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How pink became “girly”

November 2, 2013

There was a time when blue was not the colour for boys.

There was a time when dresses were not restricted to girls.

In fact, as late as 1927, Time magazine printed a chart showing sex-appropriate colours for girls and boys and, according to leading US department stores; parents would do best to dress boys in pink.

The advice was backed by that from the Ladies’ Home Journal nine years earlier which instructed:

“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 colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

And because the fashion was not restrictive as the women’s liberation movement arrived in the mid-1960s, with its anti-feminine, anti-fashion message; the unisex look became the rage — but completely reversed from the time of boys in dresses in the 1800s.

Now young girls were dressing in masculine—or at least unfeminine—styles, devoid of gender hints. Paoletti found that in the 1970s, the Sears, Roebuck catalogue pictured no pink toddler clothing for two years.

“One of the ways [feminists] thought that girls were kind of lured into subservient roles as women is through clothing,” says University of Maryland historian Jo B. Paoletti.

“If we dress our girls more like boys and less like frilly little girls . . . they are going to have more options and feel freer to be active.”

Such struggles over the up-bringing of our children.

Was it always so?

Apparently not.

“A boy of two can wear dresses made from the same pattern as for a little girl. There is little, if any, difference in the style at such an early age,” according to Elizabeth Robinson Scovil in “The Art of Dressing the Boy,” from the Ladies’ Home Journal in March 1895.

And it was not restricted to dresses.

“For boys of a year or a year-and-a-half the blouse dress is worn, for morning wear confined at the waist with a belt. But little difference is noticed in the general style of their dress except the hat and less-elaborate trimming on their dresses,” according to the 1870 publication of Godey’s Ladies’ Book and Magazine.

So how so our steadfastness to pink and blue?

“It’s really a story of what happened to neutral clothing,” says Paoletti, who has explored the meaning of children’s clothing for 30 years.

For centuries, says the author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls from the Boys in America, children wore dainty white dresses up to age 6.

“What was once a matter of practicality—you dress your baby in white dresses and diapers; white cotton can be bleached—became a matter of ‘Oh my God, if I dress my baby in the wrong thing, they’ll grow up perverted,’ ” Paoletti says.

She says parents should be more critical of the pink-blue divide.

“The loss of neutral clothing is something that people should think more about,” says Paoletti.

“Evidence that pink and blue weren’t always in favour gives us hope that neutral colours can make a comeback.”

Paoletti says it wasn’t until after the Second World War that the modern pink-blue convention set in and even so, it didn’t ‘gel’ until the 1980s.

Having written a book “Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America”, Paoletti says it truly was not until more recently that the colours became entrenched by marketeers.

“It’s really a story of what happened to neutral clothing …
Today’s colour dictate wasn’t established until the 1940s, as a result of Americans’ preferences as interpreted by manufacturers and retailers.

“It could have gone the other way,” Paoletti says.

“So the baby boomers were raised in gender-specific clothing. Boys dressed like their fathers, girls like their mothers. Girls had to wear dresses to school, though unadorned styles and tomboy play clothes were acceptable.”

Post World War II saw the pre-feminine movement with it’s anti-fashion, non-gender-specific clothing become popular. According to Paoletti, Sears and Roebuck had no toddler pictured in pink for two years during the 1970s.

“One of the ways [feminists] thought that girls were kind of lured into subservient roles as women is through clothing,” says Paoletti. “ ‘If we dress our girls more like boys and less like frilly little girls . . . they are going to have more options and feel freer to be active.’ ”

And the 1980s brought change.

Paloetti claims it was somewhere between the years of 1980 and 1986 … purely because she gave birth during that slice in the calendar.

She says prenatal testing was a big reason for the change; expectant parents learned the sex of their unborn baby and then went shopping for “girl” or “boy” merchandise. (“The more you individualize clothing, the more you can sell,” she says.)

The pink fad spread from sleepers and crib sheets to big-ticket items such as strollers, car seats and riding toys. Affluent parents could conceivably decorate for baby No. 1, a girl, and start all over when the next child was a boy.

Some young mothers who grew up in the 1980s deprived of pinks, lace, long hair and Barbies, Paoletti suggests, back-lashed when it came to their own daughters. “Even if they are still feminists, they are perceiving those things in a different light than the baby boomer feminists did,” she says.

“They think even if they want their girl to be a surgeon, there’s nothing wrong if she is a very feminine surgeon.”

So what about today?

We come to 2013 and a time when parents are free to make their own choices? Or are they?

“There is a whole community out there of parents and kids who are struggling with ‘My son really doesn’t want to wear boy clothes, prefers to wear girl clothes.’ ”

In researching her book, Paoletti says she’s learned a few thing.

“One thing I can say now is that I’m not real keen on the gender binary—the idea that you have very masculine and very feminine things. The loss of neutral clothing is something that people should think more about. And there is a growing demand for neutral clothing for babies and toddlers now, too.”

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