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When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?

Every generation brings a new definition of masculinity and femininity that manifests itself in children’s dress

blue-pink-baby-clothes. image

Pink and blue arrived as colors for babies in the mid-19th century; yet, the two colors were not promoted as gender signifiers until just before World War I. (© Jaroon/iStock)


Little Franklin Delano Roosevelt sits primly on a stool, his white skirt spread smoothly over his lap, his hands clasping a hat trimmed with a marabou feather. Shoulder-length hair and patent leather party shoes complete the ensemble.

We find the look unsettling today, yet social convention of 1884, when FDR was photographed at age 2 1/2, dictated that boys wore dresses until age 6 or 7, also the time of their first haircut. Franklin’s outfit was considered gender-neutral.

But nowadays people just have to know the sex of a baby or young child at first glance, says Jo B. Paoletti, a historian at the University of Maryland and author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America, to be published later this year. Thus we see, for example, a pink headband encircling the bald head of an infant girl.

Why have young children’s clothing styles changed so dramatically? How did we end up with two “teams”—boys in blue and girls in pink?

“It’s really a story of what happened to neutral clothing,” says Paoletti, who has explored the meaning of children’s clothing for 30 years. For centuries, she says, children wore dainty white dresses up to age 6. “What was once a matter of practicality—you dress your baby in white dresses and diapers; white cotton can be bleached—became a matter of ‘Oh my God, if I dress my baby in the wrong thing, they’ll grow up perverted,’ ” Paoletti says.

The march toward gender-specific clothes was neither linear nor rapid. Pink and blue arrived, along with other pastels, as colors for babies in the mid-19th century, yet the two colors were not promoted as gender signifiers until just before World War I—and even then, it took time for popular culture to sort things out.

For example, a June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department said, “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.” Other sources said blue was flattering for blonds, pink for brunettes; or blue was for blue-eyed babies, pink for brown-eyed babies, according to Paoletti.

In 1927, Time magazine printed a chart showing sex-appropriate colors for girls and boys according to leading U.S. stores. In Boston, Filene’s told parents to dress boys in pink. So did Best & Co. in New York City, Halle’s in Cleveland and Marshall Field in Chicago.

Today’s color dictate wasn’t established until the 1940s, as a result of Americans’ preferences as interpreted by manufacturers and retailers. “It could have gone the other way,” Paoletti says.

So the baby boomers were raised in gender-specific clothing. Boys dressed like their fathers, girls like their mothers. Girls had to wear dresses to school, though unadorned styles and tomboy play clothes were acceptable.

When the women’s liberation movement arrived in the mid-1960s, with its anti-feminine, anti-fashion message, the unisex look became the rage—but completely reversed from the time of young Franklin Roosevelt. Now young girls were dressing in masculine—or at least unfeminine—styles, devoid of gender hints. Paoletti found that in the 1970s, the Sears, Roebuck catalog pictured no pink toddler clothing for two years.

“One of the ways [feminists] thought that girls were kind of lured into subservient roles as women is through clothing,” says Paoletti. “ ‘If we dress our girls more like boys and less like frilly little girls . . . they are going to have more options and feel freer to be active.’ ”

John Money, a sexual identity researcher at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, argued that gender was primarily learned through social and environmental cues. “This was one of the drivers back in the ’70s of the argument that it’s ‘nurture not nature,’ ” Paoletti says.

Gender-neutral clothing remained popular until about 1985. Paoletti remembers that year distinctly because it was between the births of her children, a girl in ’82 and a boy in ’86. “All of a sudden it wasn’t just a blue overall; it was a blue overall with a teddy bear holding a football,” she says. Disposable diapers were manufactured in pink and blue.

Prenatal testing was a big reason for the change. Expectant parents learned the sex of their unborn baby and then went shopping for “girl” or “boy” merchandise. (“The more you individualize clothing, the more you can sell,” Paoletti says.) The pink fad spread from sleepers and crib sheets to big-ticket items such as strollers, car seats and riding toys. Affluent parents could conceivably decorate for baby No. 1, a girl, and start all over when the next child was a boy.

Some young mothers who grew up in the 1980s deprived of pinks, lace, long hair and Barbies, Paoletti suggests, rejected the unisex look for their own daughters. “Even if they are still feminists, they are perceiving those things in a different light than the baby boomer feminists did,” she says. “They think even if they want their girl to be a surgeon, there’s nothing wrong if she is a very feminine surgeon.”

Another important factor has been the rise of consumerism among children in recent decades. According to child development experts, children are just becoming conscious of their gender between ages 3 and 4, and they do not realize it’s permanent until age 6 or 7. At the same time, however, they are the subjects of sophisticated and pervasive advertising that tends to reinforce social conventions. “So they think, for example, that what makes someone female is having long hair and a dress,’’ says Paoletti. “They are so interested—and they are so adamant in their likes and dislikes.”

In researching and writing her book, Paoletti says, she kept thinking about the parents of children who don’t conform to gender roles: Should they dress their children to conform, or allow them to express themselves in their dress? “One thing I can say now is that I’m not real keen on the gender binary—the idea that you have very masculine and very feminine things. The loss of neutral clothing is something that people should think more about. And there is a growing demand for neutral clothing for babies and toddlers now, too.”

“There is a whole community out there of parents and kids who are struggling with ‘My son really doesn’t want to wear boy clothes, prefers to wear girl clothes.’ ” She hopes one audience for her book will be people who study gender clinically. The fashion world may have divided children into pink and blue, but in the world of real individuals, not all is black and white.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed the 1918 quotation about pink and blue clothes to the Ladies’ Home Journal. It appeared in the June 1918 issue of Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department, a trade publication.


