Pink Onesie, Blue Onesie: Infant Gender-Coding through Color

Why are baby girls dressed in pink and baby boys in blue? The answer involves marketing tactics, a pair of famously misconstrued paintings, and ultrasound technology.

White Dresses for All

Throughout history, socially defined rules have dictated certain types of clothing that are suitable for certain people. What you might not realize is that socially defined rules also determine at what age this gender distinction begins to matter—men, women, and children are often seen as different categories of people, each with their own typical styles of clothing.

Take a look at young Franklin D. Roosevelt:

Two-and-a-half-year-old Franklin D. Roosevelt wearing a white dress and long hair.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, age 2 1/2.
Photo 1884, public domain from Wikimedia Commons.

This picture, taken in 1884, shows two-and-a-half-year-old Roosevelt wearing a white dress, a feathered hat, and a long head of hair. These are things that today would be considered more suitable for a little girl, but they were typical for both genders of the upper class in the nineteenth century and earlier. In the Victorian Era, gender was not considered significant in a child’s life until about the age of seven, and little boys and girls generally wore the same types of clothing.

At age seven, boys went through a rite of passage called “breeching,” which involved dressing in pants and getting a haircut. Girls continued to wear short dresses, and as they grew older, their prescribed hemline length grew longer until their dresses reached the ankles around age 16.

Practically, having both little girls and little boys wear dresses saved parents a lot of time. Slipping a dress over a child’s head was much easier than buttoning up pants, and it simplified potty training. Clothes could also be reused for another child in the future, regardless of the child’s gender.

In earlier centuries, infants and young children had worn colored dresses in many different hues irrespective of gender. At other times, they had worn clothing that resembled those of their adult parents, reflecting a view of children as merely small adults who needed to grow up and begin working as soon as possible to help provide for the family. But in the age of bleaching, cheap cotton, and childhood, white dresses were the norm. White also had a connotation of purity and innocence, which seemed appropriate for small children.

Among Catholics, both girls and boys were sometimes dressed in blue to honor the Virgin Mary. (The same thing sometimes occurred for wedding dresses.)

Lighter tones and pastel colors followed and came to be associated with babies, though these colors were not gender-specific.

Pink and Blue as Gender Identifiers

Beginning around the mid-nineteenth century, the colors pink and blue came to be used as gender signifiers.

Items like ribbons, bows, and baby blankets were made in shades of light blue or pink to indicate whether a child was a girl or a boy. Dresses and other clothing soon followed.

Until the 1940s, two conflicting traditions existed. Magazines, advice columns, and other literary references were divided in the advice they gave to new parents. Some continued to recommend light, pastel colors in general. Some recommended mixing pink and blue for a lavender color. Some, like the 1890 Ladies’ Home Journal, explained:

“Pure white is used for all babies. Blue is for girls and pink is for boys, when a color is wished.”

(Emma M. Hooper, “Hints on Home Dress-Making” Ladies’ Home Journal, November 1890, p. 23)

Others such as Godey’s Lady’s Book noted, taking a page from sources in London and Paris,

“Blue is the color appropriated to male children, as rose or pink to those of the opposite sex.”

(Godey’s Lady’s Book, volumes 52–53 ,edited by Louis Antoine Godey and Sarah Josepha Buell Hale)

Marketing copy, magazines, and literary sources often cited “pink for girls, blue for boys” as the French fashion, which was a convincing reason for many people to follow this trend. The beloved 1869 novel Little Women, showed this inclination:

“Are they boys? What are you going to name them?”

“Boy and girl, aren’t they beauties?” . . .

“Amy put a blue ribbon on the boy and a pink on the girl, French fashion, so you can always tell.”  

(Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, Chapter 28)

These two conflicting gender assignments for pink and blue continued well into the twentieth century, and other countries had similarly mixed traditions—from Mexico to Switzerland to Korea, baby boys were dressed in pink, and blue was the preferred color for girls, but other countries reflected the fashions of England, the United States, and France. Some have attempted to explain that little girls wore blue because it was associated with the Virgin Mary and was seen as a more delicate and calm color, and little boys wore pink because it was a lighter version of red, which was seen as a strong, active, passionate color.

The Shift toward Gender Coding

According to historian Jo B. Paoletti, around the turn of the twentieth century, psychological studies on child development led some child care experts to conclude that parents should make a greater distinction between the appearance of girls and boys from a younger age. It was common for mothers to be told to dress their little boys in pink so that they grew up to be more masculine and to dress their little girls in blue so that they grew up to be more feminine. Not everyone was comfortable with this at the time due to the tendency to see children as “sexless cherubs” (see Paoletti, p. 89). Though pink-blue gender coding was known even during the Victorian Era, as we have seen, it did not necessarily become widespread in the United States until about the 1950s.

However, the shift toward gender coding in terms of color had begun, along with the styles of clothing that were deemed appropriate for babies. In 1927, Time magazine published a chart describing the appropriate colors for girls (blue) and boys (pink). Though the assignment of the colors differed regionally, department stores gave similar advice—if they could convince parents that they had to buy a whole new wardrobe for a baby girl and a baby boy, parents would end up buying more baby clothes rather than reusing them.

In the 1940s, however, clothing manufacturers and popular advice columns flipped the script and began promoting pink as the color of choice for girls and blue as the appropriate pick for boys. During World War II, little boys began to be dressed in pants and had short hair, emphasizing a particular view of masculinity that reflected the clothing their fathers wore, whereas little girls continued to wear dresses like their mothers. Children began to be dressed as mini adults in a way that emphasized their gender.

