The Surprisingly Recent Time Period When Boys Wore Pink, Girls Wore Blue, and Both Wore Dresses

Future President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1884

Future President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1884

If we were to play a word association game where I said a word and you had to yell out the first color that came to mind, it would probably go something like this: Banana- Yellow; Apple- Red; Boy- Blue; Girl- Pink.

We can all understand why yellow and red are associated with bananas and apples, but boys are not blue and girls are not pink. So why are these colors so very much associated with these genders?

Gender identification by color began in the early 20th century in the Western world. Before this, pink and blue did not hold any gender specific connotations and there are numerous examples of men wearing pink outfits and girls wearing blue; one French author, Xavier de Maistre in his work, A Journey Around My Room published in 1794, even recommended that men choose to paint their rooms pink and white to improve the mood.

Fast-forward to the early 20th century and this began to change.  When it did, starting just before the 1920s, pink was deemed by many guides to be more appropriate for boys and blue for girls, although this wasn’t even remotely as popular as the “pink is for girls, blue is for boys” association that exists today; many people completely ignored the gender recommendations altogether.

One of the earliest references to this original color scheme appeared in a June of 1918 edition of the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department,

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.

A Young boy in 1870

A Young boy in 1870

In 1927, Time magazine printed a chart highlighting gender-appropriate colors for girls and boys according to leading U.S. retailers. Filene’s (in Boston), Best & Co. (in New York City), Halle’s (in Cleveland), and Marshall Field (in Chicago) all advised parents to dress boys in pink and girls in blue. Why did they care at all? It is generally thought it was simply because if parents followed such a color scheme, they would have to buy a whole new wardrobe and set of baby accessories in the “appropriate” colors if they had a boy and a girl at some point, rather than just going with reusing the one set for both as before.

For reasons unknown, this all started to change around the 1940s when clothing manufacturers decided on pink for girls and blue for boys. It has been suggested that boys simply like blue more and girls like pink more, but studies to date trying to see if this is true have come up with mixed results, except firmly showing that the vast majority of humans prefer blue to pink, and pink is actually one of the adult world’s least favorite colors. (As you might imagine, it’s difficult to perform large scale studies to determine if boys and girls are naturally predisposed to one color or another without the introduction of existing learned color biases, even in countries that don’t popularly follow the pink-girl/blue-boy scheme.)

Whatever the case, the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s saw a resurgence of more unisex or perceived gender-neutral clothing colors. In fact, in the 1970s, the Sears and Roebuck catalog even went two full years without showing any toddler wearing pink, in stark contrast to a couple decades before.

But these gender neutral efforts were undermined with advancements in prenatal testing where parents could find out the gender of their baby before needing to buy clothes and accessories. Once again, manufacturers and retailers started pushing hard for the “pink for girls” and “blue for boys” phenomenon that continues to be entrenched in our society today.

So what did people do before this color association? Prior to the invention of cheap chemical dyes that allowed clothes to be washed in hot water over and over again with minimal fading, most infants were simply dressed in white for everyday life and sometimes in random colors for more formal occasions, with no one color being favored for boys or girls.

Regardless of color, in both cases, they wore dresses.

Why white dresses? White was easy to bleach and, at least in the beginning, changing diapers is much easier in dresses than pants. Further, with children growing rapidly, dresses were a bit more practical in terms of not needing to get the sizing as precise.

Even beyond the diaper stage, which was discarded much earlier back then (see Bonus Fact for more), gender differences were not highlighted until children were much older. In fact, it wasn’t at all uncommon to have both boys and girls wear dresses or short skirts until age five or six.

In the early 20th century, as noted, this began to change.  Beyond the introduction of more colors and loose guidelines about which color went with which, boys started wearing garb associated with men at a younger and younger age, resulting in a shift away from dresses and a move towards pants.  A similar significant shift happened during the women’s liberation movement, but instead of going back to dressing boys in the more convenient dresses, many started dressing their girls the same as boys- in pants.

