Friday, March 16, 2007

Why is Blue for Boys and Pink for Girls?

Where did this stereotype come from? Was pink always designated a feminine color, and blue a masculine color, or did culture somehow dictate the gender preferences? There are differing opinions, which I have hunted down to mull over.

Isaac and Ella, my friends' babies


You might be familiar with the famous portrait called "Blue Boy". But I didn't know that Gainsborough painted a companion pieced entitled, "Pink Boy". So it seems, in the 1700's, the modern stereotypes had not yet been established. (source)

In the US in the early 1800's, boys and girls were dressed alike in white from birth through early childhood. Babies wore "long clothes" which were white cotton dresses that extended beyond the length of the infants' body.

Wichita Photo archives

In the early twentieth century, ideas about child-rearing changed, and developmental stages such as crawling were encouraged. Children's clothing was adapted to allow for more movement and more colors were introduced.(source)

But even as late as 1899, young children were still dressed in unisex dress. The pattern descriptions read, "child’s dress appropriate for either a young boy or girl"

Vintage Cat Sewing Patterns


Originally, pink was designated for boys, as it was thought to be the stronger color. In Christian tradition, red was associated as male, and its ‘little’ sibling pink was used for boys.(source) Blue was associated the Virgin Mary and therefore considered feminine.

Costumers Manifesto


Take this news clip from a 1927 issue of Time magazine, "In Belgium, Princess Astrid, consort of the Crown Prince, gave birth a fortnight ago to a 7-lb. daughter. Said despatches: "The cradle . . . had been optimistically oufitted in pink, the color for boys, that for a girl being blue."

Time Magazine


After WWI, blue was used extensively for men's uniforms. Therefore, blue became associated as more of a masculine color. From the 1940's onward, pink was pushed as a woman's color. "Think Pink" was the marketing slogan to convince women to embrace their femininity. Dressing girls in pink reinforced this role by conditioning with a set of rules that started with little girls, made of "sugar and spice and everything nice."

Book by Lynn Peril


Today, those gender specifications hold strong, with pink designated for girls, and blue for boys. Fashion is making inroads to break the stereotype, but for the majority of our (American) society, I think people are still pretty traditional.
Take this present-day catalog image of room designs for baby boys and girls:

Pottery Barn Kids


I'm curious to hear from readers in other countries- do gender specific colors hold true for where you live?

P.S. in New York City, there is an exhibit currently going on at the Fashion Institute of Technology which traces the evolution of color in fashion. She's Like a Rainbow: Colors in Fashion. If anyone goes, I'd love to hear how it was.


51 comments:

LauraB said...

I've just visited your blog for the first time and am really intrigued by this post...the sociology/history of color is very interesting. I hope you do more on this topic!
Also, I might just have to get over to FIT before May 9th for the Fashions History show, sounds cool.

bani said...

I was redirected here from A Dress A Day, and will be sure to bookmark this entry! From Sweden I can report that although the past few years (decade even, maybe?) show an increase in a more unisex approach to children's clothing and colours, the general idea is that pink is for girls and blue for boys. Not only that, but there are a depressingly large number of people who think red, orange and purple also make little boys' willies fall off.

Rachel said...

Bani,
thanks for joining us! That is too funny that people are so opposed to colors for boys that they think somehow, it will effect who they are. Such silliness...

I'm always curious how different cultures and different regions perceive colors differently

bani said...

Thanks for the welcome!:D

It is interesting, isn't it? I've noticed that red for example seems to be a "boy" colour in the US - something I keep telling people here when they think red is "girlish". *smirk*

oracle said...

Like Bani, I also came here A Dress A Day. I love colour very much, so am thrilled to find your blog!

