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On Pink, Blue and other Myths: Divided by Colours

Colour, in clothing and accessories, is one if not the most straightforward element speaking of the wearer. Not only it is significant of tastes and personal preferences, but it can easily become charged with cultural relevance, when used in a precise historical and geographical context.

Silk Bonnet, 1933-34, Courtesy Centraal Museum, All Rights Reserved

Fashion can indeed set the boundaries of identity though colours. Historically, some colours were reserved to some strata of society, being used as disclaimer to associate a person to a particular class; this is the case of gold, whose use was restrained by sumptuary laws in the early modern period, given its ideal link to wealth and high status; same can be said of purple, which in the Tudor period in England was especially reserved to kings, queens and some members of the aristocracy. Colours are charged of different meanings – some times, almost opposites – in different cultures: for instance, while black is accounted as the colour of mourning in Europe since the Roman Empire, in Asia the colour used by people participating in mourning is white.

Baby shoes in pink and white vichy, Courtesy Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, All Rights Reserved

Sometimes the meaning of colours can shift through times, originating tropes and myths that are hard to die out, even though there are no apparent reasons for their existence. Maybe the most widespread of the ‘myths’ surrounding colours is the binary that wants pink associated with girls and blue with boys. While white was the most practical and neutral colour of children clothing during the nineteenth century, it was at the beginning of twentieth century that pastel colours for babies were introduced. Museums and archives that feature children clothing from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in their collections are useful to challenge the trope that associates colours to genders. In fact, interestingly enough, in 1918 an account on the american newspaper Ladies’ Home Journal stated 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.’ this demonstrates that the ’trope’ as we know it today – pink for girls and blue for boys – is quite recent: it started being used and marketed during the 1940s. It got periodically reinforced ever since, setting a ‘contemporary’ boundary that is now heavily criticised: a sign of a changing sensibility within society, that might change again the perception future generations will have of these colours – and of their power to create categories.

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