Figure 1.--Helen Allingham painted her son Henry in pink dresses and white pinafores during the 1880s. I'm not sure if this meant that were not yet any established color conventions or that Mrs. Allingham just liked pink.

Gender and Color: Pink

HBC has noted pink used for children's clothes as early as the 18th century. We do not, however, yet fully understand the gender onnotations. We have noted pink use in paintings and variety of observations. At one point pink was considered more of a boy's color, as a watered-down red, which is a fierce color) and blue was morefor girls. The associate of pink with bold, dramatic red clearly affected its use for boys. An American newspaper in 1914 advised mothers, "If you like the color note on the little one's garments, use pink for the boy and blue for the girl, if you are a follower of convention." [The Sunday Sentinal, March 29, 1914.] A woman's magazine in 1918 informed mothers, "There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. 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 pertier for the girl." [Ladies Home Journal, June, 1918] This undoubteldy strikes modern readers as very surprising indeed. Some sources suggest it was not until the 1940s that the modern gender associations with color became universally accepted.


HBC has noted pink used for children's clothes as early as the 18th century and we have begun to collect detailed lists of instances where pink has appeared in paintings and clothing advertisements. We do not, however, yet fully understand the gender connotations. We have noted a variety of assessments by various authors. These provide some interesting ideas about color conventions over time. Many writes do not carefully document their assessments so at this time we have to treat these assessments as speculative, but they at least provide some basic senarios that can used to begin our asessment. In some of the cases we note several authors repeating some of the same ideas. We are unsure to what extent this is authors repeating accepted preceivd wisdom or if some of these ideas are really grounded in fact.

Country Trends

The gender conventions that developed in most countries was blue for boys and pink for girls. While this convention is shared with most countries, the time line in which it developed may vary from country to country. There also appear to be some national diiferences. A Belgian reader writes, "I have encountered your quote regarding the doubt about which color children wear in Belgium. I am from Belgium and can confirm very affirmatively that boys do wear pink and girls wear blue! I know it sounds weard, but it's true!!!" [Deloyer] We note a pink French sailor suit from about 1910.


We have noted a wide range of pink garments. The usage has proven to be more widespread than we first anticipated. Suely there were pink dresses, but because of the black and white photography of the day, we do not yet have examples. There may be paintings with boys in pink dresses. There may even be some archived on HBC. We will link them here as we come across them. We do note sleleton suits. We also note sailor suits either made in pink or with pink trim. We also note pink floppy bows. We assume there were pink hair bows, but again because of the black abnd white photography, can not yet confirm this. We nore that French boys wore both red and blue gingham ( vichy cloth ) smocks in the 1930s-50s. The red gingham looks rather like pink. We also note pink being used as one of the pastels popular for preppy styles in America beginning in the 1950s.

Dated Examples

One way to follow gender conventions is to document dated examples ofboys wearing pink clothing. Here we have a variety of sources. A variety of early sources are of course paintings. These paintings, epecially the contemporary portraits are probably firly accurate depictions of the use of color in various time periods. By the late 19th century we have advertisements from newspapers, magazines, andcatalogs. We have noted pink use in paintings. As these advertisements actually offered garments for sale, we believe they are accurate indications of color usage. Of course we do not know how well such garments sold, but we do not believe that comapies would continue offering pink garments if they did not sell. One source we have not usedhere is hand painted postcards, as the colors painted on often imaginary. e have just begun to collect these examples, but now have several from a number of different countries over time.

Literary References

HBC has also noted some literary references involving pink.

Kate Greenaway (England, 18??): Kate Greeenaway described a vision she has to her friend John Ruskin: "Go and stand in a shady-lane-at least, a wide country road, with high hedges, and wide grassy places at the sides. The hedges are all hawthorns blossoming, in the grass grow great patches of speedwell, stitchwort, and daisies. You look through the gates into fields full of buttercups, and the whole of it is filled with sunlight... Now do you see my little picture, and me as a dark girl in a pink frock and hat, looking about at things a good deal, and thoughts filled up with such wonderful things--everything seeming wonderful and life to go on forever just as it was." Unfortunately I do not have the date of this comment.

Louisa May Alcott (United States, 1869): Louisa May Alcott published Little Women, in 1869, right after the Civil War (1861-65) in the United States. One passage in the book describes that when the family first sees her newborn twins, a boy and a girl, Meg says, "I put a blue ribbon on the boy and a pink on the girl, French fashion, so you can always tell them apart." This reference sugges6ts that the pink-blue gender convention was not widespead in America during the 1860s. HBC thinks that gender color conventions probably did originate in Europe. Until very recently most fashion conventions did. We are not positive yet, however, that the convention was of French origins as Alcott indicates. This novel was extremely widely read, so after 1869 many American families would have been exposed to the idea of a pink-blue gender convention, both directly by reading the book or inicretly in conversaions with women and girls who read it. Just when the convention became widely accepted is another question.


At one point pink was considered more of a boy's color, as a watered-down red, which is a fierce color) and blue was more for girls. The associate of pink with bold, dramatic red appears to heavy affected its use for boys. We have noted the following fashion preferences to pink in clothing catalogs and fashion magazines as well as various other references. These dated references provide a way of assessing the development of accepted conventions associasyed with the color pink which are today quite strong.

Black and White Photography

One problem in assessing the use of color on HBC is that one of our primary sources of information is old photographs whiocvh until the 1970s are mostly black and white images. While we can guess about the color of garments, there is no way to be sure about the actusl color. Pink in fact can come in many shades. Light pinks will show up as white. Dark pink will show up as a grade shade that easily can be interpreted as a shade of blue. Thus tgo assess pink we need to rely on paintings, vintage clothing, catalog ad copy, and other sources. The HNC phoyographic archive here is unfortunately not helpful.

Post Cards

As explained above we know that pink was used for boy's clothing. Here the best source of information is the period catalogs offering items for sale. Painted portraits are also good evidence, but not definitive as the artit could have varied the colors. Here the black and white photography of the day offers no insights. Colorized photographs may be of some value, but have to used cautiously. One source of information is the many postcards depicting children. We have seen postcards using bright colors that may have been eye catching, but had no basis in reality. We note some post cards depicting pink clothes, but they for the most part are not real definitive proff that boys really wore these garments.


Deloyer, Christine. E-mail message, April 10, 2003.


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Created: December 1, 1999
Last updated: 3:51 AM 7/1/2009