Pour yourself a cup of tea and let us muse about colour.
On my first day of kindergarten, we went around in a circle telling each other our favourite colours and mine was blue. Apparently, that was "illegal" as the rules of the playground stated, “pink is for girls and blue is for boys.” Why was that?
Colour-gender associations have many origins, but I’d like to start with colour's relationship to fashion. At one point in our history, all babies wore was white simply out of convenience. When clothes were dirty, parents would bleach them. Children’s clothing stores were filled with endless rows of white outfits.
It wasn't until the mid-19th-century when pastels were introduced into baby fashion. Although at the time, colours were not marketed to any particular gender, generally blue was for girls and pink was for boys. Ironic, right? People believed that blue was soft and delicate, while pink was fierce and strong.
After more research, it seems those blue baby clothes were not only pastel but a particular shade called “Marianne Blue” — the colour associated with the Virgin Mary. “Marianne Blue” is a harsher pastel but not deep enough to be considered vibrant. In most traditional paintings of the Virgin Mary, she’s featured in this shade of blue. But it doesn’t start with her!
In 500 AD, the Byzantine Empire, more commonly known as the Eastern Roman Empire, had a “Marianne Blue” emblem. At the time, it was called “The Empresses Blue”. So, how did Empress Blue become Marianna Blue? Artists had to purchase an expressive stone called lapis lazuli and mix it with gold to make this specific blend. Hence, the Virgin Marie was painted with this colour to illustrate both her relevance to the church and her high social status.
Bringing us back to the mid-19th Century, red was a colour for men. It was considered a fierce colour, like a fire. A study by the University of Rochester established that red was most associated with power and high status. This association is rooted in the fact that officials or anyone considered relevant in ancient civilizations, wore red as a symbol of authority. The modern business person wears a red tie and celebrities walk down the red carpet for the same reason. In any case, because red was for men, pink was for boys.
At this time, society didn't confine specific clothing styles to a particular gender. For example, it was common to see boys wearing dresses. Society was progressive like that — although not progressive enough. World War II marked the beginning of a shift from blue is for girls towards pink is for girls. Specifically, with the help of feminist movements.
Before the war, women weren’t working due to the power dynamics between the two genders. However, during the war, women were called in to help factories and they replaced many working men as they went off to fight. "Rosie The Riveter" was an essential marketing character who prompted women to pursue these jobs.
After the war, women were expected to go back home and those who stayed on were demoted. Most men believed they were the only ones capable of doing laborious jobs, but this was proven wrong during the war. Also, many women enjoyed the independence of work and wanted more than a life as a housewife. Enter the women’s liberation movements that introduced gender-neutral clothing — pink was no longer just for boys.
At this point in my research, my spiral came to a halt. I wanted to know what caused the shift to "pink is for girls." After the rise of feminist movements, pink and blue were both for girls. No specific colours were associated with girls or boys anymore. Something or someone had to introduce the shift, right? Enter “Baker-Miller” pink.
In the 1970s, Alexander Schauss conducted colour-behaviour research on himself and concluded that a particular shade of pink caused his muscles to loosen and his heart rate to slow down. Initially, he labelled the colour P-618. To confirm his theory, he got the directors of a local navy prison to paint many of their confinement cells in that particular shade of pink.
After only 15 minutes in the pink cells, 98.7% of the prisoners were physically weakened. The shade was named after the prison directors “Baker-Miller Pink," or, as I like to call it, “Toxic Masculinity Pink." As society would have it, men did not want to wear a colour that made them appear or become weak. Rather, the notion that girls wear pink because they are weak was reinforced. “Baker-Miller” Pink is now more commonly known as “Barbie Pink."
A bunch of men were weakened by pink, so what? Why did society suddenly adopt this mentality? I thought about these questions a lot, and this case reminded me of the colour green. During my time as an art instructor, I did my fair share of research on colours. Green was probably one of my favourite colour stories to learn about. The hue was associated with death, disgust and toxicity, or at least for those who lived during the Victorian Era.
Picture this: It’s 1814 Germany and you saw a gorgeous green outfit in a store window. The green was emerald, like the precious stone. The bold colour would definitely make you stand out in a crowd. What could possibly go wrong with wearing this dress? Apparently, a lot. Factories used arsenic when making the green dye. This caused ulcers, vomit, liver failure and, among other things, death. One young woman reportedly had her pupils turn green, she vomited green, and even her skin turned green!
Given that this dye was used in carpets, wallpaper, clothes, flowers and virtually everything, the death tolls soared. If looks could ever kill, they sure did in the early 19th century. As a result, society started associating the colour green with death and poison.
In my opinion, the same logic can be applied to Schauss’ experiment. Although the world was not as traumatized as it was during the "green days," people were affected enough to re-associate genders and colours — or at least the egos of fragile men did.
In the 1980s, corporations took the “Baker-Miller Pink" research as an opportunity to market their products by gender — pink for girls and blue for boys. Due to the growing perception that pink was associated with femininity, men no longer wore pink and the saying “real men don’t wear pink” was thriving. Moreover, boys no longer wore dresses so as not to be called “girlie.” The freedom to dress in whichever colour you wanted was gone. No child wants to be bullied simply because they like a particular colour. I sure didn’t!
After winding down the rabbit holes of genders and colours, we can conclude that blue and pink are for everyone. Real men don’t care about being “girlie” or too feminine. They embrace who they are and wear whatever they want. The issue with colour-gender associations is the imposition of a role or a certain personality on a child. When I was young, I liked blue because it's a pretty colour. This didn't make me a tomboy or a girlie-girl, it was simply my preference.
As we embark on the '20s of the 21st Century, let’s teach our children that they can wear whatever they want, from any colour of the rainbow — or all the colours therein.