Of course, today for many in the Western world, girls wear pink dresses and boys wear blue pants. Period. This curious phenomenon is so firmly entrenched that if you tried to dress a two year old boy in a pink dress, regardless of the child perhaps having a traditionally male hair style with male-centric accessories hinting that your toddler is a boy, absolutely no one would think they were looking at a male child until you told them. And when you did tell them, you’re likely to get some funny looks.

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Bonus Fact:

  • Interestingly, through most of history, and still today in many countries in Africa and Asia particularly, the average age a child would be fully daytime potty trained was typically around 18 months old, instead of about double that today in the Western world. The change began to happen around the mid-20th century thanks to the introduction of disposable diapers and heavy marketing campaigns from the manufacturers, which included widely promoted (sponsored) “scientific” studies that showed that it was bad for the child to potty train earlier (something still often repeated today despite lack of any evidence supporting such a notion). With the effort needed to potty train the traditional way over waiting and the relative ease and cleaner nature of disposable diapers over having to wash cloth ones, people didn’t take much convincing to simply wait until the child was much older and showed an active interest in potty training. However, recently with advancements in diaper technology and pull-ups, this has started to become more of a problem (mainly environmental, but also sometimes financial) as kids show interest in potty training later and later. For reference, in 1957 in America, it was typical to start potty training at 12 months with the vast majority of children fully daytime potty trained within 6-12 months of that and nighttime potty trained by 3 years old.  Today, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the average is to start potty training at 24-25 months, achieving daytime potty trained at 36 months and night time around 5-6 years old.
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  • Matt

    Pink I thought was associated with girls because of the insides of the vagina lips and their lips and their nipples also being a bit pink, at least with white people.

    • Sara

      White boys have pink penises and pink lips as well. So that doesn’t really work… lol

    • Laurie Swenson

      Matt, I think you’re referring to red lipstick etc. supposedly being associated with engorged labia in women.

    • Elizabeth Walker

      actually, red was seen as a “masculine” colour in the 20s, so pink was the baby colour of red….and blue was seen as serene and calm, so it was associated with femininity.

      then in the 40s ‘Vogue’ magazine printed like a rebel article that changed the baby fashion industry and that’s when manufacturers changed the colour schemes around…..also showing how quickly something becomes “normal” and how fast we forget the truth.

  • Coen Vanderstede

    My daughters are 3 and 7. They’re extremly fond of pink. Their bedrooms are pinky paradises. If people can become snow blind, I might get pink blind. How come? You could argue that it’s cultural but neither my wife nor I have anything pink at all. So I really believe it’s something very natural. Wo why did girls not have pink stuff in decades and centuries before? Because nowadays there’s a pink variation of almost everything. Conclusieon: gentlemen may prefer blondes, but girls definitely prefer pink.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Coen Vanderstede: But most young girls toys are made in pink (meaning they’ll be inherently biased towards it if they enjoy toys marketed at girls, which most girls do) and many an advertisement pushes that. So whether they were exposed to it via TV, friends, or simply due to the fact that the girls’ toy isle is basically a pink parade, they were likely influenced by this. Now whether they would have preferred pink in the first place, who knows? But even if they would have that still wouldn’t say anything about girls in general, just your daughters, and even perhaps just the first daughter, with the second being influenced by the first. This is why it’s notoriously difficult to determine this sort of thing, which is why there aren’t a lot of good studies on large sample sizes out there on it. The studies that do exist on large sample sizes, while they can’t filter out bias, do seem to indicate that once a girl reaches adulthood, she’s highly likely to lose her apparent love of pink. As stated in the article, blue is the adult world’s favorite shade and pink one of the least favorites.

      • My daughter wear’s pink all the time

    • MarcoC

      Unless your girls grew up in a missile silo with absolutely no contact with the outside world, I think it is not wise to assume that your color blindness as parents has left your girls a completely blank canvas to build their color preferences.

      One thing I find fascinating in this article is that I remember clearly back in the 60’s as I was growing up, this color preference being already firmly entrenched in society. Yet, in view of what we are reading in this article, the planet (or at least our emisphere) was full of people that grew up with the opposite color scheme.

      Apparently, none of these people were even a bit bothered by this radical and dictatorial imposition of the opposite color schemes by “Big Garment”?

