It’s one of societies’ most common gender stereotypes – pink for girls, blue for boys – but how true is it?
I remember seeing an episode of the panel show QI a while back in which it was explained that this has not always been the case. In fact, it was just the opposite – blue was more associated with girls and pink with boys.
During the Middle Ages, red was a masculine colour because of it’s association with strength, war, fire and blood. It was fairly common that if a man had coloured clothing, it was dyed red or pale red (i.e. “pink”). Pink was often used for male children, being a pale version of red.
Blue had a feminine association because the colour was often seen as representing peace, harmony, water, the sky (heaven) and the Virgin Mary. Today, the Virgin Mary is still associated with blue. The next time you see an image of Mary, notice either the blue shawl or the blue background.
Arabs in the Middle East continue to paint the doors of their homes blue in a tradition to frighten away demons.
Despite some regional differences in dress and culture, there is evidence that these colour conventions have been followed throughout most of Western Europe and, later, in the Americas.
Apparently, pink sailor suits were common for boys in the early twentieth century. There is documented evidence from a March 1914 edition of The Sunday Sentinel, which carried advice to new mothers about traditional colours to use with their children:
If you like the colour note on the little one’s garments, use pink for the boy and blue for the girl, if you are a follower of convention.
And the Ladies Home Journal from their June 1918 edition:
There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger colour is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.
Quite how or why people began to swap these colour conventions is unclear, but changes started as early as the mid-1800s.
In 1869, Louisa May Alcott wrote in her famous novel Little Women that a mother of twins “put a blue ribbon on the boy and a pink on the girl, French fashion, so you can always tell them apart.” – in the 19th and early 20th centuries, baby clothes often were all white.
Regardless of the colour convention being followed, it was common to dress infants and young children the same – in what we now would consider to be dresses. The upper classes would dress their young children in dresses with white collars and let their hair grow long. By dressing all children the same way, each child in the family could inherit and use the same clothes.
It wasn’t until World War II that the identification of pink with femininity started to become more widely accepted. The Nazis used a pink triangle to identify homosexuals which would suggest that, in Germany at least, pink had become associated with the feminine.
However the change came about, by the middle of twentieth century the association was strong enough that “proper etiquette” dictated that pink be associated with girls and blue with boys.