Is That a Boy or a Girl? Jo B. Paoletti’s ‘Pink and Blue’

Anyone who has friends or family members with young girls has surely heard the lament — “she’ll only wear pink”. Well, the thing is, from tutus to leggings to skirts, there is only really pink garb for her to choose from at the store. Is the little girl or the clothes manufacturer the chicken or the egg? And when did pink become the de facto girls’ color anyway?

The topic may seem most appropriate for a fluff piece on Today. But Jo B. Paoletti is an academic, and Pink and Blue is meticulously researched, with references to paper dolls, old retail catalogs and the arcane field of material culture studies. Her findings are fascinating, even if her prose can be repetitive.

“In little more than a century, the rules have changed so dramatically that the conventions of 2010 are nearly the reverse of those in 1890,” Paoletti writes. It’s not only baby colors that have changed, but clothing styles, too.

“Victorian parents preferred their children to look like asexual cherubs”. They found the difficulty of telling boy and girl infants apart humorous; gendered dress was considered inappropriate. Babies were dressed in traditional white dresses so they could have an identity as babies, not as boys or girls. Although the popularity of white dresses dramatically faded in the 1900s, especially for any child older than a newborn, they could still be found in Sears layette sets through the ’50s.

Around the turn of the 20th century, mothers began dressing infants with gender in mind, with a particular focus on making boys look more masculine. Between 1900 and 1910, they were less and less likely to dress their toddler boys in skirts; knickers or short pants became the norm. After the ’20s, lace, bows and ruffles were only for girls. Although white was the standard infant color, all pastel hues were considered appropriate for babies. This continued up through the ’50s, but there was a lack of consensus among parents (with mothers and grandmothers still often sewing clothes) and large department stores about whether pink was for girls and blue was for boys — or vice versa.

In the ’60s and ’70s pink, by now almost ubiquitously associated with girls, was still one of several color options. However, the styling of clothing for young boys and girls was generally unisex. In the most interesting, and perhaps most controversial theory in her book, Paoletti posits that the children of baby boomers – who were largely raised to wear unisex clothing styles – backlashed against this style when they themselves became parents. As Paoletti puts it: “Exit unisex; enter pinkification”.

Will the pink princesses of today precipitate the children’s clothing backlash of tomorrow? If so, 50 years from now, an academic like Paoletti will be trolling though YouTube videos and Facebook posts to chronicle the change.