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How the colour pink lost its masculinity

pinkflickrFrom Barbie dolls to princesses, pink has become a symbol for femininity and all things girly. But it wasn't always the case. Pink used to associated with masculinity, writes Kate Walton.

Despite supposedly living in an era of something approaching gender equality, there would hardly be a Western woman alive today who wouldn’t, albeit begrudgingly, agree with the idea that pink is a colour associated with femininity. Overwhelmingly, items seen by both producers and consumers as feminine or girly, is some shade of pink – from young girls’ toys, clothes and bedding to female students’ notebooks, backpacks and bicycles, and everything else in between. 

This profusion of pink is now so wide-spread and so dominant that it often proves hard to find items geared towards girls that are produced in non-pink tones. Many parents and children alike claim that it’s simply the way things are – that, biologically, girls prefer pink, while their male counterparts prefer blue. And while some studies are now suggesting this may indeed be the case thanks to evolution, culturally, pink has not always been considered a feminine colour. 

Pink for boys

Despite the commonness of pink-for-girls and blue-for-boys today, as late as the early 1940s, this colour theory actually existed in the opposite. Pink was seen as the more appropriate colour for boys, while blue was deemed better for girls.

 An oft-quoted 1918 Ladies’ Home Journal article declared that: “There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. 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.”

A 1914 issue of the Sunday Sentinel echoed this opinion, while even in 1927, TIME noted that Princess Astrid of Belgium had been hoping for a son, with the cradle “optimistically decorated in pink, the colour for boys”. Many have hypothesised that this was because pink is a close relation of red – a fiery, masculine colour – while blue was frequently associated with the Virgin Mary. 

However, going back further in time, in the 1800s most babies were dressed in white dresses and skirts, regardless of their gender. It was not until around the age of six that differences in gender began to play a role in clothing, at which age boys started wearing trousers. Yet even at that point, there were no colours perceived as more or less appropriate for certain genders. 

So when – and why – did things change?

How did pink come to lose its masculine overtones and become associated with femininity? While the subject is still debated today and there is no definitive answer, the changing point appears to have occurred in the years following World War II (1939-1945). 

Fashion and glamour retook centre stage in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The dull, drab colours of the War years were all but banished by those who could afford to do so. Neutral, plain colours such as beige were out. Exciting, fun colours such as pink were in.

The fashion industry’s desire for seasonal changes in clothing’s shape, silhouette and colour also played an influential role. Cosmetics companies and magazines began urging women to begin highlighting their femininity again, and, tired of the no-fun 1940s, women responded eagerly.

Pink became the colour du jour, and women were encouraged to use blusher, rouge and lipstick to give off an air of healthiness and desirability. Women then attempted to match their clothes and accessories with their makeup, resulting in the ‘pinkification’ of feminine attire. 

A May 1958 ad for Pond’s lipstick in Seventeen magazine typifies the demure-yet-seductive feminine ideal:

“Oh-la-la! How alluring... This saucy new “French Coral”. Pond’s enticing new lipstick shade – lusciously light... bewitchingly bright! Will he? Won’t he? He will go overboard when he sees you in fabulous “French Coral” – Pond’s flirtatious new lipstick shade. A light, luscious coral... kissed with pink! It’s sweet, it’s seductive. It’s demure, it’s devastating. Keeps your lips smooth, moist – never dries. It’s so creamy! Touch your lips with glamorous new “French Coral” tonight, and you’ll have a new love tomorrow!” 

The 1957 Audrey Hepburn/Fred Astaire film Funny Face offers another clue. In the opening scene, fashion magazine editor Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson) laments the uninspired issue they are about to print. She dramatically tells her staff that she would be failing the “great American woman” if she lets the issue go to press.

Suddenly, she spies something that excites her – pink! She enthusiastically instructs the girls surrounding her to take strips of pink material to all the designers in town and to get them to make everything in that precise shade – dresses, shoes, stockings. Prescott then bursts into song, crying “Banish the black, burn the blue, and bury the beige! From now on girls, think pink!”

