Gender and Color: Specific Colors

Figure 1.--Both boys and girls wore black clothes. Black was coomonly a color for formal outfits. Boys probably wore black more than girls, but both genders wore black-colored clothing. One of the best known ooys' garment was the Little Lord Fauntleroy suit in the late-19th century. We are not sure about the early-19th century. Black suits during the late-19th century with the exception of the Fauntleroy suit do not seem to have been very common. Tgis boy was from Peoria, Illinois.

There are modern gender-based clothing conventions. I am not sure how universal they are, but they are very strong in America and Europe. I'm less sure about Asia and the Middle-East. The most widely held modern color convention is of course pink for girls and blue for boys. This association has not always been accepted and it appears to be a relatively modern one. While recent, it is now very strongly established. Other colors seem to be largely gender neutral. This especially seems to be the case for green and yellow. Other colors like brown and grey seem more common for boys clothes, although there does not seem to be a strong color convention and girls can wear these colors. Here the convention seems to be that girls and women tend to prefer brighter colors and boys and men more comfortable with muted colors. This of course has varied over time. There were historical periods such as the late-medieval era when men wore very bright colors. There were also periods in which black and muted colors were popular such as the Victorian era. There have also been religious-based color preferences.


Both boys and girls wore black clothes. Black was coomonly a color for formal outfits. Boys probably wore black more than girls, but both genders wore black-colored clothing. One of the best known boys' garment was the Little Lord Fauntleroy suit in the late-19th century. Not all Fauntleroy suits were black, but it was the most common color. We are not sure about the early-19th century. Black suits during the late-19th century with the exception of the Fauntleroy suit do not seem to have been very common. Rather boys seem to have mostly worn patterened suits, including some very bold ones. After the turn of the 20th century we notice some boys wearing black suits, although navy blue was more common. By the mid-19th century, black was a sandard conservtive suit color for boys. We also see girls wearing black. This was also a conservative style for girls. Black became a standard color for a girl's formal velvet dress for special occassions.


Blue is perhaps the single most popular color for boys clothing. It is, however, also popular with girls. Modern color conventions insist on blue for boys and pink for girls. While this has prevented boys from wearing pink, it has not prevented girls from wearing blue. We are not entirely sure as to the origins of blue as a major colir for boy's clothing. Blue was used for boys' charity school uniforms in the 17th Century. This was not because blue had any special significance, but in part because blue dyes, relatively easy to produce, were inexpensive. The Blue Coat schools are renowed to this day. Blue at times has been widely worn by girls. Some considered it more suitable for girls as it is a softer, more subdued color. Blue is also the color most associated with the Virgin Mary. In the Middles Ages, blue was often associated with true lovers and faithful servants. At the turn of the 19th Cenntury, blue was the preferred color for girls' waistbands on white Empire dresses. The choice of blue for naval uniforms may have also hlped to popularize it with boys. These are all cuture based explanations. There has bee research in recent years on both animals and humans to see if there was any genetic basis to color preferences.


Brown and brown shades like tan and khaki were very commonly worn by boys. The color could be wirn by girls as well, but was much more commonly woirn by boys. It was an especially popular color for boys' suits. Although brown was much more common for boys than girls, there do not appear to have been any gender associations associated with it.


Green came in many different shades. We have noted velvet Fauntleroy suits done in green shades. In fact Mrs. Burnett made a light-green Fauntleroy suit for Vivian. We think dark forrest green was more common. Some boys' suits were also done in green, although it was not one of the more common colors. Girls' dresses were also done in green, although we are not sure about how common green was. It is not a color that had gender connotations.

Figure 2.--Available images are often difficult to assess. I would estimate that this imahe was taken about the turn of the century. This stereoscopic view certainly looks like a boy. The title is "No. 72 Comrades. Maud and Max". Of course that leaves the question who is Maud and who is Max. Another variable is that this is a colorized black and white photograph. There is no way of knowing what the real color was.


HBC has noted pink used for children's clothes as early as the 18th century. We do not, however, yet fully understand the gender connotations. 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.


Purple was an extremely rare and thus valuable color. It was produced from a sea snail. Thus it was reserved for the emperor in ancient Rome. Only in the 19th century were chemical dyes developed for purple. As far as we can tell, it was not a color worn by boys. We do note an English boy wearing a Fauntleroy suit with purple bow and trim. We are less sure about girls. Girls' dresses could be much more varied than boys' suits and other garments. We are not sure about the gender connotations. We suspect that as purple was a rather rare color thzt it was more associated with girls than boys.


Laura Ingalls Wilder's in her Little House books talks in great detail about her upbringing in the 1870s-80s. Her blonde younger sister always had blue hair-ribbons and brunette Laura always had red, because apparently it was an accepted convention that blondes wore blue and brunettes red. I have tried to assess the colors in the hairbows worn by boys. Most appear to be white, but there are colored ones and some do appear to be red. A HBC reader tells us, "My Grandmother told me of time when Red dresses were a boys color and girls wore blue dresses girls. My whole life the boys' color was and still is blue and girls wear pink. If this change took place fast than it would be safe to say boys were wearing red dress in the 19th century. The change must have taken place sometime in the early 20th century." [Steven Smith, Smith Kinology]


There are not real gender connottions for white clothing. White is worn by men and women and children of all ages. The only exception we can think of here is white long stockings and kneesocks, although this has varied over time and among countries. White has become a symbol for the innocense of childhood. This appears to have been a inovation of the late late 18th century. Earlier Europeans did not look of childhood as an era of innosence. The concept was promoted in the writings of authors like Rosseau and by the late 18th Century had become increasingly accepted. This in part explains the popularity of white for Empire dresses in the late 18th and early 19th century. White also had the advantage of being a very practical color for younger children. Their clothes require constant washing. Colored garments would was out. White of course would not be affected by constant washings. A reader writes, "My understanding about white dresses for youngsters from a visit to Sturbridge village is that white was easiest to clean. You could bleach out most stains whereas colors were much harder to remove stains without damaging the color until fast colors (washing safe or non bleeding dies) were invented."


Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Return to the Main color gender page]
[Return to the Main gender page]
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]

Created: 4:29 PM 9/7/2007
Last updated: 1:03 AM 5/24/2008