Like to Wear Pink? Technology Made You Do It!

Everyone knows that pink is a “girly” color, right?

Well you might be surprised to you hear that less than a century ago, the opposite was true. Today, nothing is more obvious than the fact that pink is feminine and blue is masculine, but it turns out that American society used to see things the other way around (see Smithsonian Magazine). Here’s how the decades break down:

1900s – Gender Neutral

Before the 1900s, boys and girls alike wore white dresses until the age of 6 or 7 because they were inexpensive and easy to clean with bleach. Gender roles were clearly defined in those days, but those roles were not associated with the colors or styles of clothing for young children.

1920s – Pink is Masculine!

Around the time of World War I, catalogs and clothing manufactures began to assign gender to the color of clothing. Surprisingly, however, pink was considered to be a “stronger” color and therefore appropriate for little boys, while blue was more “delicate and dainty” and making it appropriate for girls.

In a June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department said:

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.

And it wasn’t just this one article. Even magazines like Time printed colors charts for gender appropriate clothing – pink was always for boys and blue for girls.

1940s/1960s – Pink is Feminine!

Somewhere along the way, however, pink snuck its way from the floors of boys’ rooms and into the closets of little girls. Those interviewed by Smithsonian Magazine indicate that one of the reasons for the switch was that during the sexual revolution and women’s liberation movements, parents felt that they could empower their little girls by having them wear men’s clothing. At the time, there was nothing more manly than wearing pink, and so feminist moms everywhere who wanted their little girls to grow up as strong as a man had them wear pink.

Other accounts say the shift was in part due to the news that the Nazis used a pink triangle to shame a man caught in homosexuality. The associate with homosexuality caused made pink into a feminine color inappropriate for boys, especially in a world where homosexuality still had a deep social stigman.

Whatever the origin of the switch, clothing manufactures in the 1950s through 1980s still attempted to keep a healthy stock of gender-neutral clothing because parents needed these if they were going to have multiple children. But this all changed in the 1980s when a new technology became widely available.

1980s -It’s a Boy/Girl!

The big change happened around 1985 when Back to the Future came out when ultrasound became a routine part of pregnancy. Suddenly, parents-to-be were no longer motivated to buy clothing that would work for a girl or a boy. Instead, they wanted clothing that was taylor-made for their little bundle of joy.

Clothing makers immediately recognized that if they made boy cloths more “boyish” (not just overalls, but overalls with a bear holding a football) and girl clothes more “girly” (not just pink, but pink with frills and a princess print), they could move even more merchandise because parents couldn’t reuse the clothing for siblings of a different gender.  Baby showers were no longer about equipping parents with essentials for any child, but buying items customized to what the sonogram said about the child’s gender.

Gender in Society

I think this teaches us two important things. First, technologies like sonograms have incredible benefits like the detection of preventable diseases. Personally, my wife and I loved learning our children’s genders, because it allowed us to name them and pray for them by name before they arrived. But as with all technology, those benefits often come with intriguing unintended side effects like the booming baby products industry and seemingly random decisions about which colors fit which genders.

Second and more significantly, our expectations and understanding of massively important issues like  human identity, human personhood, and gender which seem to governed by obvious objective standards (pink is feminine, blue is masculine, duh!) can in reality be rooted in the god of our age – consumption. What we think of as a biblical portraits of healthy boys and girls may in fact be as informed by commercial factors as it is by Biblical examples.

What other ways have you seen important aspects of our identity (like gender) shaped by cultural and technological factors?

[HT: My brother for pointing me to the Smithsonian Magazine article]

Published by

John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

5 thoughts on “Like to Wear Pink? Technology Made You Do It!”

  1. The male is portrayed in the Bible as an active creature: “Gird up your loins like a man.” This activity is not only physical, but also mental, so that Peter can say, “Gird up the loins of your mind.” But after years of video games, many boys have been lulled into a mental passivity that prevents them from engaging with education to the same degree as girls.

  2. John –
    One of your strengths, here as well as in your book, is that you connect technology so sociological developments. It works really well to examine technology’s influence at this level, because technology affects and sociology examines people in large groups. It’s much harder to consider technology’s impact at the personal level.

    The challenge with the sociological angle is that people can feel impotent to stop the trend. They’re just one person in a multitude. Convincing them that they have a choice is a real challenge.

    Adam

  3. As an elementary school teacher, I have to know not just what my favorite colors are, but I must have them ranked. Pink is my #3. Now I can defend it historically!

    But for a much more serious unintended consequence of the ultrasound, check out Freakonomics’ most recent podcast:
    http://www.freakonomics.com/2011/10/26/misadventures-in-baby-making-full-transcript/
    They talk to a number of people about China’s one-child policy and the rise of selective-sex abortions. Heartbreaking.

  4. I talk about this colour history in my book “The Essence of Womanhood – re-awakening the authentic feminine.” Isn’t it fascinating how we’re all so conditioned? Good article – thank you.

  5. “Taylor-made?” I think you meant “tailor made,” but in terms of gender ambiguity, “Taylor made” is pretty appropriate.

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