I love this post on colour and gender. Makes me think of a movie I saw in the mid-80's called "The Pinks and the Blues". It showed how a group of parents, many of whom were committed to not projecting gender stereotypes onto their little kids, did so anyway in ways they were not conscious of, and how these unconscious cues called forward specific behaviours in girls vs boys. (E.g. girls would come up very to mom to request something and would ask her in a low and intimate voice; vs boys who would stand at least a few feet away and robustly almost shout their request to mom.) If I recall correctly, before the researchers pointed out to the parents how they had been cueing their kids to do this kind of stuff, some parents had been concluding that since they were feminist-aware and committed to not conditioning their kids, therefore gendered behaviours much be "natural" and "inborn" after all! Were they surprised to be made aware of the depth of their own contributions!

Anyway. I'm in Canada. I want to acknowledge, first, that I must generalize to try to answer your question.

At first glance, gender roles in Canada appear to be quite similar to those in the States, and in many ways that matter, they probably are. But as someone who voraciously ploughs through all kinds of magazines and pattern books as well as visits online fabric stores, I have been jarred many times by what strikes me as a much more hyped-up pressure in the States to conform to these roles. For example, I have been almost shocked by the extent to which some U.S. online fabric stores actually tell customers in their product write-ups which colours and prints are appropriate for little boys, and which for little girls. Taking into account my 50 years of experience as an urban and rural Canadian being ongoingly exposed to both Canadian and U.S. media and now, to online stores, I have found some of this sort of gender-role advocacy coming from the States to be so over-the-top that it's actually made me consider not buying fabric from a couple of shops.

Again, not that such generalizations are always true of folks on either side of the border. But, still. There's something expressed by the predominant culture in the U.S. that keeps clashing with my own cultural sensibilities and catching me off-guard. Come to think of it, other Canadians have emphatically agreed with me on this.

Sorry for the length of this, if you might find that a problem! It's a subject I have thought a lot about.

Susan

oracle said...

Yikes — re "The Pinks and the Blues" movie, I meant to say, "very CLOSE to mom"!

Rachel said...

Susan,
welcome, and thanks for your insightful commentary! yeah, our culture does tend to ram gender biases down our throats, don't they?

Sask said...

I am a Malaysian residing in Canada. I must have dressed my son in the wrong colour many times when I first arrived in Canada.

I do not like dark colours which are sadly being assigned to boys, so I would buy him white shoes with grey and pink strips, white shirts with red shorts and etc. I became more cautious after my grade 2 boy was asked by a girl friend:" Why are you wearing a girl shirt?" just because the shirt he wore has some purple colour on it.

The association of colour to gender is not so strong in Malaysia. Of course the "pink for girls" trend has arrived but people are not satisfied with "blue for boys". I have a pleasant surprise when my male relatives showed up in orange, red and all the rainbow colours when I came back to Malaysia for the Chinese New Year.

Brian said...

This is what I've heard "In ancient times, it was believed that evil spirits menaced the well-being of infants. It was also believed that evil spirits were allergic to certain colors, especially to blue. According to Dr. Brasch: "It was considered that the association of blue with the heavenly sky rendered satanic forces powerless and drove them away. Even in our own time Arabs in the Middle East continue to paint the doors of their homes blue to frighten away demons. Thus, the display of blue on a young child was not merely an adornment but a necessary precaution."

Josephine said...

yeah i tottaly agree. come on can't girls have blue cribs too or manly for us girls? Well i found the topic very interesting and am glad i read it. keep on righting the good stuff! oh and it is my first time on this blog!

Anonymous said...

No such stereotypes in India - if it is colorful, it belongs in baby clothes! My American relatives are shocked that my nephew wears pink, yellow, purple, red, ...

Emma said...

