-deprived girls became new moms, and the division of pink and blue started anew. Even still, given that just about any color goes for grownups these days, it seems absurd that we’d protect our children from the evils of certain shades of dye. That said, so long as advertising’s social scaffolding herds youth toward specific styles and behaviors, there’s not much that your studied choice of chewing-gum cigar can do about it.

Read more here.

[Images: Girls and Boys via Shutterstock]

Add New Comment

18 Comments

  • disqus_yt5oKOMIqx

    How is it that women who are for women's rights get crap said like "Then the women’s lib movement of the '70s actually pushed retailers back to gender neutrality. " The retailers got pushed back? What a load of horse crap.

  • Yam Erez

    I distinctly recall in the Little House books that Laura had to wear a pink hair ribbon because she had brown hair, and Mary had to wear a blue hair ribbon because she had blond hair. One Sunday they switched for church and got into trouble with Ma.

  • Sam Liedtke

    "... pink and blue designations are extremely recent phenomena. Around the turn of the century, both sexes wore easily bleached white dresses..."

    Forgive my nit-picking, but at first glance this paragraph confused me as to which era you were referring. We did just have a turn-of-the-century about 13 years ago. :)

  • InklingBooks

    Don't forget that none of this is arbitrary. There are whys behind this rules. Most of the time, it's hard to tell whether a baby is a boy or girl, so color coding their clothing helps those not in the know.

    Also, I've heard that dressing both little boys and girls in "white dresses up to age 6" was a ploy the more affluent classes used to try to make boys act less aggressive. Not looking that different from girls, it was thought, they'd act more like girls. Boys hair was allowed to grown long and even curly for the same reason.

    --Michael W. Perry, Hospital Gowns and Other Embarrassments

  • Yam Erez

    "it's hard to tell whether a baby is a boy or girl, so color coding their clothing helps those not in the know."

    And why, indeed, is it important to know the gender of someone for whom gender won't be important for another ten years?

  • COBRACHOPPERGIRL

    Does anyone else think that picture of the little girl in blue looks like a young Adam Sandler?

  • Cpresea

    As far as I can speak about France, we used to wear girls in blue until the 40's because of the old habit of catholicism to wear the Holy Mary with blue, so baby girls were put under her protection. 

  • Doug

    Sometime between 1927 and the '40's the color code reversed. It would be a challenge to find what caused the switch but it would be the makings of a long fascinating story.  I don't agree with the author's conclusion that advertising herds youth, I think ads reflect the social norms more than they create them. It is too risky for an advertiser to go against existing norms, though they may help perpetuate something that would otherwise be temporary.

  • Jayh6

    "But in the '80s, the once lace-deprived girls became new moms, and the division of pink and blue started anew."

    I think these women actually took back pink as a marker of gender pride. Hence you have pink construction hardhats and motorcycle helmets, pink trimmed Jeeps, even pink trimmed gun cases.

  • Yam Erez

    Yes, and in so doing they made pink taboo for boys and men. Even down to Bic making a "ladies' pen". Absurd. I can't believe people buy into this.

  • Darragh Hanafin

    Im a man and wear it all the time i get a bit slagged over it but im used to it. Pink is a great colour and should be worn by everyone.

  • Tiana Kai

    This is really interesting and thanks for the Smithsonian link... consumerism plays a part in all (most) we do. 

  • Pedro Custódio

    Steve says it all, in many parts of Europe before 1900's the colors were just used in the opposite of what it is today... question is if the change happened somehow connected to the women rights fights? 

  • Steve

    I'm surprised the most interesting point wasn't emphasized, that as late as the 1920s, pink was for boys and blue was for girls! So a complete 180 for gender coloring occurred, with no apparent reason. Kind of shows how trivial colors are for fashion, aside from white and black, which have functionality.

  • Yam Erez

    Well they were trivial, before they were co-opted, just as the swastika was no more than a decoration that originated millennia ago in Persia, but today it can no longer be used as decoration. By the same token, we can no longer dismiss pink as "just another color". A shame.

  • Tommy

    It said it in the third paragraph-

    For example, a June 1918 article from the trade publicationEarnshaw’s Infants’ Department wrote, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”