Answer Man: Why blue for men, pink for women?

News-DemocratJanuary 4, 2014 

Q. Why was blue selected as the color to represent the male gender and pink to represent females? Who made the selection and when was it made? -- William Hollein, of Breese

A. People often joke that all of these new "holidays" (Boss's Day, Grandparents' Day, etc.) are simply a manufactured gold mine for florists, candy makers and greeting-card companies.

Apparently much the same can be said for this sexual color scheme. Historians say it's only been since World War II that this gender dichotomy has taken root, and you can put much of the credit (or blame) on Madison Avenue and the military -- with the blessing of expectant parents, of course.

And, get this: Initially, pink was the preferred color for boys.

You may be as surprised by all of this as I was. When I started investigating your query, I turned to David Feldman, who has spent much of his writing career investigating these age-old puzzles.

In his very first "Imponderables" book, he suggests that the blue-pink split dates from ancient times. Back then, he says, people thought evil spirits haunted nurseries, so they had to be decorated in a way to keep these demons at bay.

Since boys were considered more valuable than girls and blue was considered the most powerful color, the two became linked. Centuries later, he adds, girls were associated with the color pink because of a European legend that says they are born inside pink roses. So much for stinky cabbage patches.

At first glance this seemed plausible. For example, just think of Thomas Gainsborough's most famous painting -- "The Blue Boy." But did you know that about 12 years later, Gainsborough painted "Master Nicholls" -- also known as "The Pink Boy"? Art historians say the colors in both cases simply made for a striking painting; there was no gender connection.

In fact for centuries, both boys and girls usually wore plain white dresses up until about age 6. At smithsonianmag.com, you can find an almost unbelievable 1884 photo of 21/2-year-old Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- yes, the nation's 32nd president -- sitting primly on a stool while wearing a white skirt, shoulder-length hair and patent leather party shoes.

It was simply the practical way for parents to dress their youngsters, historians say. Dresses could be pulled up for easy diaper changes. And because those diapers probably weren't as soil- and waterproof as Huggies or Pampers, the white dresses could be tossed in the wash and bleached.

Even when pastels were introduced about 1850 or so, there was no color designation by gender for at least a half-century. When it finally emerged in the early 1900s, you may be shocked at the initial pairings.

"The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys and blue for the girls," according to an article in the June 1918 trade magazine Earnshaw's Infant's Department. "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 pretty for the girl."

Some said Christian tradition favored the powerful red as a male color and, thus, pink for boys. Blue was associated with the Virgin Mary and considered feminine.

In 1927, Time magazine printed a chart showing sex-appropriate colors as seen by leading U.S. retailers. In Boston, Filene's recommended dressing boys in pink. So did Best & Co. in New York City, Halle's in Cleveland and Marhsall Field in Chicago.

Overseas, one European royal family made a fashion faux pas when they prepared for their blessed event.

"In Belgium, Princess Astrid gave birth a fortnight ago to a 7-pound daughter," read another 1927 Time article. "The cradle had been optimistically outfitted in pink, the color for boys, that for a girl being blue."

But this color wheel did a 180 spin after World War II. Apparently blue became so associated with male military uniforms that it rubbed off on baby boys. "Think pink" became the marketing idea for parents to dress girls.

There was some hue and cry in the '70s over these color stereotypes, but historians say they came back with a vengeance in the mid-1980s. Retailers found that they could keep cash registers ringing by convincing parents to redo their nurseries when they found that Little Johnny had a little sister on the way.

"It's really a story of what happened to neutral clothing," University of Maryland historian J. Paoletti once told the Smithsonian about your question. "What was once a matter of practicality ... became a matter of 'Oh, my God, if I dress my baby in the wrong thing, they'll grow up perverted.'"

Today's trivia

Who was the first president to establish a library?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: If you ever fly Norwegian Air Shuttle, you might do a double take when you see a huge portrait of three-time Olympic figure-skating champ Sonja Henie adorning the tail of one of its planes. She started on the Boeing 737-300, moved to the 737-800 and now looks at you from the airline's first 787 Dreamliner. (Norwegian Air Shuttle is known for putting the pictures of dead Norwegians on its tails.) Two other interesting facts about Henie: Married three times, she also reportedly had affairs with Van Johnson, Tyrone Power and boxing champ Joe Louis (among others). After retiring in 1956, she and her last husband, shipping magnate Neils Onstad, accumulated a large collection of modern art that became the basis for the Henie-Onstad Art Centre near Oslo.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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