I discovered this blog while Googling as I wondered why blue has been designated for boys and pink for girls. I have two sons, under 3 years old and I find I am very uncomfortable at the idea of dressing them in Pink, especially as they get older, like it is ingrained in me that if I do their "willies will fall of"

I also read the article in trivia-library.com that said evil spirits were allergic to blue as it was associated with heaven/sky and therefore infants, especially males were clothed in blue to protect them, while "On the other hand, since female babies were considered inferior, it was felt they required no special color to protect them. In later times, parents became very much-conscious of the neglect of girls and introduced for them the new "pink" look."

http://www.trivia-library.com/a/why-is-the-color-blue-used-for-boys-and-pink-for-girls.htm

Another article says it may be genetically / gender based - that women prefer hues towards the red end of the spectrum, while men prefer hues towards the blue end. Though I would question how they know the preference is based on nature rather than nurture.
And wouldn't that mean that the baby wears pink or blue based on the gender of the person dressing them rather than the baby's own gender?!


http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/boys-like-blue-girls-like-pink--its-in-our-genes-462390.html

http://www.reuters.com/article/scienceNews/idUSL2081187520070820

Pat said...

I have been sewing some baby clothes for charity. I live in a metropoliton area that is made up of people from al over the world, which got me thinking about if sometimes the recipients of the clothes wonder why we give pink for girls and blue for boys. I found your blog during my search about the blue/pink tradition.

When my son was born in 1991, my mother gave me a pink blanket she had used with me (a girl) in the 60's. I used it a few times with my son when he was an infant because it was a good size and folded well. Somewhere along the line my son became attached to the pink blanket. Over the years it was used at sleep time, carried to daycare, used as a super hero cape, and many other purposes. By the time my son was in elementary school I was able to start easing the pink blanket away. It is no longer square and the binding has been reattached many times.

My son is now 17 and as far as I know having a pink blanket didn't damage him in any way. Probably also helped that no one in the family ever made a big deal about it.

On the point of little boys wearing dresses, I have a picture of my grandfather from the 1890's. Grandfather was about a year old in the picture and was wearing a dress. We believe it was white and would have been used by all the children in the family through the years. I would think it did help with diaper changing.

Rachel said...

thanks for sharing!

Love One Another said...

How about this idea: The earth is associated with the feminine side; hence, "mother earth"/"mother nature". What color is the 'door to life'? Right, pink. Conversely, the heavens are associated with the masculine side; hence, "heavenly father"/"our father which art in heaven". What color are the 'heavens', the sky? Right, blue.

Anonymous said...

I llove the color blue and have a baby girl. Pink has never appealed toe even as a little girl. I dress my daughter in all sorts of colors but prefer blue. Her nursery is blue and green. I have had people ask me if she is a boy while wearing blue clothes with sparkles and flowers on them ( also considered very girl - yet because the color is blue, they assume she is a boy over these girl-type decorations). I am in the US.

KirstenChocolate said...

What an interesting article!
I hope to publish my comics someday, and in my comics, I try to "kill" as many stereotypes as possible.
For example, there is a family in my story. The sister has blue hair, and her brother has pink hair (and long pink hair, at that)! I had always known about that stereotype ...
But I had no idea where it originated from. This was very interesting. Thank you. :)

Anonymous said...

I think that red is a totally unisex color in the states, as football players like the cardinals, redskins, forty-niners, etc.certainly have fans who sport their colors. I could go on with baseball, basketball, etc. Also, I think that the changes start from the adults down. My husband is unafraid to wear a pink or purple shirt if he likes the fabric. He also has a few ties that are pink. Because he does this, I think our son has little awareness of color. If more fathers experimented with color, then I think the message gets passed along a little faster.

Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks for describing the modern changover in colors. In a drastic "war economy," it makes me nauseated that it was especially an aggressive, nihilistic military mindset in creating our modern Western color/gender biases.

I have always noticed that pink shirts, especially, seem to be very complementary to most men's skin complexions, and yet there is a lot of prejudice against men (who have to defend themselves and give justifications -- like, "I'm fundraising for breast cancer") for wearing pink -- no matter how good it makes them look. Pink and blue are about a lot more significant and profound meanings than just prejudices about gender issues or which "disease" color we politically support.

Try this out: blue for clear understanding via communication, collaboration, balanced emotions, and creativity; pink for compassion toward others, kindness, sharing, higher ethics.

Laura said...

to the poster above me- did you realize that the qualities you listed for blue are kind of stereotypically masculine and the qualities you listed for pink are stereotypically feminine?

