neither pink nor blue

Color and the bady fashion

We have come a long way in discussing the issue of color over the course of Ecce Homo’s blog! This article at hand completes our series on the immense symbolic, psychological, social, and financial importance color holds for the fashion industry and culture in general. In the first blog post of the series titled ‘Why does color matter?’, we delineate the valuable insights one can gain from taking a closer look at the various uses and meanings of colors across time and space. One such insight is that thinking in colors is inevitably thinking in terms of gender and sexuality, and the history of sex-specific colors reveals the culturally specific and historical contingent ‘nature’ of the gender-coding of colors, and of gender and sexuality itself. Taking the yearly announcement of the Color of the Year by the Pantone Color Institute as an example helped us dig deeper into the financial stakes of color within the fashion industry. More importantly, we have come to realize that, even though at first glance the choice of a specific color seems to be an expression of our personal style, a highly individualizing gesture aiming at setting us apart from the crowds, the decision of these very colors we ‘freely’ pick ultimately belongs to a handful of color experts, marketing strategists, and fashion designers.

This lead us to our second blog post under the title ‘The color of gender’ in the context of which we focused on the powerful grid of symbolic associations in which each color acquires its meaning as they come to signify a certain attitude, an affect, a thought, a worldview, or a lifestyle. The ‘pink for girls, blue for boys’ styling rule was offered as a case study on the psychology of colors with each of these two signifying visually a series of antithetical yet complementary cognitive abilities and emotional capacities unequally distributed along the lines of a strict gender binary. In what follows, we are going to tackle this baby fashion norm from a historical perspective. How has this norm come to be in the first place? Has there always been a norm regarding baby clothing to begin with?

Our travel buddy on this journey is going to be Jo B. Paoletti, a historian and author of the 2012 influential book on baby fashion, Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America, based on a two-decade research. Asking the question, ‘When did we start dressing girls in pink and boys in blue?’, lead the author, a mother herself, to a fascinating fashion journey on the history of color and baby fashion from the late 19th century all the way to the late 20th century. Her diverse archive consists of advertisements, catalogs, dolls, baby books, mommy blogs, and discussion forums, and other popular media, while her focus is on the unexpected shifts in attitudes towards color as a mark of gender in American children's clothing. There are two things we need to get over with before going any further: firstly, Paoletti’s book focuses exclusively on the changing trends of baby clothing in the USA and, as such, its scope is geographically limited, and secondly, the immense influence of the book on fashion studies and the history of fashion was accompanied by a series of misreadings by other academics who mistook some of her statements as absolute facts. Having said that let’s delve deeper into her arguments!

According to Paoletti, for the most part of history, children wore dainty white dresses up to age 6. As she puts it, ‘what was once a matter of practicality—you dress your baby in white dresses and diapers; white cotton can be bleached—became a matter of ‘Oh my God, if I dress my baby in the wrong thing, they’ll grow up perverted.’’ During the first half of the 20th century, children’s clothes were not color-coded in terms of their gender. Both pink and blue, along with other pastels, were considered to be colors appropriate for both baby girls and baby boys. Rather than color, it was the style of the clothes, namely the cut and the presence of pockets, images, and decoration, that distinguished clothes in terms of the sex of the babies. As the author herself puts it, ‘it is clear that pink-blue gender coding was known in the late 1860s but was not dominant until the 1950s in most parts of the United States and not universal until a generation later.’ At some point, baby clothing in pink and blue stopped being considered gender neutral, and, surprisingly, it was the blue color that was more strongly associated with baby girls, and the pink color with baby boys respectively.

But make no mistake! As it is usually the case, this shift was neither a linear nor a clean one, and one cannot speak of a pink-blue reversal since, according to Marco Del Giudice, a strong association between colors and genders was inconsistent until the 50s. One example of color starting to be used as a gender signifier long before the 50s is the following taken from a 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw's Infants' Department: ‘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.’ However, the rise of baby announcements, the publication of baby books with colored images, and the marketing strategies of the manufacturers and retailers gave rise to the sex-specific baby fashion in the 50s when the norm ‘blue for boys, pink for girls’ was established. Furthermore, a series of pop culture icons played their role in the reversed association between colors and gender, such as Mamie Eisenhower, Marilyn Monroe, and Brigitte Bardot. These women were like today’s influencers, and their stylistic choices reverberated throughout the society of the time. Suffice to bring into mind the skin-tight silk dress in pink with matching gloves that Monroe was wearing during the famous musical number Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend in the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  
In the following decades, this fashion norm came under fire by the women’s liberation movement which raised awareness on the matter of gender, and a more unisex look was the new trend until the mid-80s. For Paoletti, ‘one of the ways [feminists] thought that girls were kind of lured into subservient roles as women is through clothing…If we dress our girls more like boys and less like frilly little girls . . . they are going to have more options and feel freer to be active.’ The 1980 saw the birth of new medical technologies, like the prenatal test, that allowed parents to know the gender of their unborn child, and the rise of consumerism among young children. In other words, it was the time when expecting parents went on shopping sprees for gender-coded baby products, gender revelation parties were becoming a thing, and the demographic category of children began to draw the attention of fashion brands as a new pool of consumers. Today, the ‘pink for girls, blue for boys’ norm continues to have a purchase not only on children but also on adults in a paranoid hetero-patriarchal culture where men constantly police themselves and others for signs of effeminacy and/or homosexuality. As long as the color is part of one’s gender performativity, there will always be a color and fashion industry capitalizing on gender stereotyping.