Pink is for girls and blue is for boys… right? It’s a dichotomy drilled into us by countless clothing stores, baby gender reveals, toy branding and all sorts of other gender-obsessed industries, but this colour association is barely 100 years old. Before that, pink was often seen as a masculine colour, while blue was considered softer and more feminine. Here’s how that happened – and how it changed.
Some of the earliest recorded connotations of colour in Western history came, like many things, from religious symbolism. In Renaissance art pink was often linked to the baby Jesus, who was often wrapped or dressed in pink, as the colour represented the body of Christ. In other works, the baby Jesus is seen giving a pink flower to the Virgin Mary, symbolising the link between a mother and a child.
Similarly blue had its own religious connotations – which was almost entirely associated with the Virgin Mary, cementing the supposed ‘femininity’ of blue for centuries to come.
So for many years, rather than symbolising masculinity or femininity, pink often symbolised youth. Many young children were painted in pale pinks during the 18th century, a period where young boys were dressed in the same dresses young girls wore. At this time pink was also particularly beloved by Madame de Pompadour, one of the 18th century’s top fashionistas. Pink was worn just as much by men as it was by women, however, and in some cases was even used as a colour of seduction in art.
It was in the 19th century that pink was first strongly associated with gender – but not with women. During this period pink was in fact seen as a ‘lightish red’. Red was a very masculine colour, worn in uniforms by men, therefore pink was a ‘watered down’ version of red that was suitable for young boys. There were also arguments made about the relative ‘strength’ of blue and pink, and how that pertained to gender. A commonly quoted line from Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department from June 1918 says:
“The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”
This association continued until the early 20th century, when pinks became bolder and brighter thanks to advances in pigment and textile dyes. In this period pink was often marketed as a boy’s colour, with blue as its feminine counterpart, yet market opinion slowly shifted to the opposite connotations. By the 1950s, pink was seen wholly as a feminine colour in western societies.
There was no one thing that caused this change, but likely it was a mix of different elements. Sailors suits in blue became popular for young boys, strengthening the connection between blue and boys. Another source quotes French influence on the feminising of the colour pink – which could be thanks to the pastel pinks of the late 19th century French Impressionists, such as Degas’ ballet dancers.
Of course it’s worth noting that this dichotomy never had a hard ‘switch’ at any point – rather both versions co-existed for a while, and pink for girls and blue for boys just happened to win out.
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