I dont think you intended that... which just goes to show how deeply some of these things have become implanted in our thoughts.

damn.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. Having traveled all over the world I agree that there is a greater gender color bias in the US than most places. Really though it very much depends on geography even within the US. I find that southern and mid-western areas tend to cling to more to the gender/gender link than in the north and northwest areas. In the northeast, where I live, you are just as likely to see a girl in muck boots and overalls as a boy. It definitely is more rare to see a boy in "girl" colors however. My 4 yr old son has clothes of all different colors- whatever colors I like really at this point. My 1 yr old daughter has worn pretty much every article of clothing my son had when he was a baby. Even when they are wearing the other gender's "colors" no one has ever confused one as the other gender.

Anonymous said...

It seems that Pink for girls started to come in to fashion as liberation and womens rights were developing. A paler shade of red, which is a dominent colour became a girl colour, whilst blue which is a cooler less dominent colour was what women started to dress their boys in. Was it a way of subconciously cooling them down and dominating them whilst empowering a stronger image for women?
Jane Pilgrim

Anonymous said...

I am so excited to have found this post! The gender color stereotypes are the cornerstones of the conservative fashion which rules the boys' clothes with the iron fist in the US. I've done my pretty share of country hopping may assure first hand that the US is very conservative when it comes to boys clothes and all these stereotypes attached to gender appropriate accessories, colors, shapes, fit etc. Sad and depressing! I am on a style crusade fighting the sad state of the boys clothes on my blog www.boysbecool.com and your post was a wonderful revelation as well as a joyful feeling of finding a comrade:) I would love to feature this post on my blog. Please let me know at info@boysbecool.com Thank you for this wonderful, wonderful post!

Kanta said...

I am a woman from Bangladesh and babies wear all colors in Bangladesh regardless of their sex. I learnt about this blue-pink differentiation only after coming to the US.

Pedro Luchini said...

Very interesting post!

I'm from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In the last decades our culture was heavily influenced by marketing coming from the U.S., so the blue/pink gender association is present in full force. I don't know if that was always the case, though.

Anonymous said...

We painted the nursery for our little girl a pale blue,now that she's almost 7 and has some input her room is now pink-so I think it's safe to say,peer preassure has been a bigger influene on her.

Michis said...

Hi, I'm from Sweden, where the debate rages high every day. My little boy has worn clothes of every hue, I'd say - but people get outraged when they learn that the small child running around with a pink shirt and green shorts is a boy.

What a reckless mother I must be. Don't I understand that people NEED to tell the sex of my child right away? How can I possibly expose him to the femininity of pink? What if he turns gay by it?

Since I am who I am - I'd say that if he's gay he was born that way, regardless of the clothes I put on him everyday. Also, that would not be a problem for me... ;-)
I don't even understand that argument, even though I understand the connection between pink and gayness - after all, Hitler made homosexual people wear pink triangles on their clothes, if I remember it correctly.

However - for me, childrens clothes are childrens clothes. I look to soft fabrics, bright colours (I like bright colours instead of washed out hues) and of course, that they fit my child so that he can play and have fun without being concerned about being uncomfortable.

But with that attitude, people assume that I want my child to be sexless, that I do not understand that there are differences between the sexes and so on... Well, I'm fully aware that there are differences, but to be honest. Don't we all wish for our children to be strong, nurturing, taking care of their family and friends, easy going, fun to be with and so on... I think that all qualities that are good in human beings are universal. That is, they are good regardless of the persons gender...
But maybe I'm wrong.

Still, I don't know how to raise my child if I can't raise him in the spirit of tolerance of all things.
So I say as I do - let your kids wear whatever clothes you seem fit and I'll do the same.

Deal? ;-)

Anonymous said...

I shop at a thrift store in Alabama where there are separate bins for "Women's socks" and "Men's socks." I cannot tell a difference between the contents, and the clerks act flustered when I ask for clarification.

Simon said...

I am distressed by the strict gendered duality of our societies, the rigid pink and blue boxes we feel people must fit in. Far from becoming more equal, we are in fact polarizing work suitability, ability assessments, etc. based on gender.