What we’re looking at is not a full-scale reversal of the colors assigned to girls and boys, but a larger-scale promotion of one practice and the quiet discontinuation of the other.

The Blue Boy and Pinkie

Art history has something to say about gender coding as well. When millionaire Henry Huntington purchased two eighteenth-century paintings, The Blue Boy and Pinkie, the paintings were widely publicized by the press, and suddenly Americans began to think that “pink for girls, blue for boys” had been right all along. The Blue Boy and Pinkie are inseparably connected in the minds of many viewers, their misguided takeaway being that the colors indicate a long-standing tradition in gender color coding. (In fact, the paintings were done about 25 years apart by different artists, and the clothing styles represented in the paintings are separated by about 150 years. The artists had no conceivable gender-coding agenda in mind, either.)

Pinkie, a portrait of a young girl in a pink dress
Pinkie
By Thomas Lawrence, 1794, oil on canvas.
The Blue Boy, a young boy dressed in a blue outfit
The Blue Boy
By Jonathan Buttall, 1770, oil on canvas.

Rejection and Revival

The 1960s and ’70s saw a rejection of gendered clothing and color in the second wave of feminism and other countercultural movements. Unisex clothing became more popular for young adults and children alike. In addition, feminist activists launched an anti-pink crusade in the 1970s as part of a larger movement to reject traditional gender norms and free women from the many cultural constraints that had been placed upon their sex. Ironically, this actually solidified pink in the minds of many as being essentially associated with femininity.

In the 1980s, gender color coding was back in fashion and stronger than ever. Ultrasound techniques that allowed parents to know the gender of their child before the child was born contributed to a revival of pink-blue gender coding. Now, the parents could announce the gender of the baby beforehand, friends and family could give pink or blue gifts to expecting mothers at a baby shower, and there were new ways for companies to market baby products of all kinds based on color. Clothing manufacturers and retailers targeted this market aggressively, pushing the “pink for girls, blue for boys” tradition for baby clothes. The pink-blue divide became more visible and more firmly embedded in the minds of American consumers. And in the age of pregnancy announcements on social media and gender reveal parties, “It’s a boy!” might as well just be “It’s a blue!”

Pink and Blue Today

Today, few parents would think of dressing their baby boy in pink, and many would think twice about dressing a baby girl in blue without also marking her gender in another way (such as the style of her clothing or a bow in her hair). Both men and women wear blue freely, as they have for centuries. But when grown men wear pink, it can come off as a social statement about defying gender roles, or they may feel that they need to justify their clothing choice. Wearing pink is often seen as too feminine for men. And the prejudice against men wearing pink is really a prejudice against women—the fear of appearing effeminate stems from society devaluing a color (or anything else) that has been culturally assigned to women, reinforcing sexism at a deeper level. Older girls sometimes protest wearing pink out of a desire not to appear like a “girly girl,” as if that were a negative thing. The devaluing of women and anything seen as feminine (even though there is not necessarily anything inherently feminine or masculine about pink or blue) hurts both boys and girls, as boys are told not to appear feminine and girls are told not to appear too feminine, regardless of how they may personally want to express themselves. It sends the message that anything too “female” is less important, less valuable, less capable of being taken seriously, whereas anything “male” is the default.

Cultural bias against women is changing, and with it, perhaps pink-blue gender coding as well. It is becoming more and more acceptable for men to wear pink, especially for the younger generations. A push to see gender on a spectrum rather than a male/female binary has also influenced attitudes toward gender coding in childhood. “Gender-neutral” often still means “not pink or blue,” but it is becoming more common for babies to wear gender-neutral colors, receive gender-neutral names, and sleep in a neutral-colored nursery room.

The future of gender color coding is in flux—with the opposing influence of gender reveals and gender-neutral baby products, pink and blue could become just colors, or they could be reinforced even further as gender signifiers.

Sources

Bhattacharjee, Puja. “The Complicated Gender History of Pink.” CNN, January 12, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/12/health/colorscope-pink-boy-girl-gender/index.html.

Bilal, Khadija. “Here’s Why it All Changed: Pink Used to be a Boy’s Color & Blue for Girls.” The Vintage News, May 1, 2019. https://www.thevintagenews.com/2019/05/01/pink-blue/.

Blazeski, Goran. “Most Victorian-Era Boys Wore Dresses and the Reasons Were Practical.” The Vintage News, April 8, 2018. https://www.thevintagenews.com/2018/04/08/breeching-boys-2/.

DeVito, Jacklyn. “Mini Portraits: An Exploration of Childrenswear in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Cornell Fashion + Textile Collection Blog, April 4, 2018. https://blogs.cornell.edu/cornellcostume/2018/04/04/mini-portraits-an-exploration-in-childrenswear-of-the-nineteenth-and-early-twentieth-centuries/.

Maglaty, Jeanne. “When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?” Smithsonian Magazine, April 7, 2011. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/when-did-girls-start-wearing-pink-1370097/.

Paoletti, Jo B. “Clothing and Gender in America: Children’s Fashions, 1890–1920.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 13, no. 1 (1987): 136. https://doi.org/10.1086/494390.

Paoletti, Jo Barraclough. Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2012.

Terynn Bolton. “The Surprisingly Recent Time Period When Boys Wore Pink, Girls Wore Blue, and Both Wore Dresses.” Today I Found Out, October 17, 2014. http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/10/pink-used-common-color-boys-blue-girls/.

Wikipedia. “List of Historical Sources for Pink and Blue as Gender Signifiers.” Accessed March 20, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_historical_sources_for_pink_and_blue_as_gender_signifiers.

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