Pink used to be a masculine color

Long before breast cancer awareness, real men wore pink.
Long before breast cancer awareness, real men wore pink.
Image: Reuters/Jacky Naegelen
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Toward the end of the 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, Jay shows up to lunch with his mistress and her husband in a pink suit. For modern readers, it’s tempting to take his color selection as a sign of dandyism. Why would a man choose to wear the color of Mary Kay, breast-cancer research tie-ins and kitchen gadgets galore? When cuckolded husband Tom Buchanan criticizes Gatsby for wearing pink, he seemingly echoes the present-day assumption that pink is a feminine color.

But that would be imposing today’s view of pink on the past. Buchanan uses the suit’s hue not to discredit Gatsby’s masculinity or virility, but his intellectual bona fides. He mentions it only when Gatsby’s described as an Oxford man: “[Buchanan] was incredulous. ‘Like hell he is! He wears a pink suit.'”

Buchanan’s comments make it clear that men in pink meant something different in the 1920s than today. According to an interview with the costume designer for Baz Luhrmann’s recent film, the color had working-class connotations. Only in the relatively recent past did pink acquire its feminine connotations.

“In the 18th century, it was perfectly masculine for a man to wear a pink silk suit with floral embroidery,” says fashion scholar Valerie Steele, director of The Museum at the Fashion Institute Technology and author of several books on fashion.

Steele says pink was initially “considered slightly masculine as a diminutive of red,” which was thought to be a “warlike” color.

However, the pastel shade has also long evoked “health (as ‘in the pink’) and youth.” So writes Jo Paoletti in her book Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America—one of the only books to examine the color’s gender coding at length. “Young men and women might wear pink clothing; old men and women did not,” Paoletti writes.

Paoletti says our great-great-great grandparents and their ancestors were more concerned about distinguishing children and babies from adults than boys from girls. “Pink and blue were suggested as interchangeable, gender-neutral nursery colors,’ appearing together in many of the clothes and furnishings found in the baby’s room”—similar to the hats hospitals often give to newborn.

By the late 19th century, however—and especially as Freud and other psychologists’ theories of childhood development gained hold—parents began to differentiate their offspring’s sex earlier on. As they did, some parents favored pink for girls and blue for boys, though Paoletti reports that wide variance continued for several more decades.

Steele says the French exerted an early, if modest, influence on pink’s gender coding. Thus, as both she and Paoletti note, Louisa May Alcott’s 1880 classic Little Women credits the French when Amy distinguishes her sister’s newborn twins by giving the baby girl a pink ribbon, the baby boy blue.

For several decades, however, pink defied consensus. Based on a review of museum collections and other sources, Paoletti found pink baby gifts and even the occasional garment for boys or “baby brother paper dolls” into the 1960s, though “[t]hese examples are all clearly out of the mainstream. By the 1950s, pink was strongly associated with femininity.”

Steele told me this view of pink was mainly “for young girls…. It seems to be a kind of early gender coding that worked especially on young girls.” As she wrote in her 1985 book Fashion and Eroticism, “The decade of the Fifties was characterized by an ideological emphasis on conformity, and by fashion images that were sharply age-and gender-specific.”

Thus Betty Friedan rails repeatedly in The Feminine Mystique about the setbacks women experienced in the 1950s, compared to their gains and relative freedom in the two decades before.

Ironically, Paoletti thinks it was this very sort of feminist critique of mid-century gender roles that helped solidify the feminization of pink for girls and women. “Since the 1980s … pink [has] become a strongly feminine color (probably because the women’s movement connected it with traditional girliness so successfully).” As the turmoil of the 1960s gained strength, and young baby boomers began to question traditional gender roles, women embraced more “masculine” styles such as pants and short haircuts. For their part, men enjoyed the so-called Peacock Revolution, wearing their hair longer and more colorful garments.