Henry Sapiecha



After five years Rio Tinto’s (LON:RIO) multi-million-dollar Argyle pink diamonds are back in Japan, where the company will be showcasing the world’s rarest red, pink and blue gems until Oct. 2.

Included in the Tokyo preview are three Fancy Red diamonds, representing the pinnacle of value and ultimate rarity in the diamond industry. The hero of the collection is a 1.56 carat round gem, the Argyle Phoenix, named in honour of the newly commissioned Argyle underground mine.

Prices will not be known until the tender closes, but based on the recent price of $1.6 million per carat for a red diamond set at auction, Argyle Phoenix could fetch over $2.5m.

“We are delighted to be back in Tokyo …  The Japanese market is very important to us and over the past 20 years has shown, and continues to show, an unerring demand for Argyle pink diamonds,” said in a statement Argyle Pink Diamonds manager, Josephine Johnson.

In the last two decades, Japan has consistently shown a strong interest for Argyle pinks, and it remains the largest market for those stones, especially the lighter shades of pink.

According to Rio, Japan is also a market that covets heart shaped diamonds, and the matching pink and blue heart shaped diamonds in the 2013 Tender collection are likely to be strongly contested.

Image from Argyle Pink Diamonds

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In a pink fit


January 11, 2011

Fairy costume.The pink factor … Can having toys in a set colour range limit a child’s imagination? Photo: Paul Jones

There’s a sinister aspect to fairy costumes and stiletto booties, writes Samantha Selinger-Morris.

Remember when the uproar over the “pinkification” of girls’ goods – items that pushed the value of appearance and submissive behaviour – centred simply on Easy-Bake ovens, tween training bras and coquettish Disney princesses?

That stuff was tame compared with what’s on the market now.

Not only are children being targeted from birth – hot-pink credit-card-shaped dummies branded “Ima Spender”, soft stiletto booties for babies – but the goods are rolling out of factories at warp speed.

“It’s getting worse and it’s very ironic,” the author of Delusions of Gender, psychologist Cordelia Fine, says. “The very time in history when we’re congratulating ourselves on a person’s sex finally being of no importance in what hopes they have for their lives and what career they might have … and [this is] being thoroughly undermined by the childhood culture that relentlessly segregates the sexes. They’re [now] seated on [gendered goods], playing with them, carrying them, riding them and eating off them.”

Indeed, last year alone saw the release of four pinkified versions of classic games featuring the sort of accessories – and accompanying messages – that would make Betty Friedan weep. The box housing the pink Designer’s Edition of Scrabble spelt out the word “fashion” and a pink Monopoly set for the buying and selling of boutiques instead of houses (in order to build shopping malls) came packaged in a jewellery box, complete with purse, high heel and hairdryer playing pieces.

Overseas, the backlash has been swift and steady.

In Britain, the Pink Stinks campaign, which lobbies against a culture of girls’ products that promote narrowly defined aspirations and unhealthy body obsession, recently celebrated the removal of a neon-pink globe of the world, created by the Early Learning Centre, from the shop’s catalogue.

In stark contrast, local childhood activists say they’re struggling to publicise the dangers of gender stereotyping.

“I think we’re all so busy with [fighting] the pornographers,” says Maggie Hamilton, author of What’s Happening to Our Girls?, by way of explaining the lack of local targeted campaigns such as Pink Stinks.

“I give numerous talks to children and teachers and have these things [baby stilettos] for show and tell but there’s only a few of us fighting this stuff, so you tend to go for the most serious, which is of course pornography and violence.”

Those on the frontline battling the early onset of gender bias – day-care workers – are struggling with the fallout: parents oblivious to its inherent dangers.

“I’ve heard parents come in and say [of boys], ‘Why are they playing with the doll? It’s only for girls,”‘ says Josephine Scianni, supervisor at Botany Bay Preschool in Sydney, who regularly sees female preschoolers wearing make-up.

Julie Gale, of the lobby group Kids Free 2B Kids, worries about parents who don’t consider the messages that gendered goods convey.

“If you’re defining girls as pretty little fluffy princesses … it minimises the imagination and tells them, ‘This is what we do,’ she says. “We’re imposing stereotypes from the word go and that doesn’t really free us up to choose whatever our self-expression wants to be, whether it’s to muck around in the dirt, climb trees, pretend to be an artist, whatever.”

There are signs, though, that the next generation of parents will be more open-minded. One four-year-old boy at Botany Bay Preschool, Scianni says, struts around in a pink T-shirt that reads “Tough enough to wear pink”.

And Cordelia Fine’s school-age son recently “insisted” on buying a pair of pink trainers “as a political statement”, even after she pushed for him to pick navy or beige, out of fear that he’d be bullied.

“Of course I thought everyone would think I was this crazy feminist mother sacrificing him to the cause,” she says, laughing. “But it’s been a comfort to me [that he hasn’t been teased]. That surprises me and it’s a very positive sign.”

Fact file

  • Hard-wired sex differences are “grossly exaggerated”, says author Cordelia Fine.
  • Critics argue that sterotypically female toys — such as princess games, Barbies and stilettos — can inhibit outdoor play and imagination.
  • Girls as young as seven battle anxiety and depression from being inundated with body-focused products.
  • Sourced & published by Henry Sapiecha