Pretty In Pink, Boyish in Blue

April 29th, 2011 10:00 am


Ever wonder why pink is for girls and blue for boys? It wasn’t always so. In her new book, Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America, Jo B. Paoletti, an historian at the University of Maryland, explores the cultural shift away from gender-neutral children’s clothing.

For centuries, boys and girls in Western culture both wore little white cotton dresses because they were easy to bleach.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1884

Pastels came into vogue as baby colours after World War I, but up until World War II, Paoletti cites numerous popular culture sources which initially advocated pink for boys and blue for girls. However, by the 1940s, a collective decision and push on the part of manufacturers and retailers set the standard of pink for girls and blue for boys. It was really the Baby Boomers who were first raised in gender-specific clothing.

The women’s liberation movement of the mid-1960s created a bit of a backlash against pink for girls that lasted through the 70s; but, by the 1980s, gender-specific clothing was back in full swing. Paoletti attributes this to advances in antenatal testing that allowed expectant parents to know the sex of their unborn child, and to begin establishing his or her identity right away.

Gender-neutral children's clothing from the 196s and 70s

Another reason that girls have continued to be attached to pink and boys to blue, says Paoletti, is that children themselves have become active consumers. Children are the targets of pervasive advertising campaigns and imagery that tend to reinforce social convention. Kids absorb from an early age how “society” thinks a girl or a boy should look.

Paoletti feels that currently there is a rising demand for gender-neutral clothing for children and toddlers, that many parents would like their children to have more options for expressing themselves. The pink and blue divide is becoming less black and white.

Brother and sister, circa 1905

To read more about this book and see more photos, visit Smithsonian.com


8 Responses to 'Pretty In Pink, Boyish in Blue'

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