Book Review: “Pink and Blue, Telling the Boys from the Girls in America”

I love dressing my Little Guy in pink!

Bat? Check. Frisbee? Check. Rainbow Chairs? Check. Pink shirt? Check.

He doesn’t (yet) know that “pink is supposed to be for girls.”

The Little Guy and a Few of His Favorite Things

Awhile back, I blogged about my surprise at learning pink used to be for boys… or girls… it didn’t used to matter. I did a little internet research and joked about how I could never do REAL research on this subject.

Fortunately, the research has already been done. An entire book on the subject was recently published: Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America” by Jo B. Paoletti, an American Studies Professor at the University of Maryland.

An historian with expertise in textiles, fashion, and gender studies, Paoletti spent several decades researching gendered clothing in America. She combed through baby books, paper dolls, catalogs, magazines, and other museum archives to document shifts in babies’ and children’s clothing over the past two centuries.

The book is sweeping in scope, but here are just a few fascinating tid-bits:

While it may be unimaginable to the modern mother to dress a baby boy in a white dress with bows and ruffles, this was the norm from the late 1800s through the early 20th century. Modern-day baptismal dresses hail back to the common practice of dressing all babies in white dresses. They could be bleached, gave easy access for potty-needs, and were easy to sew.

Pink and blue were not clearly or consistently associated with either girls or boys until the mid-20th century. Catalogs, baby books, birth announcements, paper dolls and magazines depicted both colors for both genders. Pastels were simply “baby colors.” Babies were considered “asexual cherubs” associated with women, and their clothing reflected this.

Several cultural forces resulted in the eventual association of pink (and dresses) with girls and only girls. Babies were considered “babies” for their first several years of life, and boys weren’t “breeched” (dressed in pants) until they were five or so. With new ideas about parenting and allowing children to romp and play outside, the age of “breeching” became younger and younger, and boys’ clothing began to more closely resemble men’s. Meanwhile, rompers and bloomers were introduced for girls and were distinguished from boys’ clothing with decorative details previously common to all babies’ clothing, such as ruffled sleeves, ribbons, baby animals and flowers.

Paoletti draws on evidence from the field of developmental psychology showing that children begin identifying as male or female around the age of three, and that their primary means of distinguishing gender is based on external factors including hair style and clothing. Paoletti posits that as children became more involved in making consumer decisions, their preference for “boys” and “girls” clothes contributed to market pressure for gendered clothing in the 20th Century. Boys’ and girls’ styles began to rapidly diverge at younger and younger ages, though pink and blue could still go either way until the 1940s.

Strangely enough, it wasn’t until “gender-neutral” clothing was embraced during the 1970s that pink became firmly entrenched as a girls’ color. Gender-neutral clothing consisted of primary colors in boyish cuts—pants, shorts, t-shirts, and jackets. Girls could wear boyish clothes, but not vice versa. In other words, girls could dress in blue (or pants), but boys couldn’t dress in pink (or dresses). Pink was now distinctly “girly.”

The pendulum swung during the 1980s when pink and blue diapers were introduced for baby girls and boys. Likely capitalizing on ultrasounds that could detect the baby’s sex, manufacturers began to mass-produce gendered clothing and baby items that were distinctly “boy” or “girl.” Baby boy clothes became distinguished with sports, animal, and vehicle motifs. Baby girl clothes became almost-exclusively available in pink, or if you were lucky, pastel purple. Such distinctions made it harder for families to pass down “hand-me-downs,” increasing the need to buy clothes for subsequent babies.

Paoletti’s book covers all of this, and more. It’s a quick and fascinating read that will have you second-guessing everything you know about what little boys and girls are made of.

Have a Seat

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Part of the solution since 1973.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: “Pink and Blue, Telling the Boys from the Girls in America”

  1. I remember taking Ian shopping for bikes at GI Joe’s when he was about 3 and he naturally gravitated towards the pink bikes. The salesman told me that all the little boys do that. I think small kids in general are just attracted to pink (and bubble gum flavored ice-cream, ick). Sadly,unless you want to take your child and live completely off the grid, it is only a matter of time before they start gender identification with colors, toys and just about everything. I tried, we didn’t even have cable… Anyway, I think pink is a great color for boys and I have always said it is a manly color because only men secure in their manhood wear it – and they look good.

    1. How interesting! Thanks for commenting 🙂
      The first time Mark met my college girlfriends, he was wearing a pink polo shirt, and I thought exactly the same thing: it was a sign of feeling secure in his masculinity. He had also borrowed his parent’s red sports car, so I guess that evened things out. He later told me he was intrigued that I wasn’t impressed with the car (to this day, I couldn’t tell you what kind it was).

  2. Thanks for sharing. I guess I wanted to be counter-cultural, or more that in my environment I saw people raising their children in more traditional ways and wanted a boy so I could dress him in white dresses. I also remember seeing pictures of boys in my family in white dresses, it seemed to be every holiday or official picture that they’d do that.

    1. Oh, how fascinating! I’d love to see pictures. I’m definitely motivated by an element of counter-cultural rebellion too.

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