Recent years have seen a tremendous increase in the number of individuals interested in fashion. The fashion industry responds to this need by producing a variety of designs and colors for clothing. By wearing colors and clothes of their choice, people can express themselves and their individuality freely. One example of using color and clothes for expression is the increase in men wearing pink, a color formerly considered feminine.
‘Blue is for boys and pink is for girls’ is something that we’ve all heard at some point in our lives. The minute a kid is born, pink or blue is used to reveal the kid’s gender. Recent years have seen a boom in gender reveal parties where, again, the two colors are used to let family and friends know what pair of reproductive parts the child has. But why? Who labelled the colors as feminine and masculine? Who decided to slap these labels on society? And why, in many parts of the world, does society accept this rule? In this blog, I’ve explored the history of color and gender and its evolution throughout the years.
The assignment of color to genders is mostly a twentieth-century trait. The practice is mostly seen in the Americas and Western Europe. It is still unclear when and why pink and blue came to be the dominant colors to be slapped on girls and boys. But many arguments cite a passage from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, published in 1868. The passage shows how Amy ties a pink bow and a blue bow to Meg’s twins so that people will know which was the girl and which was the boy. It is also specified that it was done in the French style, suggesting that pink and blue were already gender-specific in France.
But it wasn’t always like that in the other parts of the world. Evidence shows that the practise didn’t exist in much of Europe until later. For centuries, kids wore dainty little white dresses until they were six years old. In fact, until the end of the nineteenth century, parents clad their little ones in white dresses. This was more of a practical matter since the white cotton clothes could be bleached easily.
Pink for boys and blue for girls
It was towards the early part of the twentieth century that regular comments were made to mothers regarding the color of their children’s clothes. When colour did become assigned to gender, pink was seen more as a masculine color, while blue was assigned to girls. New baby announcements and cards, baby books, decorations and ornaments, newspaper articles and gift lists from the early 1900s show that pink was indeed associated with baby boys and blue with baby girls. Significant events became like birth and baptism became branded with these two colors. Cots were decorated with the assigned colors. And as pink and blue took root and colors became all the more connected with gender identity, wearing something other than this binary was considered as a marker of deviance.
Pink was regarded as a more watered-down, bold and dramatic version of red, which itself is seen as a fierce color. In short, pink was the boyish version of the masculine color of red. Blue was more for girls. This could have been influenced by the fact that blue, particularly dark blue, was linked to the Virgin Mary in Christian Europe. Painters would often mix lapis lazuli (a deep-blue metamorphic rock) into their paintings to portray what is considered the most sacred feminist icon.
The ‘Blue is for girls and pink is for boys’ notion was reinforced all the more by the media at the time. On March 19th, 1914, the Sunday Sentinel, an American newspaper, advised mothers who were ‘followers of convention’ to use pink for boys and blue for girls. Similarly, the Ladies Home Journal informed us that although there had been a great deal of diversity in the opinion concerning color, the generally accepted ‘rule’ was that blue was for girls and pink was for boys. The reason was that pink was deemed to be more of a stronger color, hence more suitable for boys. On the other hand, blue was accepted as a more dainty, delicate and prettier color, thus suited for a girl. Hence, mothers were advised by pretty much every Tom, Dick and Harry on how to dress their children. They were told that if they wanted their sons to grow up into masculine men, they had to be dressed in a masculine color like pink. As for their daughters, if they wanted to be feminine when they grew up, they had to be dressed in blue.
Pink for girls and blue for boys
The current trend of blue for boys and pink for girls did not take root until the 1930s, with the advent of the Second World War. It is believed that Nazi Germany had some role in the popularization of pink with femininity. Catholic traditions in Germany and its neighbouring countries reversed the ‘pink for boys and blue for girls’ colour notion. In their concentration camps, the Nazis used a pink triangle for identifying homosexuals and for associating them with femininity. The Nazis’ actions denote that, by the 1930s, pink became associated with girls, at least in Germany. By the 1940s and after the war, pink was confirmed as a girl’s color. Blue was widely used for men’s uniforms. Hence, blue became a masculine color, the color of strength.
By around 1950, there was a huge increase in advertising by many advertising agencies. The advertisements only reinforced the idea of pink as an exclusively feminine color. Some companies created marketing slogans like ‘Think Pink’ to convince women to embrace their femininity. The change took root very quickly at that point. The subsequent years saw a virtual color explosion. And this wasn’t just in clothing, but also items like furniture and appliances. Dressing kids in blue and pink to specifically denote their gender suggested the rising middle class and above. Simply stated, families who could afford to do so made the gender assignment.
Another theory links the blue and pink gender references to the movie, Funny Face (1957), starring Audrey Hepburn. Hepburn was regarded as an extremely feminine woman, and her pink outfits may have added to that image. Further research shows that pink was reassigned to girls since it was close to red (a romantic color) and women were seen as emotional beings.
