Men and the Color Pink: A Cultural History

Pink is a color that, throughout the 20th century and, apparently, in the beginning of the 21st century too, has been strongly associated with the idea of “girliness”. This link was so strong, that in many societies it has become a great taboo for men to enjoy the color pink in general and to wear it.

It’s amazing how a whole craze was able to arise from a single color.

Pink is a pale red color that owns its name to the flower with the same name, pink, also known as dianthus. Today, pink is culturally seen as opposing the color blue or pale blue, which are associated with boyhood and masculinity.

But has this always been the case?

According to some, women have a natural tendency to be attracted to the color pink. According to some theories, tens of thousands of years ago, when men used to hunt and women to gather (which, by the way, is not a certain fact, as there is nothing to indicate this directly), women needed to spot berries quick and easy, which are red and pink; and, therefore have developed a natural instinct that drew them to these colors.

A simple look back in history though will make us see that this theory is not valid. Moreover, another group of scientist claim that men have actually a more acute sense of vision, which is why men are said to be more skilled when it comes to creating visual things, which would explain why most famous designers, artists, film directors etc. are all men. According to the same group of scholars, gay men would have an even more developed sense of vision, which would explain why so many men who have the earlier-mentioned professions are gay. Whether this theory is true or not, or just based on stereotypes is another discussion.

Back to the color pink and history, it might come as a surprise to many to find out that once upon a time, the color associated with masculinity was in fact… pink. So much for the ancient times theory. Moreover, the once upon a time was not even so long ago. In the 1800s, even though most children would simply wear white clothes, it was actually quite common for boys to be dressed in pink and for girls to be dressed in blue. When this “trend” started is not quite sure, but in 1794, Xavier de Maistre, a French author said in his work “A Journey Around My Room” that he recommends men to paint their rooms pink and white, as it would improve their mood.

Furthermore, during the 19th century, it was common for parents to dress their infants, regardless of whether they were boys or girls, in dresses. The reason behind this was that it was a lot easier for them to change diapers this way than it would have been if the kids had worn pants. Moreover, once a boy was older, it was common for the family to dress him up as a girl. Many paintings created during that time show families with two or more girls, but in fact, on many occasions, at least one of the “girls” was in fact a boy. It is interesting and notable how works of art that have been created such a little while ago can be so tricky for us to interpret, even at the easiest “reading” level.

 

So when did it become an unwritten rule that boys should wear blue and girls should wear pink and how did it come to be such a taboo for men to wear pink?

During the 1920s, it was actually more common for boys to be dressed in pink and for girls to be dressed in blue. However, this was not such a popular thing as it is today, as most people chose to ignore this type of norms.

One of the earliest references to blue being a boys’ color and pink being a girls’ color comes from June 1918, when a trade publication called Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department” wrote that “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.”

A few years after that, in 1927, Time magazine released a chart that highlighted gender-appropriate colors, according to the time’s leading US retailers such as Best & Co., Halle’s or Marshall Field. The chart advised parents to dress their boys in pink and girls in blue.

However, it wasn’t long before all this changed. And the reason is a purely economic one. If until then, in case a couple had a second child, the child would wear his older sibling’s used clothes; now, if the child was of a different sex, he or she would need a whole new set of clothes.

The colors and gender trends swapped during the 1940s, for no apparent reason, but it wasn’t long until pink was a color associated with girliness. It has been simply concluded that boys like blue more and girls like pink more, but studies from that time have shown that in fact, both genders preferred blue to pink. In actuality, pink was one of the least favorite colors among adults. This interesting detail is very important, as, in a society that was obsessed with strict gender roles; everything that was considered derogatory was associated with women. Another very interesting thing is that, while blue is associated with both boys and grown men, pink is associated only with young girls, and not so much with adult women. Adult women who wore pink were, and this happens today a lot too, infantilized, being therefore put down by the conscious (or mostly unconscious) followers of a patriarchal paradigm. Infantilizing someone by any means, whether it’s words, as in “going out with the girls” instead of “ladies” or “women”, or by associating them with a color destined mostly for little girls, is a way of keeping a certain group down and silent, while another groups is in power.

And, because in our patriarchal society it is degrading to be a woman (otherwise, how can you explain why it is empowering for a woman to wear pants but degrading for a man to wear a dress?), men wearing pink became, well, degrading.

It is amazing how today too we often fall victims of our own past, fear-driven paradigm. In fashion, pink was often a color associated with homosexuality as well, as gay men were also a taboo during the 19th and 20th century. The reason why this has not changed faster is because nobody wanted to be the one to stand up for the idea that men and women are equal and that pink is just a color. The reason why nobody stood up is because a person associated with a taboo idea becomes taboo him or herself too. Being a social taboo leads to becoming an outsider, which is contrarian to human nature – we all have a strong need for belonging.

