Pink Is for Boys (Says My Great-Grandma)

boy in a dressWith the firestorm that erupted over a little boy liking pink toenails, my heart despaired. Some insisted that certain colors signify certain genders, and anyone who deviates from that norm (like Angelina Jolie and her tomboy daughter) is either asking for trouble or just plain perverted.

But I ask you: how is it “traditional” if this wasn’t the norm until the 1930s?

A terrific new book by Jo Paoletti called Pink and Blue: Dressing Children in America, excerpted on Smithsonian, traces colors and their relationship to babies and gender, and finds that there were long stretches of time when pink was considered more masculine, strong, and downright boyish.

Thinking boys can't and shouldn't wear pink is the kind of thing that just makes me mad, and it’s not the first time I’ve gotten annoyed at the way we seem to be all-too-easily convinced that the way we grew up is the only way that makes sense.


For instance, when I was getting married (both times), I was amazed at how the wedding industry would push certain things as traditional, and must-have, and “it’s-your-day,” and basically tried to convince us brides that throwing dollars at this one stupid day was not just our right, but our duty. But brides didn’t even wear white until Queen Victoria did it in 1840, and white didn’t signify “I’m a virgin” -- it said “I’m wealthy enough to have a dress that I haven’t worn before and probably won’t wear again.” So stuff that in your pipe and smoke it, gossipy aunties.

That’s just one example of how we get an idea stuck in our head and make huge life decisions based on what’s basically corporate marketing. When it comes to buying stuff for babies, the pressure seems to multiply and magnify. We’re not just making decisions for ourselves -- we’re involving vulnerable children in them, too. If I dress my boy in pink, am I opening him up to teasing? Am I encouraging him to be his own man, regardless of peer pressure? Or am I just saving a few bucks and doing something that’s entirely my business?

Of course, I do find myself wondering if I should correct people who say Abby’s “so handsome,” and when I recently told a woman her baby was so pretty, she corrected me to say he was handsome, and I had to tamp down the urge to say, “Boys can be pretty too!” or “I know he’s a boy, but I meant pretty like kissable!” Everything’s so loaded.

It was easy, and not considered weird, to dress babies basically gender-neutral throughout the '50s, '60s, and '70s. This was often a practical concern: You didn’t know what baby you were going to get, so if you wanted to buy or paint anything ahead of time, you’d better not be making any assumptions. The book’s author had her kids in the mid-'80s and noted, between their births, that there was a sudden explosion of extremely rigid gender-specific clothes. Hmmm, the '80s were also the age of yuppies, power ties, BMWs, and “greed is good.” Seems to me gender-specific clothes were again a way of saying “I don’t need no stinkin’ hand-me-downs.”

Well, those days are good and gone. And now we’re left with a pervasive sense that we’re doing wrong if we let our kids be the least bit gender-variant, even though it’s a normal phase of toddler development for boys and girls to want to switch off now and again. My own stepson liked wearing a princess dress over his clothes for a bunch of months when he was 4. Nobody made a stink out of it, and he gave it up on his own. What’s the big deal?

There are more great details in this book. For one thing, a famous photo of Franklin D. Roosevelt as a baby shows him with long hair and wearing a frilly dress. This wasn’t because his mom was nuts -- it was the norm at the time: unisex clothing tended toward the female. Later, when unisex became popular again (in the '60s, for instance), we started dressing both sexes in a more boyish fashion -- so does “unisex” mean frills or overalls? Depends on the year.

Anyway, if you’re getting flack from someone for dressing your boy in pink or your girl in blue -- or for choosing yellow and green as a color scheme, just to stay away from the overwhelming gender divide -- hit them with a copy of Paoletti’s book. When they come to, maybe they’ll read it and leave you alone.

Do you care whether your baby’s clothes make him look like a her, or vice versa?

Image via The Library of Congress/Flickr

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