During the 1960s, through the women’s liberation movement, women challenged this notion. Gendered colors were thrown out the window. However, this wasn’t to last long. When prenatal testing was made available, parents started pre-planning everything for their babies. Retailers spotted the chance at once and realized that they could make capital out of the situation. They sold specifically tailored content for each gender. So, back to square one, society went. And the recent boom in gender-reveal parties has only reinforced the notion of ‘blue is for boys and pink is for girls.’ While parents are getting more creative about revealing their baby’s gender, pink and blue remain the dominant colors that they use to reveal the sex of the baby.
All this is and should have been, invalid in the past, present and future. Color doesn’t determine who a child is. The child determines who they are, and what more, they should be given the freedom to choose.
Blue versus pink stereotype
We have a number of examples of gender stereotypes that hold back individuals from being their true selves. Several studies conducted show that gender stereotypes are very alive.
Let’s take The Unstereotyped Mindset study conducted by The Female Quotient. When people were asked who would be best suited for launching a high-stakes project or leading a huge organizational change, the majority replied a man would be the one. On the other hand, for planning events for fellow co-workers, a woman would be better.
According to a survey conducted by Plan International USA, over one-third of society expects men to be tough and strong. Showing vulnerability is deemed weak.
According to Bright Horizons’ annual Modern Family Index, when women talk about their kids at work, they are seen as distracted. But when men do so, they’re seen as great dads. And when men are assertive, they’re labelled as confident leaders. But when a woman does so, she’s called bossy.
Hard-wired into society?
Cultural norms also shape color preferences. In cultures where blue is thought to be appropriate for a boy and pink for a girl, babies become familiar from birth to being surrounded by those colors. Clothes, toys and cribs-all come in the socially accepted colour of either blue or pink. This hard-wires the colors into their brain. Studies show that it is after the age of two that toddlers start to become aware of their gender. Looking around, they notice and imbibe what defines a girl and what defines a boy.
Slapping a color on babies enforces them roles that they are forced to mould and grow into. And moreover, assigning only two colors also enforces the notion that there exist only two genders. If you’re a girl, then pink is your colour. If you like blue, then you are labelled a tomboy. If you’re a boy, then you have to like blue. A boy liking pink deems him as being girly or not manly enough.
Wearing blue or pink doesn’t merely affirm an identity that society deems ‘normal’. It also reinforces whole sets of behaviours. And when choosing another color, we break those expected or perceived behaviours.
Why Pink and Blue?
Even in today’s era, despite people’s awareness and resistance towards assigning colors to genders, we still encounter the pink-blue color code in most children’s stores. Children, since their birth, or even before that, are imprisoned through color, and as a consequence, the masculine/feminine traits are attributed to these colors. The color determines their way of thinking and affects their behavior.
By caging individuals into gender stereotypes, the world could be missing out on amazing and beautiful achievements. If Karen Uhlenbeck, a mathematician, professor and the first woman to receive the Abel Prize, had listened to critics telling her that girls weren’t good at math, she might not be where she is today. Serena Williams, deemed too manly or masculine or muscular for a woman, is one of the best athletes of our time, be it woman or man. And who is to say that Prince George, mocked for doing ballet, can’t be the next Mikhail Baryshnikov?
Why are such judgements made? Why do we cage people inside these old-school frameworks on gender despite today’s age and awareness? It’s obvious that we still have a long way to go. And we start by looking at the stereotypes assigned to genders. Once the gender of the baby is known, people start affixing the child with masculine/feminine traits. Colors are assigned, and through the colors come the gender binaries. The boy is swathed in blue, and with it, he is forced to adopt a tough, masculine, manly persona. As for the girl, everything is pink-the soft, feminine, motherly caretaker figure. One of the best and first things to do is to stop thinking about gender in terms of binary opposites. Gender isn’t merely masculine or feminine. It is not just strong or weak. It isn’t rational or emotional. And it definitely isn’t pink or blue. Color shouldn’t limit a person’s individuality. And individuality shouldn’t be caged inside two colors. The spectrum has a whole range of colors and individuals should be free to choose and color their worlds with it. Just as they choose!
Recent times have seen the color pink changed to purple or sometimes, lavender. This change denoted the less radical and all-encompassing approach of the LGBTQ+ rights movement. After all, purple does include everything between red or pink and blue. It challenges any fixed or extreme gender roles. Anyone could be what they wish to be. This diversity is most visible in the widely accepted LGBTQ+ rainbow flag. Discarding the pink and blue notion and the labels that come with it, the flag includes everyone. Pick what you want, and feel free to change it when you want! Regardless of what society, no individual should be restricted in any way due to their gender. Wearing whatever color you choose isn’t just reversing gender roles. It’s about undoing over a century of restricting individuals to behaving in certain ways. In conclusion, gendered colors are completely outdated. Society should stop dumping colors on kids if we want a world with less sexism, fewer stereotypes and, overall, less prejudice.