Did Boys Use To Wear Pink?

By Neuroskeptic | November 30, 2012 7:54 pm

There’s a belief that the colours we associate with the genders – pink for girls and blue for boys – used to be the other way around.

About 100 years ago, we’re told, boys wore pink clothes, but then during the early 20th century, it flipped over. This is often used as an example of how arbitrary gender stereotypes are.

However according to psychologist Marco Del Giudice, the whole “pink-blue reversal” is an ‘urban legend’. He argues that there’s really only anecdotal evidence for the existence of the previous blue-girls pink-boys association.

The exceptions are four magazine articles – quoted in the paper that started the whole debate – which seem to provide documentary evidence. These associate girls with blue, but Giudice says that two of these might have been accidental typos, that swapped ‘pink’ with ‘blue’, while the other two may have represented a sneaky campaign by early feminists to subvert the blue-pink patriarchy.

Hmm. I don’t really buy that. However Giudice has a stronger argument, which is that according to Google NGram, a searchable database of over 5 million books, there are lots of instances of the terms “blue for boys” and “pink for girls” going back to 1890, but none for the reverse at any time point:

Fair enough. However it’s a big step from that to the idea that

the pink-blue convention may ultimately depend on innate perceptual biases toward different regions of the color spectrum in the two sexes (Hurlbert & Ling, 2007)

ResearchBlogging.orgDel Giudice, M. (2012). The Twentieth Century Reversal of Pink-Blue Gender Coding: A Scientific Urban Legend? Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41 (6), 1321-1323 DOI: 10.1007/s10508-012-0002-z

CATEGORIZED UNDER: evopsych, history, papers
  • Anonymous

    Surely some historian/gender person actually knows the answer to this.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01842086380447890404 theambler

    Was it not the case that 'pink' meant a colour more akin to cherry red in the nineteenth century? I cannot recall where I read this, but (if I remember correctly) cavalry soldiers wore 'pink' trousers. If so, it would not be surprising that it would be considered a manly colour.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10860246538349067232 Lindsay

    Oh, darn. I had heard that story several times and thought it was funny. (Besides what you've already mentioned, that it was a nice, quick-and-easy example of gender stereotypes' variability and impermanence).

    I guess some things are too good to be true.

    Their conclusion is total horseshit though.

  • Mike Pettit

    Umm… with 30 seconds on the ngram viewer I was able to get some hits for “feminine blue” during a period when “feminine pink” showed nothing.


    I don't think this proves much of anything, but neither does this study. The ngram viewer is fun, but a deeply flawed tool for accurate historical research.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17412168482569793996 Eric Charles

    Hmmm… I can't attest to anything about social norms, but as I do a little medieval reenactment on the side (or at least I used to)…

    I have seen many time-period paintings that had men in pink, and many with women in blue. Of course, I'm a guy… so when I say “pink” this can range from light-red to salmon to quite a few related colors. So, while I don't know what was normal, there were certainly historic times when pink was not taboo for boys/men in the way it is now.

    I'd really be interested more evidence as to whether the myth of color reversal is true.

    (In full disclosure, I flipped through a few books that were handy, and the very small number of kids in the pictures did have pink for girls and blue for boys… dates from the 1250-1350.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08801634278850835168 MikeSamsa

    Assuming all the hits were accurate measures of what we're trying to discover (i.e. we aren't getting false hits like “The boys in blue” referring to the police rather than baby boys), I think it's a little disingenuous to base his conclusions on a search of books stored by Google.

    He's been presented with a number of magazine articles of the time discussing the reverse tradition (and there's a Time article in 1927 surveying popular department stores that found no preference for either colour assignment), but he writes off those occurrences with fairly flimsy arguments and focuses only on the results that he agrees with. Surely this is textbook confirmation bias? An accurate and comprehensive account of the differences must explain all the data we have available, instead of simply writing off disconfirming data with highly unparsimonious explanations like the possibility that there were a slew of systematic typos on an all-pervasive and everyday distinction that even children would recognise as wrong, nevermind magazine editors.

    Blue was certainly the “female” colour in renaissance Italy, as it was the colour artists used to denote the Virgin Mary (as blue was derived from the most expensive materials) and it became associated with innocence and purity. So it seems most likely that the colours for boys and girls have changed over the years as well as over cultures. This would, perhaps, highlight the flaw in using an English phrased search to support a claimed culturally-universal trait.

  • weaver

    As has been suggested, the problem was that it was red for boys, blue for girls, no mention of pink. But also, the colour switch was considerably less than a hundred years ago. A hundred years ago people didn't colour code their kids at all, as such enforced gendering was deemed unnecessary because they, even more than the current evo-psych crowd, believed behavioural differences between the sexes were just innate and so they were unconcerned about ensuring that children were properly trained in that era's set of behavioural norms.

    And there was me thinking that anybody held the mad belief the colour preference was genetic in origin was itself an urban myth. Is it the case that the evo-psychs put it down to females being tasked with finding ripe fruit while males strode (under a blue sky) across the plains in search of game? Or are, as I suspect, they really not that silly?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Good comments, everyone.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09031370976246712353 kristen

    I was taught in university that it didn't actually have to do with gender at all. Pink was believed to look best with brown eyed babies and blue was believed to better suit blue eyed babies.

    Oh and all children wore dresses until a certain age, too. Here's the best overview I've found of all this on the net: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/When-Did-Girls-Start-Wearing-Pink.html

  • http://www.fmri-leaks.com Juliano Assanjo

    If pink/red is more sexy than blue, then, we should be stereoscopic about it and it could be some evolution trait/factor, … We shouldn't be stereoscopic about it if more women than men join the army.
    I would play this research by ear.

  • http://itsjustahobby.wordpress.com/ jemima101

    AS mentioned given that blue is the colour of the Virgin and red Jesus. I have always assumed the further back you go the more entrenched the idea of those things being female/male would be.

    • Nic

      But that’s not a “blue for girls and pink for boys” thing. That’s “blue = fidelity/loyalty”, which is Mary’s governing characteristic, and (because the word pink as a colour didn’t exist until the 1700s) rose = a reference to the body of Jesus at the crucifixion. They’re symbolic colours that tell you about the mood of the piece and what the artist is trying to tell you – they’re not mirroring fashion trends.

  • Anonymous

    thanks for share.

  • Kain Yusanagi
    • brn

      Actually, if you read his article and not just this summary, you will see that he did that exact search. I quote:

      ‘I performed a search of the following eight phrases:‘‘blue for boys,’’‘‘pink for girls,’’‘‘blue for girls,’’‘‘pink for boys,’’‘‘blue for a boy,’’‘‘pink for a girl,’’‘‘blue for a girl,’’and‘‘pink for aboy.’’I chose these phrases because they unambiguously refer togender conventions (in contrast with semantically ambiguousphrases such as‘‘girl in pink’’or‘‘boy dressed in blue’’)’.

      • Kain Yusanagi

        Which matters not at all for the completel falsehood writ here, that being “there are lots of instances of the terms “blue for boys” and “pink for girls” going back to 1890, but none for the reverse at any time point”



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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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