The issue of color and gender is an important fashion topic and a very complicated one.
Some authors use the modern associations between colors and genders as a way of determining gender in old paintings. There is much reason to believe, however, that the blue-for-boys, pink-for-girls idea is a fairly modern one, even a 20th-century convention. Other colors such as the idea that wedding dresses must be white are fairly recent, many dating to the Victorian era. In our modern age, 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. Our discussion pf color has been primarily a cultural one. Blue may have been become a popular boy color because blue dye was cheaper than other colors and used for charity boys school uniforms, establishing a convention. The association of blue with navy uniforms may have been another culture-based factor. There are indications that color conventions have varied over time. This suggests that culture-based color conventions may be to an extent hapinstance. We note recent research, however, suggesting that there may be some genetic basis for genfer color preferences.
I'm not positive just when the color conventions for children developed. Despite the very strong modern color associations, available evidence suggests that it was not until well into the 20th Century that our modern
pattern became fixed. Many such conventions were set during the Victorian
era, but the modern gender associations with color does not appear to be one of them. While I have little information at this time, it is a subject I plan to pursue.
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.
Some outfits for small children, often dresses until well into the 20th Century, were done entirely in color. The color might have gender conotations. One 18th Century journal intoned, "Baby's [attire] was blue and ver pretty she did look." More common, however,
was to use color to accent an outfit.
Further complicating the issue, there appears to have been substantial dufferences among various countries
One unidentified source indicated that contemporary Belgium traditions are for boys to wear pink and girls to wear blue. I have yet, however, to confirm this.
One Canadian researcher is working on clothing children and the construction of identities in Ontario and Manitoba, 1870-1935. She is using material evidence, photographs, newspaper advertisements, and
mail order catalogues. She has seen references to the colors that infant boys and girls wore, namely a 1931 article stating that boys used to wear pink and girls used to wear blue.
The first true school uniforms in England date to the 16th Century with the famed Blue Coat schools for poor boys. Blue was used for their coats because at the time it was the most inexpensive dye.
One researcher reports Catholic traditions in Germany and neighboring countries reverse the current color coding, because of the strong association of blue with the Virgin Mary. This may well be the case, HBC at this time has no information yo confirm or disprove it. We o note, however, that the NAZIs in their concentration camps use a pink triangle to identify homosexuals. (The yellow star of David is the best known symbol, used of course to identify Jews. The German system was quite complicated, using various symbols an colors to identify criminals, political prisinors, an a whole range of other groups). The NAZI's choice of pink suggests that it by the 1930s was a color that in Germany ha become associate with girls.
Jo B. Paoletti and Carol Kregloh maintain that in the United States, pink and blue were not used routinely as baby colors until early in the 20th century, and then were used interchangeably. HBC has noted pink and blue clothing for younger children by the 1920s, although they did not always specifically indicate which color was for who. The current pink for girls and blue for boys wasn't uniform until the 1950's. She insists that there are plenty of examples of boys' clothing in pink prior to that time. HBC cannot yet confirm this.
The Blue Boy suggests to many that blue
may have been associated with boys as early as the 18th Century. The only thing is that there is a companion painting, pink boy. This suggests strongly that at the time there were no color associations with gender.
One English painter,
Helen Allingham, painted her son Henry in a pink dress
during the 1880s. I'm not sure if this meant that there were no widely held color conventions at the time or that she just liked pink. To throw in yet another variable: have a look at Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, the Little House books. When she talks about her upbringing in
the 1870s-80s, her blonde sister always had blue hair-ribbons and brunette Laura always had red, because apparently it was an accepted conventions that blondes
wore blue and brunettes red.
Gender after birth does not appear to be something to be emphasized in small children until well
after the Regency (1830s). There's an interesting discussion of this in The History of Private Life. Babies were just considered babies,
with very little emphasis on whether they were boys or girls (not counting the moment they were born and one
found out whether one had a male child to continue the line, that is). Up through the beginning of the 20th Century even, the British tended to
refer to a baby as "it" rather than "he" or "she."
Our discussion pf color has been primarily a cultural one. Blue may have been become a popular boy color because blue dye was cheaper than other colors and used for charity boys school uniforms, establishing a convention. The association of blue with navy uniforms may have been another culture-based factor. There are indications that color conventions have varied over time. This suggests that culture-based color conventions may be to an extent hapinstance. We note recent research, however, suggesting that there may be some genetic basis for genfer color preferences. There has been research on both animals and humans. The scientific community is far from reacging a consensus on this issue. One researcher writes, "Evolution may have driven females to prefer reddish colors--reddish fruits, healthy, reddish faces. Culture may exploit and compound this natural female preference." [Hurlbert]
Paoletti, Jo B. and Carol Kregloh, "The Children's Department," in Claudia Brush Kidwell and Valerie Steele, ed.,Men and Women: Dressing the Part, (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989).
Hurlbert, Anyaof. Institute of Neuroscience and School of Biology and Psychology, Newcastle University.
"Clothing and Gender in American Children's Fashions 1890-1920," Signs, 13:1, (Autumn 1987), p. 136-143.
"The Gendering of Infants' and Toddlers' Clothing in America," in Katharine
Martinez and Kenneth Ames, ed. The Material Culture of Gender/The
Gender of Material Culture, (The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 1997)
For those of you located near Richmond, Virginia, the Valentine Museum will open an exhibit on April 8 entitled "Is it a girl? Is it a boy?", all about gender and children's clothing.
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