A brief history of colour coding children

April 5, 2013

Image credit: Janetmck / Flickr CC BY 2.0

The University of Maryland historian, Jo Paoletti’s new book (Pink and Blue: Telling the girls form the boys in America) has renewed interest on the subject and offers a fascinating review which I have drawn from in the following abridged history. She evidentially focused her research on US developments but they share parallels with our own.

Victorian white out

If we turn the clock back to the late 1800’s we arrive in the decidedly conservative Victorian era. In these times, it was considered improper and indeed vulgar to cultivate a gendered identity in an infant. Society sought to ‘stall’ one’s sexual awakening (or at least provide no encouragement). To this end, babies would be clad in a uniform dress code until age 5, at the earliest. At this point, boys would be ‘breached’ into trousers and girl’s hems would rise to reveal their gender publically. Until such time, children were dressed as sexless cherubs; white washed in frilly dresses and bonnets. These white cotton clothes also served a practical purpose – responding most favourably to the boiling and bleaching made necessary by baby byproducts.

Rocking the cradle

Cue the turn of the century and enter Sigmund Freud. Freud’s radical and revolutionary ideas began to influence the prevailing authorities on child psychology who now proclaimed that a person’s early formative years were critical in the formation of a ‘healthy’ sexual identity. It was henceforth regarded as imperative to begin gender conditioning from day 1.  This new school of thought sent parents scrambling for approaches and apparatus to foster normative gender performance by bub.

Inverted meanings

However, we were still a long way off the wide spread Western assignment of blue and pink as we know it today. For a long time, there was great regional variety in colour coding kids. And in fact, when we trace back the origins of colour symbology, we uncover that in certain regions, pink and blue have done a complete flip in terms of gender assignment. Certain US magazines and retail collateral in the 1920’s indicate that pink was considered a fitting boys’ colour – being a derivative of bold, commanding red, whilst pastel blue was regarded a dainty, delicate colour for girls whose sweet innocence should emulate that of the blue robed Virgin Mary.

Blue for boys, pink for girls

It wasn’t until post WW2 that colour coding converged and we arrived at the binary system we use today. The decision is attributed to the direction of key manufacturers and was swiftly rolled out through the revival of commercial manufacturing and the demand created by the baby boom. During the second wave of feminism, parents that sought unisex attire temporarily challenged this notion. However, the preference was revived in the 1980’s by the availability of sex determining ultrasound. This predictive service enabled expectant parents to tailor their preparations so that the new arrival would be born into a nursery and wardrobe of the ‘appropriate’ hue.

It is fascinating to reflect on something so ubiquitous that one barely notices it and yet holds such fascinating, transient origins and profound social implications.