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.