In Men and Women: Dressing the Part, which Steele co-edited, the authors report that “avant-garde designer Rudi Gernreich predicted that men and women would be wearing unisex clothes by 1980: older people would wear boldly patterned caftans to ‘abstract’ bodies that ‘can no longer be accentuated,’ while young men and women would wear skirts and trousers interchangeably.”

In children’s clothing, the unisex trend brought turtlenecks, overalls … and a rejection of pink. Paoletti reports that, from 1976 to 1978, “Sears catalogs carried no pink clothing for toddlers and only a few pink items for babies.” She notes that popular works earlier in the decade, such as the multimedia Free to Be You and Me, often focused on the origins of gender.

But how had parents—or Sears, at least—decided that pink should be banished? Had second-wave feminists explicitly singled out pink in that way?

If Paoletti is right that second-wave feminists inadvertently helped solidify the pink-woman connection, it was not because they rejected the color as feminine per se, but as childish. (Indeed, Steele told me that as Barbie, the doll, got more “pink and shiny and glittery” over the years, “she also became significantly more infantile looking, with a younger, smilier face.”)

Friedan mentions pink only twice in The Feminine Mystique, but she talks a great deal about the “childish” woman who stays home, “a child among her children, passive, no part of her existence under her own control.”

A decade later, the New York Times reporter who covered the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston wrote, “Everywhere there were women … doing grown-up things and exhilarated to be doing them, things like tipping waiters, carrying suitcases, lobbying and caucusing to all hours of the night.”

When the same writer, Anne Taylor Fleming, made a brief side trip to hear Phyllis Schlafly speak nearby, she summarized the message for women as a “promise[ of] protection if you procreate, a glorious chance not to have to grow up.”

When I asked Steele about pink’s increasing feminization since the ’70s, she called it a “gradual progression … like a kind of palimpsest.”

As with most trends, the pendulum swung away from unisex fashions by the 1980s, even as the new generation of career women wore masculine-inspired “power suits” to work. In children’s clothing, Paoletti says pink resurged around the same time the first Generation X adults became parents. For example, a 1988 trade article she cites recounts one designer’s decision to resume use of pink in clothing designs, due to changing demand. She also notes Luvs’ 1985 introduction of boy and girl diapers and the new popularity of “headbands for bald girl babies (serving no function other than as a gender marker).”

Paoletti argues that parents’ fondness of pink or blue diapers may have reflected their own experience of unisex fashions as children. “The girls and boys of Generation X, who dominated the birthrate data beginning in 1986, were nine or younger when they experienced [the sexual revolution]” and the unisex trends that followed.”

Because the children who wore unisex clothes in the 1970s began having their own children in the late 1980s, Paoletti argues their adoption of strongly gender coded children’s clothing partly reflected a reaction against their own upbringing. Decades before, men who’d been forced to wear velvet Little Lord Fauntleroy suits as children seemed to favor particularly “masculine” clothing for their own little boys.

Though Paoletti says children’s clothing in the late 1980s became more gender-coded than adults’, little girls weren’t the only ones wearing pink. In 1991, the Susan G. Komen Foundation gave pink ribbons to runners in its New York survivor race. The following year, the pink ribbon became the official—and now ubiquitous—symbol of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Outside the breast cancer campaign, Steele said the 1990s and 2000s brought a new appropriation of pink as “fierce” and powerful. (As an example, she cited a black biker jacket with pink accents designed by Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons.) With the activist group CodePink’s use of the color, pink has come full circle, recasting war and protest as feminine.

Where will the color go from here? As Paoletti writes, “The appropriate expressions of masculinity and femininity, like the characteristics they signify, are not clear-cut, and this ambiguity helps drive change.” Thus even today’s most progressive trends will probably seem outmoded, if not backward, to some generation yet unborn. And men might someday reclaim both pink and more exciting clothing.

Anna Broadway is a writer and editor based near San Francisco. She is also the author of Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity.

This originally appeared at The Atlantic. More from our sister site:

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