Recently I’ve been curious why baby boys get dressed in blue and girls in pink. There seems to be such an abundance of new baby clothes and tiny outfits that define gender, well not only clothes. So I’ve done a little research and come up with the following information. It’s probably not the whole picture but it has interested me so thought I’d share here.
In the 1800s most infants were dressed in white, and gender differences weren’t highlighted until well after the kids were able to walk. Both boys and girls wore dresses or short skirts until age five or six. One theory is that distinguishing boys from girls was less important than distinguishing kids from adults. Childhood was a time of innocence, whereas adulthood typically meant grueling physical labor. Perhaps mothers decking out their little boys in dresses thought: They’ll get to be manly soon enough.
‘Is it blue, or is it pink?
It’s one of each, or so we think!’
By midcentury baby clothing in colors other than white had begun to appear, but gender-based distinctions were slow to emerge. A Times fashion report from 1880 has boys and girls dressed alike in white, pink, blue, or violet, and another from 1892 says young girls were wearing a variety of colors that spring, including several shades of blue.
‘Tiny fingers, tiny toes,
Little itty-bitty clothes
Dolls, ribbons and hair to curl
Guess what. . . It’s a Girl!’
But from the 1890s onward, boys’ and girls’ clothing styles started to diverge, with boys dressed in trousers at progressively earlier ages. There was a rapid masculinization of boys’ wear, for reasons that remain obscure.
‘What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails, and puppy dogs tails
That’s what little boys are made of !
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice and all things nice
That’s what little girls are made of!‘
As part of this differentiation, there seems to have been an effort to establish characteristic colors for girls and boys. But it took decades to develop a consensus on what those colors were. For years one camp claimed pink was the boys’ color and blue the girls’. A 1905 Times article said so, and Parents magazine was still saying it as late as 1939. Why pink for boys? Some argued that pink was a close relative of red, which was seen as a fiery, manly color. Others traced the association of blue with girls to the frequent depiction of the Virgin Mary in blue.
‘Will it be pink or will it be blue?
If we only knew!’
I’m not convinced, however, that there was ever a consensus that pink was for boys and blue was for girls. On the contrary, indications are the two colors were used interchangeably until World War II. Examples of pink as a mark of the feminine aren’t hard to come by, one of the cruder being the use of a pink triangle to identify homosexuals in Nazi prison camps. After the war the tide shifted permanently in favor of blue as a boy’s color. In 1948, royal-watchers reported Princess Elizabeth was obviously expecting a boy, since a temporary nursery set up in Buckingham Palace was gaily trimmed with blue satin bows. By 1959 the infant-wear buyer for one department store was telling the Times, ‘A mother will allow her girl to wear blue, but daddy will never permit his son to wear pink.’
(with gratitude to Cecil Adams)