Women 'reinvent' themselves 

And, it would seem, women across the world did. Dulled by the drabness of the War years, women were once again permitted to feel beautiful and feminine. Women were encouraged to “reinvent” themselves. Yet at the same time, women were supposed to resume their pre-War role of doting housewife and mother.

If unmarried or widowed, women were advised that they were best to find themselves a husband quick-smart lest they be forced to live out their lives alone and childless. In order to do this, she was told to play up her femininity and remain “desirable at all times to the opposite sex”, as instructed by Coronet Magazine in 1953. Fashion and cosmetics – and the industry’s new favoured colour of pink – would all help a woman to do so. 

Other elements certainly played a role, as well. The continuing dominance of navy blue for men’s dress uniforms during both the First and Second World Wars may have led more people to associate blue with soldiers and thus with masculinity.

Additionally, the founding of women’s volunteer groups at hospitals during the early-to-mid 1950s may be an important moment. Western nurses at the time wore mostly blue or white uniforms. To differentiate between the official nurses and the volunteers, different coloured uniforms were required.

Pink became the most common colour, which led to the volunteers widely being called Pink Ladies. Appliances, furniture and other household items also began to be produced in a wider range of colours. Marketers quickly realised that products made in exciting colours such as pink would appeal to a woman’s desire for post-War reinvention. 

Gender stereotyping

These factors, and undoubtedly many more, appear to have caused a fundamental change in gender-based colour coding. No longer associated with boys, pink has become a decidedly feminine colour, both in the West and, thanks to globalisation, much of the rest of the world.

This gender stereotyping begins at the very start of a child’s life, and has become so widespread that many people perceive it as natural to differentiate between what is appropriate for girls and what is appropriate for boys. 

Pushed along by advertising and marketing, consumer culture has now caused the gender colour divide to widen so much that many parents would recoil at the idea of dressing a young boy in pink.

 In the 1950s, dressing boy and girl children in different colours was something of a middle-class thing to do. It boldly announced that one had enough disposable income to buy separate outfits for children of different genders. This announcement of affluence and status thus became desirable, and quickly spread throughout society, eventually becoming the status quo. 

So what does this mean for today’s girls and young women? It means that their beliefs and opinions are shaped before they have had time to consider them for themselves.

When something specific is held up as the ideal, the pinnacle of femininity – in this case, the colour pink – it implies that anything that does not match up, is not worthy and not appropriate.

It tells girls that if they do not like ‘traditionally’-feminine things, they are not truly female. It means that girls are put under immense pressure to conform, rather than follow their dreams. It means that girls are more easily targeted – and duped – by advertisers, as pink things now automatically catch their attention because they have been socialised to find the colour appealing.

And most importantly, it means that the choices of our girls and young women are restricted, simply for the fact that they are born female.

Kate Walton is a 22-year-old former student who has just begun working in her first 'real' job at the Australian National University. She spent most of last year writing her Honours thesis on the reproductive rights of young women in post-Suharto Indonesia. Kate is an aspiring documentary photographer, writer and journalist, among other things. She blogs here and Twitters here.

Photo courtesy of Jurvetson  issued under Creative Commons Licence.



0 #2 Maria OGreat-One 2011-10-04 18:45
any thoughts or association to pink triangles used to mark out gay men in nazi concentration camps? pink triangles were used for gay men not as a sign of feminity but as symbol that pink being a masculine colour indicated that the wearer liked men. i assumed that pink then became a feminine colour due to the stereotype of gay men being feminine and that's how it transferred.. any thoughts on this?!
0 #1 zio ledeux 2010-01-18 16:18
i am in my mid 40,s and i asked a friend who has raised 2 children of my age wether pink was such an obsession for girls in the 1960's and 1970's and she said it has only become so in the alst 1-2 decades

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