Pink and Blue; Two distinct colors used for gender reveal parties, how toys and clothing are marketed and which have been attributed to different emotions, statements, sexualities, identities and even pay grades.
It’s not something we usually have conversations about, but when we do, it gets very heated and very opinionated. So, we’re taking history, science and design to give you the facts about these two colors.
While the names ‘pink’ and ‘blue’ were not yet invented, they were described in Homer’s The Odyssey. Instead of calling out the colors, he used descriptors to explain pink and blue, with one of the verses written thusly, “Then, when the child of morning, rosy-fingered Dawn appeared….” Very poetic. But you get what he’s saying. Since blue was a very hard color to emulate and was not seen very often, a lot of art was depicted with green tones. While pink was easier to make, it really didn’t have much meaning in terms of sex.
When blue was finally produced, it was produced in small quantities because it was so hard to make. It was used by royalty and in religious art almost exclusively. This gave blue an aura of high society or godliness. This was happening when the pyramids were being built, so the perceptions associated with the color blue had a long time to sink into the collective unconscious.
1800s The Divide
It wasn’t until the 19th century that Western men started wearing dark colors and women started wearing lighter colors, as lighter colors were considered an expression of delicacy with erotic connotations starting to develop. Pink was seen as the naked form, a similar color to our own flesh, and so being naked and intimate was associated with the color pink.
However, boys still wore pink as babies up until they were small children. Since the British military has red outfits, pink was seen as a lighter shade that would later transition to red. Or emulate the process of a boy turning into a man. Still, the majority of babies wore white dresses, as white was easier to clean and change because we didn’t then have the technology to keep clothing from fading.
As we entered the Industrial era, we started to see school uniforms with blue as their primary color of choice. This was again worn by both boys and girls but started to garner an association over time…blue represented seriousness and studiousness. While pink was more indicative of softness and a childhood mentality.
France had a big push for pink as it was liked by high society individuals such as Madame De Pompadour, the chief mistress of Louis XV. It was used in fashion and worn by women of power and fame. As people saw France as the epicenter of fashion, this trend soon followed across the world.
You can start to see then, that while the two colors still weren’t sharply segregating sexes yet, they certainly were beginning to dig their roots into our psyches. Blue was ‘strong and wise,’ while pink was ‘frail and for the young.’ What began around 200 years ago would come to be passed down through the generations.
1920s Marketing Takes hold
In the 1920s, it was a mixed bag with large corporations like Filene’s, Macy’s and Bullocks, trying to figure out which color should represent either sex. There was a big split on who should wear pink and who should wear blue. But world events helped to change that.
1940s Pink is used for Evil intent
One of the darker sides of pink; In Nazi Germany, the Nazis made gay men wear pink triangles to identify them as homosexuals. So of course, this later resulted in a highly negative association towards pink by many men, who saw it as a sign of weakness or effeminacy.
1950s The Pink Revolution
A lot of the 50s-era pink and the move to ultra-femininity, could be credited towards one woman, Mamie Eisenhower. During the inaugural ball, she wore a pink peau de soie gown which was covered by all the newspapers and set the trend for women’s high fashion in the 50s.
And in 1957, a whole two years before Barbie was even a toy, Lionel Trains brought a ‘girl’s only’ train set to the market. What made it ‘girls only?’ It had a pink engine, coal, and container cart. It also utilized pastel colors for the rest of the carts. While it wasn’t successful, this ignited the trend of pink toys and pink clothes being exclusively for girls, while blue was reserved for boys.
1960s Colors loose gender stereotypes
While there’s never been a clear-cut time-frame for when the ‘girls only wear pink’ and ‘boys only wear blue’ mentality took hold, it could have been a direct reaction to the women’s liberation movement in the 60s. With unisex clothing and multiple colors being offered by the fashion industry to profit from this movement, stratified roles may have been seen as a way to cater to specific demographics. All in all, it wasn’t a terribly obvious move toward stratification (yet); something which would change significantly in the 80s.
1980s Color Gendering is in full effect
It’s thought that with new improvements in ultrasound technology and the ability parents-to-be now had to see if they were having a boy or girl, it was easier to have baby showers centered around the new arrival’s perceived gender. And while females didn’t solely wear pink at the time, the ‘pink is for girls and blue is for boys’ trend was stronger than ever by this time.