Being male or female (or the appearance of being male or female) can profoundly affect how people treat you. Check out the last quote in this blog post to see how: http://themeninthehighcastle.blogspot.com/2010/11/why-is-pink-considered-girly-color-and.html

Graham said...

Very Informative. The Pink/ Blue situation is very entrenched here in South Africa but seems to be under going a change due to the '95 elections and a coulor mix here.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for these historical insights...I hate how gender-constrictive our current culture is!

Dina said...

Almost four years later the topic is still hot...
Thanks for the historical review. It's very enlightening.

I think that in most of the western world, that have more or less the same type of advertising, the blue-pink differentiation is getting worse. Unfortunately... I knit and crochet a lot, incl for kids, and I always try to mix all kind of colours. Kids are kids.

PS Hope it's ok that I link to this post on my FB page.

Anonymous said...

We have a friend from Pakistan. He said when he first moved here as a child, he was made fun of for picking the pink cap instead of the blue one in school. He said pink wasn't taboo for boys in Pakistan.

mazwin said...

In Malaysia, there is trend nowdays that blue for boys and pink for girls, especially in the city. This trend really strong especially to the babies and children.

Seriously, I also wonder who originated the colour coding for the whole universe. My 4 year old son watching hello kitty performed music. The kitty wears 4 different colour suits,which are green, blue, pink and yellow. He said that mama is the pink kitty because mama is a girl. I explain to him pink is not only for me, but can also him, his brother and the father. Later he said he was a pink robot (transformes).

I perceived it as gender biasness. Everybody can wear pink as long as they like it. Now, when it comes to buy baby/children clothes I will buy green,red or yellow, just for variety.

Untamed Science Unnamed View said...

Please see the following paper in PUBMED MEDLINE at www.pubmed.com

Infants' preferences for toys, colors, and shapes: sex differences and similarities.

Jadva V, Hines M, Golombok S.

Arch Sex Behav. 2010 Dec;39(6):1261-73. Epub 2010 Mar 16.

This paper clearly demonstrates that both boys and girls prefer doll-toys over car-toys till 24 months of age (also observed in other mammalian infants) and both boys and girls prefer reddish/pinkish toys till 24 months of age.

Hence, the cultural preferences of two different colors for baby-boy and baby-girl may be just a social phenomenon to color-code the new-born babies' sex (blue infant is male; and pink infant is female)that got embedded in modern culture that even the older children are color coded till they grow their differential sexual characteristics at puberty. As a consequence of this, when pink was chosen over red for its soothing effects to caregivers' eyes, the alternative contrasting color that was soothing as well as in contrast to pink was chosen as blue. This social phenomenon became so embedded in the natural social life that doll-toys (preferred by most mammalian species' infants) come mostly in pink color and henceforth the baby-girls get to have only pink-colored doll-toys; and social pressure to use/bring car-toys by/for the baby-boys make them choose the car-toys as part of their adaptive learning.

Anonymous said...

The pink, blue gender stereotype holds sway here in Ireland and UK aswell. It's an easy way for manufacturers to market things to children and parents , recognition of "gender suitability" is instant. It's been very very successful for the toy industry for example.

All the same certain scientific evidence seems to support a colour preference alright - see article here
http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2007/aug/21/sciencenews.fashion

But the social stereoptyping and gender divide is absolutely brainwashed into us from early on regardless of any scientific prefence by men and women for certain colours. I think that pink is now loaded with many more gender and social meanings then before World War II based on what I've read on the web. Forgive my awkward choice of words here but socially pink is seen as very much for women or homosexual men but taboo for "real men" whereas blue is a less loaded colour for all. We need to realise our common humanity rather than dividing genders, everyone of us is a mix of both genders anyway, by colour like the Nazis did.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/aug/15/girls-boys-think-same-way

James from Dublin

Anonymous said...

This is true in australia as well. looking at previous posts it generally seems to be a big thing in the western culture but not so important in the east.

