Wilder Wednesday – Color-coding Children

Wilder Wednesday posts are inspired by the Little House on the Prairie book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Then Laura saw her own pink ribbons on Mary’s braids. She clapped her hand over her mouth before a word came out. She scrooged and looked down her own back. Mary’s blue ribbons were on her braids! She and Mary looked at each other and did not say a word. Ma, in her hurry, had made a mistake. They hoped she would not notice. Laura was so tired of pink and Mary was so tired of blue. But Mary had to wear blue because her hair was golden and Laura had to wear pink because her hair was brown…“Oh dear!” Ma exclaimed. “I put the wrong ribbons on Laura’s hair!” “It’ll never be noticed on a trotting horse!” said Pa. So Laura knew she could wear the blue ribbons.  ~On the Banks of Plum Creek, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

A friend recently turned me on to Sarah Albee’s blog, which I’ve been enjoying. Not long ago, she posted about the trend of gender-specific colors, which you probably know is a relatively recent development. I wanted to know why these trends developed, and found some interesting theories.

It was around the mid-1910s that colors were “assigned” to specific genders. Before that, both genders were usually dressed the same. Same styles and same color – white, for a very practical reason: the inevitable stains could be bleached out. But some market-minded person realized that if mothers could be persuaded to dress their children in colors, there would be more sales; and if the genders had different styles – including different colors – that would be even more sales (succeeding children of a different gender couldn’t wear the older sibling’s clothing). For some time, there was no consensus on what those colors should be, but eventually pink and blue took over.

Pink was designated as the color for boys, and blue for girls. It is supposed that this selection was influenced by Renaissance art, which usually depicted the Virgin Mary in blue and the Christ child in pink. Blue has traditionally been associated with the heavens and purity, and thus appropriate for females, who were viewed as more virtuous. Pink is a derivative of red, a bold and aggressive color, so it was suited for masculinity. Trade publications of the fashion industry promoted these choices, along with other differentiations such as that blue was flattering for blue-eyed blonds and pink for brown-eyed brunettes. This encouraged more sales among even same-gendered children.

pinkblue

 

Timing begs the question, did Laura’s story of the ribbons actually happen? Or was it inspired by the fashion of the day that she was writing? Perhaps it could be read as an indictment of silly fashion trends – why on earth shouldn’t she enjoy ribbons of blue, or any other color, just because her hair was brown? Or perhaps the opposite: showing children that there have always been social norms to which they should conform. This scene in On the Banks of Plum Creek could be polysemantic. Or maybe it’s just a fun scene. What do you think?

So when and why did pink and blue switch genders? Theories abound, ranging from nursery rhymes to Hitler. Some believe that verses such as “Little Boy Blue” brought the change. Others claim that the purple triangle assigned to homosexuals under the Nazi regime led to the color being thought of as feminine, and then lightened to pink for female children. Still others mention the influence of “battleship gray” and “navy blue” in World War II in identifying blue with boys. There is no real evidence for any of these theories.

During the 1940s, an advertising company surveyed sales of several large department stores across the country. They concluded, based on what customers chose, that boys preferred blue and girls preferred pink. (It would probably be more correct to say that parents preferred blue for boys and pink for girls, but this is not definitive since we don’t know to what extent parents let the children do the choosing.) Manufacturers adjusted accordingly.

After a time of mostly unisex clothing during the ‘70s, coinciding with the women’s lib movement, the pink-for-girls-blue-for-boys came back with a vengeance in the ‘80s. It seems this stems in part from the homophobic idea, now understood to be incorrect but for centuries held as incontrovertible, of gender as binary.  The phobia was (is?) so deep-rooted that it was deemed insulting not to know at a glance whether an infant or young child was male or female, but of course one can’t know without some added contrivance – like color-coding.

Recently, there has again been movement away from “gender-appropriate” color. I wonder what Laura would think.

Advertisements

2 responses to this post.

  1. All very interesting, social pressures always are there, guess always will be in some form.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: