Pink for girls, blue for boys: kidswear departments are divided into two areas reigned by these colors in conventional retail. Could it be that this rule is not actually as old as fashion itself - but rather as old as retail marketing?
Pink or blue? When will unisex clothing for kids be the rule rather than the exception?
We are on holiday at the Baltic sea. I am getting my son dressed in the pink-white striped jacket I recently found at a Berlin fleamarket. “But everyone will think he is a girl!”, I hear my mother say. All I am thinking is how can it even be that a simple piece of kids clothing can get people mad like that.
When your kids jacket becomes political
I received the first commentaries on the jacket already while I was buying it. ‘My partner would never allow that’, my the pregnant friend told me. The very same day, Leander already sported the piece-of-clothing-turned-political-statement to a birthday party. The opinions oscillated between ‘cool jacket’ and ‘wow, that’s brave’. Opinions I never asked for, as you can tell.
This discussion around unisex clothing for kids did not remain the last in my first year as a mum, by far not the last. At a wedding, Leander wore a red-white striped Overall and was taken for a girl by most of the wedding guests. If I dressed him in colorful patterns, the same thing would happen. No color stayed uncommented, except for the innocuous blue. Whether on holiday in the countryside or at home in Berlin, the comments kept on coming.
I started to believe that seeing colorful, patterned or unisex clothing for kids was just too much to ask of people. As if they were happy only when they could distinguish a baby’s gender right away. Blue for boys, pink for girls just as it has always been defined. But wait a minute: has it always been defined this way?
Pink for boys, blue for girls: back in the good old days
As a cultural scientist I know that the pink-blue cliché is not as old as most people think. A brief look into the past shows that these colors attributed to gender only changed their meaning in the early 20th century. Before - what a surprise - the opposite rule was more common. Within Western societies, pink was seen as the color of little boys for centuries. While kings and popes dressed in purple, the color of power, boys wore dresses in ‘small red’, a symbol for strength and maleness. Blue, on the other hand, was the color of the virgin Mary in Medieval imagery and Christian tradition. Light blue, the ‘small blue’ was worn exclusively by girls as a fine and elegant hue.
The color attributions as we know them today, emerged on one hand from the decline of religious color symbolism and on the other hand from the newly established workwear. Blue boiler suits in factories, sailor suits and the famous blue jeans represented strength, power and authority from now on. Pink faded in the truest sense of the word to become a color associated with features such as tenderness, softness and the need of protection - thus attributed to girls. On top of that, during the economic boom after World War II, more families were able to buy nice clothes and toys for their children, which led to the establishment of gender marketing. Why offer unisex clothing for kids if you can make more money from creating two versions of the same?
It might ruin some people’s firmly-established beliefs, but neither is blue a boys’ color nor is pink a girls’ color. How these colors are decoded is much more a question of culture and society. History proves that the meaning attributed to these colors can change within a short time span. Still, such a shift in meaning would be a lot more difficult to achieve today. During little more than the last 50 years, marketing strategies have created a tradition of genderspecific rolemodels and stereotypes and succeeded in making them ubiquitous. This results in a desire already existent in small children to belong to a certain group and to reproduce their parents’ and other adults’ behaviour, expressed also through their choice of color when dressing themselves.
Gender-neutral kids fashion or: a world of all colors
In the end, we are the ones who decide if we want to use these clichés or if we don’t. Which values do we want to pass on to our children and to people along our way? If you look closer, you might see small changes - because there is a demand for it. Labels producing unisex clothing for kids, gender-neutral patterns and online shops that operate without the categories of ‘boys’ and ‘girls’, simply because these categories are not necessary.
Clothing is not only a layer that protects us. It's also a lifestyle, a personal preference, meant to be fun and to make us feel good in our skin; even more: clothing is political. No-one should feel restricted in their outfit choices or even discriminated - especially not children. And if we as parents decide for our baby that boys can wear pink just as well as blue, we influence our child and our counterpart, in the best case we broaden their horizon by dressing them in unisex clothing for kids.
Copyright by Sonja Köllinger
When I was pregnant, never would I have guessed that I would still be discussing colors for boys and girls in 2019. Never would I have guessed that I would have to explain my kid’s sex to strangers over and over again, a feature that in fact does not matter at all. Because my son is a wonderful, curious and open-minded small person who already has his own head but who does not care if his pants are green, blue or pink. I want the whole world to be his, not only half of it, only because some people think that boys are not allowed to play with dolls, to show their feelings and to wear pink-striped jackets. They are allowed to and it certainly makes their life a lot more colorful.
Sonja is a long way from having a sustainable wardrobe, but convinced that even small steps are good steps. She lives with her dog and her cat from the animal shelter in Berlin since about 10 years and and works there as a freelance editor for the topics Fair Fashion, Organic Beauty, Travel and Tech