Book Review: "Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America"

My little guy already has a lot of pink in his life, thanks to having an older sister. Pink blankets and toys are one thing (well, two, actually), but I hadn't been daring enough to dress him in any pink clothes until I found these shirts:

 Pink boys' shirts from Old Navy

Tons of stores are selling pink shirts for boys and men this year. Maybe it's part of the eighties style revival, like turquoise pants and day-glo, and I say, "hooray for color!"

I've been so bored with blue, black, grey, and red. It's sad when a slightly different shade of green or orange is cause for excitement.

I was telling another mom about how excited I was to find pastel shirts, and how I've been telling my kids that certain colors don't have to be for boys or girls, and this mom told me something that blew my mind:

"Up until about 100 years ago, pink was a boy color. Red was a man's color, and since pink is a lighter shade of red, they considered it a good color for boys.


I thought, "Hmm. I should research that."

Ahem, research, as in Google and Wikipedia.

This is what I found on Wikipedia:

An article in the trade publication Earnshaw's Infants' Department in June 1918 said: "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."[18] From then until the 1940s, pink was considered appropriate for boys because being related to red it was the more masculine and decided color, while blue was considered appropriate for girls because it was the more delicate and dainty color, or related to the Virgin Mary.[19][20][21] Since the 1940s, the societal norm was inverted; pink became considered appropriate for girls and blue appropriate for boys, a practice that has continued into the 21st century.[22]

A cursory search around the internet found that most articles on the subject quote the same information as the Wikipedia article. I'd have to do real research to find out if it's all true.

Dang! That's not going to happen.

Fortunately, the research has already been done. An entire book on the subject was recently published: “Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America” by Jo B. Paoletti, an American Studies Professor at the University of Maryland.

An historian with expertise in textiles, fashion, and gender studies, Paoletti spent several decades researching gendered clothing in America. She combed through baby books, paper dolls, catalogs, magazines, and other museum archives to document shifts in babies’ and children’s clothing over the past two centuries.

The book is sweeping in scope, but here are just a few fascinating tid-bits: 

While it may be unimaginable to the modern mother to dress a baby boy in a white dress with bows and ruffles, this was the norm from the late 1800s through the early 20th century. Modern-day baptismal dresses hail back to the common practice of dressing all babies in white dresses. They could be bleached, gave easy access for potty-needs, and were easy to sew.

Pink and blue were not clearly or consistently associated with either girls or boys until the mid-20th century. Catalogs, baby books, birth announcements, paper dolls and magazines depicted both colors for both genders. Pastels were simply “baby colors.” Babies were considered “asexual cherubs” associated with women, and their clothing reflected this.

Several cultural forces resulted in the eventual association of pink (and dresses) with girls and only girls. Babies were considered “babies” for their first several years of life, and boys weren’t “breeched” (dressed in pants) until they were five or so. With new ideas about parenting and allowing children to romp and play outside, the age of “breeching” became younger and younger, and boys’ clothing began to more closely resemble men’s. Meanwhile, rompers and bloomers were introduced for girls and were distinguished from boys’ clothing with decorative details previously common to all babies’ clothing, such as ruffled sleeves, ribbons, baby animals and flowers.

Paoletti draws on evidence from the field of developmental psychology showing that children begin identifying as male or female around the age of three, and that their primary means of distinguishing gender is based on external factors including hair style and clothing. Paoletti posits that as children became more involved in making consumer decisions, their preference for "boy" or "girl" clothes contributed to market pressure for gendered clothing. Boys’ and girls’ styles began to rapidly diverge at younger and younger ages, though pink and blue could still go either way until the 1940s.

Strangely enough, it wasn’t until “gender-neutral” clothing was embraced during the 1970s that pink became firmly entrenched as a girls’ color. Gender-neutral clothing consisted of primary colors in boyish cuts—pants, shorts, t-shirts, and jackets. Girls could wear boyish clothes, but not vice versa. In other words, girls could dress in blue (or pants), but boys couldn’t dress in pink (or dresses). Pink was now distinctly “girly.” 

The pendulum swung during the 1980s when pink and blue diapers were introduced for baby girls and boys. Likely capitalizing on ultrasounds that could detect the baby’s sex, manufacturers began to mass-produce gendered clothing and baby items that were distinctly “boy” or “girl.” Baby boy clothes became distinguished with sports, animal, and vehicle motifs. Baby girl clothes became almost-exclusively available in pink, or if you were lucky, pastel purple. Such distinctions made it harder for families to pass down “hand-me-downs,” increasing the need to buy clothes for subsequent babies.

Paoletti’s book covers all of this, and more. It’s a quick and fascinating read that will have you second-guessing everything you know about what little boys and girls are made of.


Kylie Menagh-Johnson

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