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There's No Such Thing as a 'Boy Color' or 'Girl Color'Tamaki Sono / Flickr

There's No Such Thing as a 'Boy Color' or 'Girl Color'


Jul 1 2013
The short history of our blue-pink designations.

After the birth of the Royal Baby, our months of speculation over its sex—A boy? A girl?—will end. But depending William and Kate's use of family heirlooms, the baby might wear pink either way. Historically, before pink became considered a feminine color, it had masculine connotations, too.

Despite today's gender-reveal parties and hyper-girly and boyish baby clothes, it wasn't that long ago that parents dressed infants differently. Some friends recently mentioned that the family christening gown passed down over a few generations — and worn by more than one baby boy — featured pink ribbons. Their son had recently worn it for his baptism. Not only did many of our ancestors once deem pink acceptable for both sexes and even a "strong" color, blue was often seen as appropriate for girls and women, partly due to its association with the Virgin Mary.

As Jo Paoletti recounts in her fascinating history of children's clothing, Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, the word "pink" didn't even initially connote a hue and only joined the color vernacular in the mid-19th century. Until the early 20th century, most American babies wore long, white gowns favored for both their practicality (easy to bleach and starch) and lack of gender specificity. When pastels did decorate babies' clothing or nurseries, "pink and blue were suggested as interchangeable, gender-neutral 'nursery colors.'" If a parent did favor one or the other shade, it might depend on the child's coloring.

Though pink and blue began to acquire "gender coding" in the latter half of the 19th century, Paoletti reports that it took almost 100 years for people to uniformly interpret the colors the way we do today. During those days, adults were more concerned with distinguishing adults from children than they were little boys from little girls. Not until age four or five might boys begin to wear clothes that aped their fathers' fashions; before then they often wore dresses largely indistinguishable from those worn by their sisters.

But however much Americans gradually came to perceive pink and blue in such a fashion, this did not make our gender coding globally ubiquitous. "Baby clothes in other countries were still following a variety of rules," Paoletti writes, "meaning that imported items or gifts from overseas continued to observe their own traditional patterns…. Blue was still a 'girl' color in Switzerland, and pink was an acceptable color for baby boys in Korea in the 1980s." (Nor are cultural color differences limited to our baby pastels. The rainbows I see frequently in San Francisco have a very different meaning in Peru, where I saw similar flags in Cusco as a nod to the city's Inca heritage.)

Related Topics:Children; Clothing; Gender; Parenting
From: June 2013

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There's No Such Thing as a 'Boy Color' or 'Girl Color'