    • Peepe

      Do they watch TV? Disney movies? The influences on children are vast and continuous, and unfortunately happen when parents aren’t there to supervise. Nursery, daycare, school, cultural influences are everywhere.

    • Avery Jenrette

      As a young girl, I didn’t own a single pink thing; it was blues and greens for me. So I have to disagree with you. Even my younger sister doesn’t really own anything pink. Growing up, I chose most of my clothes, and pink was the last colour I would choose. In fact, my younger brother owns more pink than I do. As an adult now, I still don’t like pink. I find it to be a too overpowering colour. If it’s a dark magenta, near ted, I’ll wear it, but other than that, I just don’t. Even my girl friends can agree that if given the choice between the stereotypical pink or blue, they would go for blue.

      So not to say that girls can’t like pink, they can, but boys can, too. So you’re comment about it being ‘natural’ is both wrong, and a bit offensive. You’re girls like pink, wonderful. But there are plenty of girls who don’t.

    • Elizabeth Walker

      i also disagree, its very conditioned, so much you think its natural…..from day one your daughters dont get blue clothes unless theyre very feminine sets of clothes, theyve probably never seen pink associated with any of your clothing, only theirs and other females…..and if you dont believe me, go to any toy store, and tell me you cant identify the “boys” aisle from the “girls” from the colours in the aisles only….why? because every toy your daughter owns probably came in a pink box

      im female….my favourite colours are blue, teal and green

      my sons favourite colours are yellow and red,

      next girl is green and purple

      next girl is pink

      next girl is orange

      and my other son is pink…..
      my kids are extremely sheltered from advertising and really encouraged to think for themselves, so their conditioning is a lot less severe

    • morri

      my daughter favourite colour is seablue(greenishblue) This country is not as pinkified as other countries like the UK or US though.

    • Leila

      I truly believe little girls like pink because from the day they are born they are showered in pink. The hat at the hospital is pink! All their bedding and stuffed toys are pink. Family buys clothes for them in shades of pink. Girls in the 1970’s preferred didn’t paint their rooms pink because they were dressed in blues, oranges and browns. To ‘love’ the colour pink is not a natural bent of a girl, she has been programmed. Your daughters included.

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  • Jess

    Well i mean they have some of the facts right. There was a reason for the original color blue. As well as why the colors were switched later on.

    The use of blue originated in what it commonly referred to as ancient times (like egypt) where blue was thought to be able to ward off evil spirits because it represented the heavens. So young boys in many cultures were dressed in blue because their survival was viewed as more important. Girls at that time did not have a specific color, it is unsure why but speculated that they were left “unprotected” as a sacrifice or offering to the spirits to keep them content. Later as time progressed children were often simply dressed in white but due to messes etc, pastel colors were brought in during the mid 19th century. Nor marketing companies defined pink as appropriate for boys and blue for girls. This was because it was arbitrarily decided that pink was more masculine. the reason for the dichotomy of the colors was so that parents often having more than one child would have to purchase more clothes if it was a different gender to make it seem appropriate with regard to new societal views. Now the reason for the shift because during the 1940’s Hitler marked homosexuals with the pink triangle so westerners did not want their sons to be viewed as homosexuals. So the color was given to girls and blue to boys which has been continually pushed by marketers since. If you are going to make an article at least take them time to give the reasons why and not just “for reasons unknown” it would have taken you five minutes on Google to find out why.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Jess: You assume we didn’t. 😉 We need very hard well documented evidence to post something as fact though. Lots of things are written about all over the place, sometimes even from otherwise reputable sources, that aren’t true. If you have some references for the above, we’d love to see it to potentially include in the piece. We’re very good at research, but we still miss things sometimes. Nobody bats a thousand. 🙂

  • Sarah C

    In Europe, pink was seen as a diluted version of red, which was a military colour (the trend survives in the UK with the red fox-hunters jacket referred to as ‘pink’), and blue is associated with the Virgin Mary (who is often depicted with a blue cloak), which is why it was seen as appropriate for girls.

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  • Rachel

    Pretty sure that pinks and oranges are the colours for boys in India today. We tried to get something cute for a British
    baby boy when we were there, but however alternative the parents, we didn’t think the hot pink outfits would be given much wear.

