Halloween is drawing nigh, and in a bid to beat the end-of-the-month shopping traffic, my sister and I went looking for costumes for my niece and nephew last week. My nephew is very easy to please – the love of his life shifts every year from one mode of transportation to the next, so if last year he was a steam engine operator, this year he wants to be a pilot. My niece, on the other hand, poses a greater challenge. She wants to be a witch this year – which is fantastic – but she wants some very specific elements in her costume, like a purple cape and an orange hat and a ginger tabby stretching leisurely over a broom. (In her ideal world the tabby would be real.) So what’s the big deal, I thought. I’m sure there are a bunch of things to choose from in the girls’ section; I’m sure with a some imagination, and maybe a tiny bit of help from the fabric store for the cape, we’ll be able to put together a mean little witch costume. The problem, as we realized upon actually going to the girls’ costume section, was that the “section” was essentially a wall full of poofy, pink, princess dresses. It was like a cotton candy machine threw up all over the wall. Obviously, we left the store empty-handed, and because neither my sister nor I are fans of the color, also a little nauseated from having stared at all that pink.
I came home and complained to Boyfriend about the frustrations of the expedition, and he listened dutifully to my rant, even though he was probably only marginally interested. Then, just as I was about to deliver my line about how a cotton candy machine threw up all over the wall – it was going to be my coup de grace – Boyfriend interrupted me mid-sentence with this:
“Did you know that up until the 1970s, and maybe even later, department stores marketed blue as a feminine color and pink as a masculine color?”
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the convention of dressing children in specific colors (or clothing styles) based on their gender hadn’t yet come about – most kids were just put in white dresses until they were five or six years old, because white cloth could be bleached and dresses probably facilitated quick nappy changes. The association of colors with masculinity and femininity started in the nineteenth century, when maps produced by the English speaking world depicted Britain and the farthest reaches of its empire in pink. The original intention was to mark Britain and its territories red on the map, but this obscured the black lettering printed over it. So Britain went with pink instead, which worked out all right because it was also the color of the Tudor rose, the symbol of much of England’s history. This may only have been one among a large number of factors that shaped the trend, but in large parts of the world pink soon became associated with ideas of strength, power, and masculinity. And by the same impeccable logic blue, which is on the opposite end of the spectrum, was assigned to women, because it was soothing enough for their frail souls, and gentle enough for their delicate sensibilities. As the Earnshaw Infant’s Department wrote in 1918, “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.”
This trend continued for longer than you would have imagined. In 1927 Time magazine ran an article on babies’ fashions, providing a list of all the major clothing retailers in the US, along with each one of their opinions on whether pink was for boys and blue for girls, or the other way around. It’s clear that some confusion over the matter had emerged by now, because four of the ten stores listed (Macy’s, Franklin Simon, Wanamaker’s, and Bullock’s) thought pink was for girls. But the rest of them (Filene’s, Best’s, Halle’s, Marshall Field’s, Maison Blanche, and The White House) remained adamant that pink was meant for boys, and blue for girls. Historian Jo B. Paoletti, who traces the evolution of children’s fashion and the association of color and gender in her book Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls from the Boys in America, claims it was around the 1940s when clothing companies decided to flip their stance for good, and started selling pink frocks for girls and blue overalls for boys. The trend went through several hiccups on the way, of course – in the 1970s, owing to the rise of feminism, gender neutral clothing became the norm for almost a decade. But pink came back in a big way for girls and women in the mid-1980s, and has since become a color associated with femininity and prettiness.
You might think it’s obvious to anyone who isn’t a five-year-old raised on a rigid diet of Disney movies and Barbie dolls, that the assignment of the colors pink and blue to girls and boys respectively is no more than an elaborately played out marketing strategy to get people to buy more stuff. Unfortunately, you would be wrong in thinking that. In 2007 evolutionary psychologists Anya C. Hurlbert and Yazhu Ling wrote and article based on stringent research (oh, what a moment for air quotes) on people’s color preferences. According to them women across cultures overwhelmingly identified pink more favorably. Following from this observation – and in typical evolutionary psychology fashion – Hurlbert and Ling then made the mother of all logical leaps and decided that instead of recent decades of indoctrination by fashion and media giants, this bias was actually caused by biological determinants. Women are evolutionarily tuned into pink because about ten thousand years ago they used to gather berries. Which, as we all know, are pink.
No, for real.
Apparently if you’re a woman, your bile juices start splashing about in a mini-tsunami in your gut the moment you see something pink, therefore sending an instant signal to your brain that you absolutely must get that horrid, frilly, candy-colored skirt. Because, you know, survival of the species, and such.
In its defense, though, at least evolutionary psychology is an entertaining field of study. I mean, imagine the possibilities. Ten thousand years ago men used to hunt dangerous animals with spears, an act that clearly required what can euphemistically be called a testosterone party. So I’m sure manly men get totally turned on at the sight of a dangerous animal. Oh, and ten thousand years ago people probably didn’t do much for old or ill or disabled people, because they didn’t have the ability to contribute to the survival of the community. That’s why today, as a society, we think it’s okay to suggest that we shouldn’t provide old age benefits and universal healthcare. Also, ten thousand years ago people didn’t really live beyond thirty, which is why even though my life has had textbook execution so far, I don’t really have a plan for the next six decades of it. You know, because my brain just isn’t hardwired to think about those things. And because I’m too busy seeking out pink colored berries anyway.
Fortunately for humanity, kids like Beckett, who appeared in the following advertisement with his mother Jenna Lyons, exist.
Obviously, upon seeing this ad conservative pundits got their collective lacy, pink panties in a bunch over how Lyons was basically fucking her kid up for life. And as always, Jon Stewart has this brilliant summary. (Of course, what does Jon Stewart know, right? Does he know, for instance, that Jenna Lyons has a girlfriend? Oh, the horror, the horror!)