Anonymous said...

I know that one reason blue was considered the color for Victorian girls was because extremely pale skin was the feminine ideal. Rosey cheeks were for vigorous, active boys!

Anonymous said...

2 years later... and the stereotypes hold true, in Latvia. Am expecting a baby in about 4 weeks and what an interesting experience going to check for the basics... First question in the shop - do you know if its a boy or girl? As it it mattered???? I just need some basic shirts, bodies and blankets!
A cot that is SAFE and comfortable - not blue/pink etc...
A stroller that is SAFE, can keep the kid warm when it will hit -15 degrees Celsius and has wheels that get through 10 cm show.
Clothes - that are warm, comfortable etc.

But, the "outside" encoding is incredible! We are constantly pushed towards car patterns, blue colour and don't even think of picking up a white shirt/dress as people did for centuries!

I agree with many of comments - especially one that said - maybe its more the problem of the ones who dress, rather the ones who are being dressed.

We have ended up borrowing pink, red, yellow, green and any other colour clothes from friends whos kids have outgrown their clothes, bought some new hings - white and all possible rainbow colours, and I will note the articles mentioned - that babies in general like dolls until 24 months :) So, we will have enough cars on the few bodies that we get.

Thanks for article, and thanks for comments people! links to other sites and articles are useful, also for my gender and diversity work.

Anonymous said...

I really don't care what color my son wears. He sometimes walks out of the house in pink or even purple. I guess when I was growing up pink and purple where for girl and blue and red where for boys

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I live in The United States of America, and my brother loves pink, but our parents don't let him wear pink ever and at school, a guy wears pink, and all the girls make fun of him. Why? Continue your blog by answering that 1 question. Why?

Anonymous said...

http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.108476069242764.17084.100002411155548&type=1#!/pages/Gender-Neutral-Parenting/302740229762397

I'm posting this up on the Gender Neutral Parenting facebook page :)

HiLLjO said...

I know this is an older post but I still like it! We're passively trying for a kiddo now and we have bought a blue highchair and I'm making a blue sweater for them and they're not even created. Boy or girl, blue will be just great for our child!

Louis Profeta said...

As a ladieswear designer for years I just wanted to state that color was established by season not gender in my year ahead forecasts. Everyone loves color and always has favorites. This is what draws women first, to my racks of clothing in the retail store before even touching a garment.

Louis Profeta said...

Why is blue not only for boys and pink not only for girls. Who sets these standards. I as because the rules have extended deep into my life history as a straight women's wear designer, you would not believe how far discrimation can cut into one's life.

Louis Profeta said...

Thank You, it was fun.

Anonymous said...

Thanks I wondered why people assume that blue is more manly and pink is more feminine

Emily said...

Also interesting to note is that in the pictures you showed at the bottom of the cribs, the boys' rooms have vehicles, whereas the girls' rooms are named after flowers! Being a girl that loves trains, boats, planes, and cars, AND flowers, this is very odd! Why differentiate?

justme said...

I was linked from cracked.com, so I'm late to the party, but when I went to England (granted, that was almost 18 years ago), I was once teased for wearing "baby colors" when I showed up in red and navy blue. I noticed that most babies and toddlers (regardless of gender) were clothed in both red and dark blue, sometimes with white (usually in the form of gingham), and there were no pastels in sight (which seemed unusual, because Americans clothed babies in nothing but pastels at the time). There didn't seem to be much difference between genders, but I did notice that parents seemed to favor blue gingham for girls (with red shoes), and red gingham for boys (with blue shoes).
Also, when I was a baby (in the late seventies), someone thought I was a boy because I was wearing a blue dress. So, I guess blue versus pink trumped dress versus pants.

Johanna Bocian said...

I don't know. They sounded like energetic descriptions. Green and pink are interchangeable for heart chakras and blue is for throat chakra. That's where my mind went anyway.

Jagadeesh said...

In India,
Women/Girls --- Yellow and White
Gents/Boys --- Saffron and White