  • Marker

    Blue is the color of Mary and pink is a diluted version of red for the Sacred Heart.

  • Charlie

    A few random facts on apparel—1) In AD 393, Emperor Theodosius I of Rome exiled men in pants as political subversives and seized their property. 15 years earlier, Rome was badly beaten at the Battle of Adrianople by trousered cavalrymen. And there we have it. Pants were invented for sitting on a horse—not “because male chromosomes determine that men wear pants.” In AD 423 the edict was reaffirmed. The Greeks and Romans regarded men in pants as “barbarians.” Yet it was the horses, not the pants, that defeated the Romans there and in a major battle against the Parthians, who fired arrows backwards as they were riding out of range, causing the expression “parting shot,” parting being originally “Parthian.” Pants were first two separate sections of leather and/or crude fabric wound separately around each leg. Finally they were joined at the hip to make using them faster, which is why still today, far into the future, we call the single garment of a trouser a “pair” of pants. However, the word pants only came into use around mid 16th century and comes from the Italian clown Pantalone, who was laughed at by aristocrats for not wearing the typical draped (“skirt style” or “robed”) apparel. In the New York Times, May 27, 1876, page 6 editorial “A Curious Disease,” women in pants were said to be suffering from “permanent mental hallucination” and called for them to be “treated” with “the usual methods in use at the best conducted hospitals for the insane.” In 1943, Chicago police arrested Evelyn Bross for wearing “clothing not belonging to her sex” and judge Jacob Braude ordered her to see a psychiatrist for six months. She was wearing pants to her job at a war factory. However, women were expected to change into pants inside so as to not offend the intolerant, psychiatrically pandered public, and to change back out of pants before leaving. At that point, Federal administrators cracked down on the Chicago City Council to amend its stupid 1851 city ordinance, because it was deemed that the war effort was more important than giving assent to idiotic psychiatric dogma. The last Presidential contender to have worn skirts as a boy was Mike Dukakis (Greek) in 1988 campaign, as seen in Time, Life, Look, Newsweek and People magazines. There are hardly any female intrinsic garments besides bras.

  • It certainly makes sense for a small child of any gender to wear a dress. Can you imagine the laundry you would have to hand wash when the cloth diaper leaked if they wore pants?! The color association seems odd to me anyhow. Yes, my oldest daughter fell for “Princess Pink” but my youngest daughter shows no color preferences. Both my husband’s oldest niece and my oldest niece prefer the color green, which is also my favorite color. I never really cared for pink growing up either. So I don’t think it’s a thing that the kids care too much about but rather a push that society makes on the parents that influence the children. My daughters and all my nieces plays with “boy” toys and all my little boy cousins have played with “girl” toys. Toys are toys, colors are colors, and clothes are clothes in my family.

  • Kraig Thornber

    It’s interesting to hear that the swap from Pink to Blue for boys happened around the1940’s. Now, how about this for a theory (completely unsubstantiated I might add)… I wondered if the using the PINK TRIANGLE to identify the Gay Inmates of the labour camps in Nazi Germany in the 1940’s, which then also went on to become a well recognised symbol for Gay Pride may have given the colour an ‘effeminate’ association and therefore led people to not want to dress their boys in that colour for fear of that association? Just a theory …what do you reckon?

  • Catharina

    Though a girl, I’ve hated the color pink since childhood. About potty training: my four younger siblings and I were all potty trained day AND night time before we were a year old. My mother started training us when we started standing up. As one year olds, all of us were able to walk and did not need diapers any more.

  • Charles Guiteau

    One of the other reasons that I learned in Religious Studies, and there is some debate that it is apocryphal, is that there is the association of red with Jesus, (think of the red cross on the shields of the crusaders), and blue with Mary, (who is most often pictured wearing blue and white). When red dyes were diluted, as they were for children’s clothes due to costs, they became pink, and blues became paler for girl’s clothing.

  • Jim Smith

    NO you notice the time frame of those boys dressed up like girls, this is right after the Civil War most women were bat sht crazy at that time and mothers were way to protective of their boys. I hate it when a liberal tries to tie in inaccuracies with history.