These ideas make us only be more thankful for the movers and shakers such as Gloria Steinem or Harvey Milk, who have worked extremely hard to promote ideas of equality.

 

 

“The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn.”

Gloria Steinem

 

However, with the rise of the Internet, more and more people are able to voice their opinions and to create a culture where it is OK for men to be who they are, to wear whatever they want, regardless of their sexuality; even if this is the color pink.

These days, pink has become a staple of strength: a man who wears pink is a man who is so confident and strong that he doesn’t fear becoming an outsider. A man wearing pink is a man who challenges the norms, and what is a greater power than to broaden the minds of people and give them something to think about?

To conclude, we can say this: “Men, don’t be slaves to an old, formality-based way of thinking! Question everything, empower those who are weaker than you and… wear lots of pink!”

 

Fraquoh and Franchomme

 

 

 

 

 

Further reading:

Toys, body image and gender roles

The politics of dressing up: Masculinity vs. Femininity

A debate: children’s clothes, ads and roles

P.S. What do you think about the idea of men wearing pink? How is it seen where you live? Share your thoughts in the comments below! For more articles on style, fashion tips and cultural insights, you can subscribe to Attire Club via e-mail or follow us on Facebook or Twitter!

 

 

11 thoughts on “Men and the Color Pink: A Cultural History

  1. Sincerely, I believe it’s great when a guy wears pink.
    But too much pink, like everything else can do harm to your looks!

    Every once in a while, so you should definitely go for it 🙂

    • Thank you for expression your view, Vicktoria! Yes, sometimes too much pink is too much, but, if you know how to do it, not always!

  2. I have some remarks to:
    1. “According to some theories, tens of thousands of years ago, when men used to hunt and women to gather (which, by the way, is not a certain fact, as there is nothing to indicate this directly)”

    Come on. It is certain fact – we have seen such behavior in American, Australian and African natives. This is also evidenced by the different construction of masculine and female body

    2. According to evolutionary psychology women prefer men with wealth and status and men prefer healthy, good looking women (oversimplifying of course) . Pink skin is seen as a healthy one… I know – long shot, but not worse or better then other arguments in article above.

    • Dear Harpagan,

      Thank you very much for your comment! We appreciate that you have strong feelings about this topic and respect the right to your opinion. However, we must disagree (more or less) with the points you make.

      Regarding the first argument, a correct historical research does not draw conclusion in the absence of evidence. We basically have no historic source to indicate that men were hunters and women were gatherers. Filling the gaps with assumptions is scientifically wrong – this is how conspiracy theories emerge. Just because we don’t know something about a certain fact/building, etc., completing the data with our imagination and claiming it to be a fact does not make it true.

      Even though we have seen this behavior in other cultures, as you mention, this is just circumstantial evidence and does not serve as proof that things were this way thousands of years ago. Even though researches draw conclusions based on such comparisons, they know that this is not hard evidence, but it’s the best we can do for now. Who knows? Maybe this system of men hunting and women gathering started only “recently”, let’s say 30 000 years ago. However, there’s no way of knowing what people actually lived like 80 000 years ago. Hopefully, we will discover more in the future and we will know more about those eras.

      In regards to the second issue, women might prefer men with wealth and status, but only because they have been taught by society that men are their providers. This is something that has happened for a lot of time. And, as you might know, this is a form of control. More than that, it is not only an issue of misogyny, but also of misandry, as men are seen as providers only and as not being free to live however they pleased, being conditioned to assure the well-being of a lady, if they want to procreate.

      If pink is seen as a color that is related to health, then this means that we relate it because when we are healthy, we are pink-ish – however, this is narrow and white-centric world view, as most people in the world are not white and have darker skin tones. Therefore, the whole “pink is healthy” idea is a cultural construct created by a Eurocentric world view and has nothing t do with the way our bodies and minds naturally work.

      What we need to always remember is that gender is a cultural construct. There are such things as “man” and “woman”, but there is no such thing as “masculinity” or “femininity” in reality. There is nothing wrong with masculinity and femininity, but we must acknowledge them as what they are.

      We hope that we have clarified some of the issues you thought of when you read the article and that you will consider them as further thinking points!

      F&F

  3. An outstanding article! Here in Russia prejudices are as strong as ever and you might, in fact, become an outcast because of the silliest and most harmless things. Thankfully, times are changing. But it’s still a long way towards tolerance.

    • Thank you for the appreciation! It’s sad to hear that there is so much prejudice in Russia, but it’s great that things are going in another direction!

  4. As someone who loves history in general and costume history in particular, this was the best thing I’ve read all day. I knew the history of pink being originally “for” boys but I love how you tied in other social norms that have kept pink for girls since it switched. I also must say, I love a man in pink.

    • Dear Anastasia,

      Thank you for the comment! We are glad you liked the article and our perspective. We glad to hear you like a man in pink too!

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