This made people buy certain toys and clothing that used pink or blue and corporations capitalized on this in the toy aisle. Corporations pushed marketing and products based on these two colors with color-coded toys and clothing geared towards little girls or little boys. The 80s also brought in a new era of mass marketing to the public. With color TVs becoming mainstream and inexpensive, and the onslaught of marketing-based cartoons, commercials, and dedicated networks like MTV, pushing products towards specific sexes was a money maker.
What people don’t understand is that marketing is very intrusive, it’s subliminal, it’s designed to stick with you and make you feel like it’s the norm. If you look at toy and clothing catalogs and commercials of the 80s, there is a very significant color separation. Even if the product wasn’t marketed solely on the color, the product usually featured that color in it rather heavily. Did you ever see a G.I. Joe that was predominantly pink?
Basically, corporate firms and genius marketing companies have dictated to us what our social norms are in terms of colors. And when someone says they prefer blue over pink or vice versa, you really don’t know that. Are they saying that because they really believe that, or is it ingrained in their mind from past generations and being blasted with marketing? While this mindset was taking root 200 years ago, it sprouted 70 years ago, and became the social norm 40 years ago. This is almost 100 percent due to corporate marketing and design, with the exception of tragic world events; gender reveal parties, color definitions and social norms, are just figments of our imaginations brought on by years of marketing and influencers. People, no matter what gender they’re assigned at birth, are not inherently suited to one color or another, it’s our society that manufactured this belief. But because these colors are introduced to us at such a young age, it becomes our normalcy.
Now this isn’t always the case, like I said earlier with the Women’s liberation movement, corporations tried to capitalize on this movement because it revolved around the struggle for women’s rights, which the corporations boiled down to ‘a gendered issue,’ instead of a ‘civil rights issue.’ Then, with the punk movement in the late 70s and 80s, sexual and gender norms were further explored and subverted, pink was worn by multiple men in the entertainment industry. And these trends trickled down, being superficially expanded upon by clothing and record companies to capitalize on yet another gendered windfall.
1990s It's time for change
In the 90s, GAP brought back unisex style clothing with black and tan being the main colors, and even now you can see the divide lessening and becoming less traditionally “gendered.” Male musicians are wearing pink and women are wearing what would traditionally be called “menswear.” But those pervasive beliefs, built into our collective unconscious still persist. You still see male CEOs and politicians wearing dominantly blue or dark blue suits. Mary Kay and Victoria’s Secret still use pink as their dominant color. Even breast cancer awareness utilizes pink.
What's happening now?
The good news, however, is that the trend is gradually losing steam with younger generations shirking color binaries and other societal expectations of how they should look, what they should play with and which colors they can wear. But seeing how this pink/blue dichotomy was almost 200 years in the making, it’s not going to go completely away anytime soon. I believe the blue and pink binaries hit peak in the 80s and started a sharp fall shortly afterwards before plateauing somewhere around the late 90s. Just take a look at the original Britney Spears album cover.
When I referenced pay grades at the beginning of this article, what I was referencing was the very real way in which colors are life-long societal signifiers regarding who we are. They make a statement, even before we gurgle our first words. Women are paid less, given fewer promotions and have been generally seen as inferior to men. And while Pink isn’t the direct cause of this, it is an undeniable part of it. As I said earlier, pink is seen as soft, childlike, or dainty and blue is seen as strong or educated.
When you see a newborn for the first time and they’re wearing a pink hat or a blue hat, some people will have a skewed mindset one way or another regarding that child’s identity, capabilities and even their destinies. Ultimately, it’s the parent, who helps set that child’s life into motion and whether they decide to go against that pink/blue grain or with it can have deep-seeded ramifications on what’s most important, the child’s well-being, freedom of expression and sense of self-worth.
One company who has seemed to surpass the pink/blue binary is Lego, with one of my favorite sets, the Women of NASA, taking an alternate route from Mattel. Pink is nowhere to be found in the set and honestly has no predominantly male or female-coded marketing to it. And yes, I’m well aware of the Friends sets, however, the majority of Lego is gender neutral.