No, it’s not an immutable law of nature. In the 1920s, retailers began encouraging pink (a strong color) for boys and blue (a dainty one) for girls, before the trend reversed after World War II. For centuries prior, both boys and girls wore white dresses.
For centuries, children wore dainty white dresses up to age 6. “What was once a matter of practicality—you dress your baby in white dresses and diapers; white cotton can be bleached—became a matter of ‘Oh my God, if I dress my baby in the wrong thing, they’ll grow up perverted,’ ” Paoletti says.
The march toward gender-specific clothes was neither linear nor rapid. Pink and blue arrived, along with other pastels, as colors for babies in the mid-19th century, yet the two colors were not promoted as gender signifiers until just before World War I—and even then, it took time for popular culture to sort things out.
In 1927, Time magazine printed a chart showing sex-appropriate colors for girls and boys according to leading U.S. stores. In Boston, Filene’s told parents to dress boys in pink. So did Best & Co. in New York City, Halle’s in Cleveland and Marshall Field in Chicago.
Today’s color dictate wasn’t established until the 1940s, as a result of Americans’ preferences as interpreted by manufacturers and retailers. “It could have gone the other way,” Paoletti says.
When the women’s liberation movement arrived in the mid-1960s, with its anti-feminine, anti-fashion message, the unisex look became the rage—but completely reversed from the time of young Franklin Roosevelt. Now young girls were dressing in masculine—or at least unfeminine—styles, devoid of gender hints. Paoletti found that in the 1970s, the Sears, Roebuck catalog pictured no pink toddler clothing for two years.