End of Gender: Pink For Boys? Why “Sex-Appropriate” Colors Are Arbitrary

When Laurie, the heartthrob-next-door of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women, is shown boy and girl twins, he asks, “Which is which?”

“Amy put a blue ribbon on the boy and a pink on the girl,” Jo replies. “French fashion, so you can always tell.”

According to Jo B. Paoletti, author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America, “blue for boys, pink for girls” may have been common practice in 18th century France, but in United States, the color rulebook had yet to be written.

roosevelt as a baby in a white dress and shoes

Back in the day, infants of all genders wore white frocks—white, because it could be bleached of any infant spewage, and frocks, because it’s easier to wriggle a baby into a dress than into britches. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1884 toddler photo depicts our dignified to-be president sitting primly in a white skirt and patent leather shoes.  

Eventually, parents began dressing their infants in “the colors of springtime,” but it wasn’t until World War I that those colors became gender signifiers. In June 1918, the Earshaw Infants’ Department instructed parents, “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.” 

But not all manufacturers agreed. In 1927, Time magazine printed a chart showing which sex-appropriate colors were approved by major department stores (Filene’s and Marshall Fields advocated pink for boys; Macy’s said pink was for girls).

Though the decision could have gone either way, by 1940 most advertisers agreed on pink for girls, blue for boys, and in post-World War II consumer culture, gendered clothing and colors were all the rage.

Despite its highly contested beginning as the color of girlhood, pink has remained steadfast in its symbolism. Remember when “America’s toughest sheriff” Joe Arpaio fitted male inmates at an Arizona prison with pink undies to “reduce underwear theft?” Earlier this year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the mandatory pink undergarments were a form of “punishment without legal justification,” noting that the selection of pink was meant to symbolize the loss of prisoners’ masculinity.

While metrosexual fashion reclaims pink as a “manly” hue, I’m not so sure if pink and blue will ever lose their cultural significance (plus, sporting a shirt that reads, “Real Men Wear Pink” only reinforces the line the between masculine/feminine gender roles). But the history of pink and blue shows us just how arbitrary gender signifiers can be, and in the genderpocalypse, that’s knowledge we can apply to just about everything else.

Further reading: Pink and Blue Brains?, Beyond Pink & Blue Toys, Pink Scare

Previously: Buck Angel Wants to See Your Cervix, Not “Just A Tomboy”

by Malic White
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7 Comments Have Been Posted

There was a huge controversy

There was a huge controversy at the University of Iowa over the pink locker room: the visiting football team's locker room is (allegedly?) painted pink. A prof in the College of Law wrote that it was was sexist/stupid, and the community went into a huge uproar defending the "tradition" of the pink locker room and saying it had nothing to do with making the other team feel weak. It was interesting to hear both sides play out the logic of their argument.

I remember seeing a

I remember seeing a documentary called "Tough Guise" (or something around those lines) in an undergraduate sociology class. The film mentioned the practice of painting the visiting team locker room pink as a way to intimidate or leave them feeling deminished of their masculinity. I'm not sure if they were explicitly talking about Iowa, or another college doing this.

The Western practice of

The Western practice of dressing male and female children in dresses is far older than pink and blue. In renaissance, boys were only dressed in men's clothes until they were near puberty and if they were aristocratic usually sent to away to school to live with other boys.

In a picture of a painting from wikipedia, Henry Staurt (second husband of Mary Queen of Scots) is standing next to his younger brother, Charles, who is wearing a dress. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hans_Eworth_Henry_Stuart_Lord_Darnley_...

My mother would be very

My mother would be very pleased with this article. She insists pink is a color suitable and appropriate for all babies and she argues that there's "only a brief window of time that it's socially acceptable to dress a little boy in pink."

Why Pink is used in Locker Rooms

Pink is actually the most calming color, which is why it is frequently used in prisons, locker rooms, doctors, etc. Wouldn't want to fire up the opposing team, now would we?!

pink, orange

Very interesting that blue was once for girls (it is more calming) As a girl, I think I hated pink because it had that label, pink is for girls. My favorite color was purple, I hated pink. I now have 2 little girls and all the color wars are coming back. One of my girls LOVES pink and the other won't go anywhere near pink. Orange is her color. The boy, Green. But I hate Disney sometimes. EVERYWHERE pink is all you see and those damn princesses. My Orange loving girl also is obsessed with cars. But they don't make cars underwear for girls. arg

codes of colours

There is a really cool documentairy, "Cracking the colour code". In the third part of this film, there is an experiment going with advertisement students: they have to prevent the teacher to put down their arms while exposed to blue or pink colour. Guess the results: it was imposible to the students to maintain the force while exposed to the pink! Coincidence? Socialization? Colour`s vibrations to the brain?

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