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If Pink is for Girls

By: Santiago Eastman

Photo Credits: The Met

 
 

“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.”

-       Article from the trade publication Earnshaw's Infants' Department, June 1918

 

I remember one day, I was invited to go to a Halloween party at my high school. Because of my religious upbringing, I was never allowed to celebrate the holiday, so I thought this was my chance to finally dress up and eat candy with my friends. It wasn’t a particularly clever costume—I donned my pajamas, threw a bathrobe on, put an eye mask on my head, and called myself Sleepy the Dwarf—but I was excited, nonetheless. As I was about to step outside, my father, who throughout this whole ordeal hadn’t cared one bit, suddenly stopped me and started to yell. “Where do you think you’re going, dressed like that?” he demanded. The problem? The eye mask I found belonged to my sister, and it was bright pink and fuzzy.

          

The association with pink as a feminine color is actually pretty recent. The word for the shade, found in ancient texts like The Odyssey (“rosy-fingered dawn” anyone?), was coined around the late 17th century as a way to describe pale reds. The word “pink” was initially used to describe a certain type of pigment and is thought to come into English from the name of a flower, the Dianthus plumarius (The Secret Lives of Colour, p. 115-116). In the 17th and 18th centuries, British soldiers were outfitted in brilliant shades of red to signify their courage in war (the infamous Red Coats), which, over time, tied the color displays of masculinity. Since shades of pink and white lasted longer through numerous washes and were easier to bleach clean (and maybe subconsciously tied boys to manliness, who knows), baby boys were often dressed in pink.

 

In Medieval and Renaissance art, the color pink was often used in relation to baby Jesus. Many paintings depicted our savior in shades of fleshy pink or giving a pink flower to his mother, the Virgin Mary. Symbolically, a pink flower stood for marriage, so him giving her one showed the unity between Jesus and Mary, one of the most important women in Catholic doctrine. Mary, meanwhile, was almost always decked out in shades of finest blue. But why?


In part, this comes as a result of a decree by Pope Gregory I around 600 AD, who ordered that all religious paintings should tell a story that was clearly comprehensible to all viewers, and that figures should be easily recognizable, especially that of Mary (Kessler, “Gregory the Great”). Up until the 19th century, the blue pigment for paint was created from crushed lapis lazuli (a mineral found only in Middle Eastern mines), meaning it was prohibitively expensive for painters in Western Europe to use. In order to access it, an artist had to ask their patron to buy it for them. (Patrons would often agree as they wanted to show off their wealth and their devotion to the church.) By reserving it only for the Virgin Queen, the Catholic church had inadvertently tied the color blue to themes of holiness, humility, and virtue. This unstated practice remained the norm until French chemists invented a synthetic blue that made the paint more accessible (which then tied it to ideas of royalty as heads of state all jumped at the chance to be the next to use it).


Without realizing it, my father had tapped into an ingrained notion of a standard that only started a few generations before his. Boys don’t wear pink, his actions told me, and men don’t leave the house looking effeminate. I was more annoyed than anything else at the time, but the memory of the event has stayed with me throughout all these years.


Pink was mostly reserved for boys until the 20th century, when a variety of factors caused a significant shift in popular consciousness. For one, during World War II, Nazi soldiers forced men convicted of homosexuality (a crime almost as bad as being Jewish) to wear a pink triangle on their sleeves to make sure they couldn’t hide in public (Waxman, “Pink Triangle Symbol”). In the US, Mamie Eisenhower wore a beautiful pink dress during her husband’s presidential inauguration, and Elsa Schiaparelli, an Italian fashion designer, created a violently bright shade of clothes she dubbed “Shocking Pink,” popularized by none other than Marilyn Monroe herself (The Secret Lives of Colour, pg. 126-127)


Fashion followers and companies caught on to the trend, using the rosy color as a way to target female consumers in ways never done before. Suddenly, pink was the new “it” thing in North America, used by women to stand out from the crowd and embrace their femininity, and by men to symbolize seduction, passion, romance. Over time, these gender dividers became entrenched, ending in pink aisles full of Barbie toys for girls and blue-dyed cakes at gender reveal parties for boys.


It’s weird to think that something that seems so pervasive in our culture is a relatively recent phenomenon. The color pink underwent lots of backlash during the second wave of feminism, and efforts were made to broaden its audience (the most famous being the ribbon for Breast Cancer Awareness). In sports, several men’s soccer teams proudly display pink uniforms, and the London Financial Times newspaper uses a distinctive salmon color for its newsprint to distinguish it from the others on the newsstand. Nowadays, even if associations with color are heavily affected by personal experience, some psychologists argue that pink has a calming effect, or can symbolize peace and creativity (“The Color Psychology of Pink”).


I’m not expecting to change anyone’s mind about their favorite color here (and do keep in mind that these are generalizations for a very long span of time), but I know I at least was surprised to realize how arbitrary the ideas around pink were. I wasn’t allowed out of the house because 60 years ago, some woman decided to market her favorite color to other powerful women? My father didn’t let me go until I changed into something more appropriate: my mother’s eye mask, plain navy blue and not even remotely fuzzy. Only a century ago, baby boys were swaddled in pink dresses. If the color is good enough for Jesus, then, by God, it should be good enough for modern men too.


“Young Boy with Whip”, America, Oil on canvas painting, circa 1840

 

Works Cited

Clair, Kassia St. The Secret Lives of Colour. John Murray Publishers, 2018.

Cherry, Kendra. “The Color Psychology of Pink.” Verywell Mind, 14 Nov. 2022, www.verywellmind.com/the-color-psychology-of-pink-2795819.

Draper, Kevin, and Rory Smith. “The Stratospheric Rise of Lionel Messi’s Pink Jersey.” The New York Times, 23 Oct. 2023, www.nytimes.com/2023/10/23/business/lionel-messi-inter-miami-jersey.html.

Duccio di Buoninsegna. “Madonna and Child.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/438754.

Kessler, H.L. “Gregory the Great and Image Theory in Northern Europe During the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries.” A Companion to Medieval Art: Romanesque and Gothic in Northern Europe, edited by Conrad Rudolph, 2nd ed. 1 Feb. 2019. pp. 221-244.

Maglaty, Jeanne. “When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?” Ask Smithsonian, Smithsonian Magazine, 7 Apr. 2011, www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/when-did-girls-start-wearing-pink-1370097/.

Waxman, Olivia B. “How the Nazi Regime’s Pink Triangle Symbol Was Repurposed for LGBTQ Pride.” Time, 31 May 2018, time.com/5295476/gay-pride-pink-triangle-history/.

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