Pink wasn’t considered the color for girls until the 1940s. That probably comes as a surprise to anyone who’s walked into the girls’ section of a clothing store lately, but it didn’t use to be that way.
“Society determines what color means, and society changes its mind,” explains Valerie Steele, the director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology and curator of a new show (and book) Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color.
Pink wasn’t a popular color until the 1700s because it faded so fast. The discovery of brazillium by New World explorers allowed clothiers to create more vibrant and longer-lasting dyes, and the French court went mad for pink.
Back then, noble men and women were “equally decorative,” as Steele puts it, dressed in all manner of ruffles and lace and floral designs, with plenty of pink (and blue, for that matter) in both men’s and women’s clothing.
Somewhere along the way, that changed. Steele spent two years putting together the exhibition and reading everything she could find in two languages about pink, but couldn’t pin down where the idea that pink is for girls and blue is for boys came from, only that it originated in France. Louisa May Alcott’s book Little Women, published in 1868, references Amy March using a blue ribbon for the boy doll and pink for the girl in the “French fashion.”
This change in French custom didn’t translate across the Atlantic Ocean. In the U.S., department stores were evenly split between which sold pink clothes for boys or girls. In 1918, a store called Infants Department recommended dressing boys in pink, the “more decided and stronger color,” while girls should wear blue, which is “more delicate and dainty.”
One contested explanation is a set of two circa late-1700s paintings that toured the country as a pair: The Blue Boy, a child in a blue doublet and breeches, and Pinkie, a young woman in a blush pink dress.
These days, pink is the color of revolution. Pink is assuming a feminist role, its acquiring new meaning. women are saying, ‘You don’t think pink is serious because it’s associated with girls and women, but we’ll make it serious.’”