Pink and light blue at war

Pink versus Light Blue: A Modern History

The colours pink and light blue displaying gender roles throughout history.

When did pink start to be seen as a feminine colour versus blue, preferably light blue in contrast? In modern times, pink is often used as a colour to advertise towards girls. If it’s bubblegum pink or candy pink the context of use matters. The same thing can be said about sky blue or cornflower blue, context matters. When did this happen?

On the left: Painting of The Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough in 1770.
On the Right: Painting of The Pink Boy by Thomas Gainsborough in 1782.

History Of Pinks and Light Blues

Before people thought about using these two colours for gender differentiation, these colours had different meanings in art and society. Red is a vivid colour that is associated with passion, war, blood and sex. It’s a colour that has a personality that radiates strength. Pink was just seen as the lighter version of red that men used to convey strength and masculinity.

Blue has been seen as a royal and holy colour for the rich and higher classes to use. It was a colour to emphasis being delicate, pure and soft. The colour that influenced this was ultramarine. The Virgin Mary is often seen with this colour in paintings because of the rarity if the colour and the bright hues of the blue. This was a colour that woman wore to convey their femininity over time.

Darker and more vivid colours were reserved for adults because of the strength and visual emotion those colours create. While lighter colours for example light blue or light red were reserved for children. But white was the colour mostly worn by most children just like how small toddler aged children wore dresses.

In advertising, around the 1700s, the use of light blues and other bright colours were used for feminine products like makeup and combs when dark earthen colours including pink tones were used for masculine products. The two colours have a personality of their own with the vividness, saturation and brightness. Light blue was seen to be advertised for girl products more because light blue was seen as a soft delicate colour comparatively to the colour pink.

Hex code for Nattier Blue #7A9DBA
 Madame de Pompadour (1722–1764), mistress of Louis XV, represented as Diana the Huntress. Painted by Jean-Marc Nattier in 1746. Source: Wikipedia.
Madame de Pompadour (1722–1764), mistress of Louis XV, represented as Diana the Huntress. Painted by Jean-Marc Nattier in 1746. Source: Wikipedia.

The colour choices of the French painter Jean-Marc Nattier painted women in a delicate shade of blue with grey undertones. The colour was named after him, Nattier Blue. The colour was used to paint soft, flowing sheer fabrics on women with rosy cheeks, red lips and freshly cut flowers. He often painted the women in King Louis IV court during the Rococo art movement. He painted his subjects like Greco-Roman gods and goddesses, fabled heroes and warriors.

Pink was also a colour that was seen as a rustic colour too. The “outdoorsy” tone was only seen in the wild associated with things like farming, wartime and alchemy. It was a colour connected to nature like hunter green, sand and sepia tones. In many ways, pink was seen as an outdoorsman colour.

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, Gatsby wears a light pink suit to highlight his upper class status and needs for attention. The suit shows off his power and wealth. The colour was not connected to sexuality like modern times.

When did the views of blue and pink happen?

There were multiple times when the views of pink and blue were seen as colours associated with specified genders. This can be thanked the First Lady Mamie Eisenhower at the 1953 at former general and president-elect Dwight Eisenhower inauguration. She wore this peau de soie gown with a plunging neckline more than 2,000 embroidered rhinestones alongside matching jewelry, gloves, a purse and pink shoes. The pink of the gown was named after Mamie Eisenhower called Mamie pink. After the inauguration, she then decorated the whole white house in pink until it was dubbed the “Pink Palace.” She even influenced 1950’s fashion also named after her called the Mamie look which entails full-skirted dress, furs, glittery pins, button earrings, charm bracelets, pearls, hats, and short hair with bangs. It was a part of the post-war look that took people by storm.

Pink gown worn by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower
First Lady Mamie Eisenhower in a pink gown

She thought that the pink not only brought out her eyes but was very ladylike. Modern views of gender roles were changing and Mamie Eisenhower was like the spokeswoman of femininity at the time. Advertisers, housewives, merchandiser, haberdashers and countless others in the 1950s started this modern “rebellion” of what pink was, a grimy outdoor colour into a fashion colour fit for a First Lady. The colour influenced interior design for kitchens, bathroom and houseware products.

Mamie pink
Colour swatch of Mamie pink (HEX code #EED8D2)

This colour pink was one of the colours part of the 1950’s American Dream ideals in merchandising and marketing. The American Dream is the idea that all people can have happiness and success in life if they worked hard enough. This means the concentration of the family dynamic, the rise of housewives and the beginning of marketing to teenagers. After the wartime efforts were over at that time, a lot of Americans wanted to go back to social norms before the war happened. This colour connects the ideals of the American Dream and what Mamie Eisenhower was dainty femininity.

This was when pink started to be known as the feminine colour that it is today. It was used on anywhere seen has feminine. This was especially true in North American culture and for young girls, young adults and elderly women. From the 1950’s to modern times, pink is now seen as the dainty soft colour like how light blue was seen throughout the ages.

Market Segmentation and Gender Identity

Pink hues and blue hues are used to categorize girl products and boy products for consumers. Most retailers have two separate aisles for the two genders separating products that are geared towards that audience. Blue was for boys and pink was now for girls. Colour coding is used to divide products for merchandising and advertising to help appeal, market and sell consumer products easier. This is what’s called market segmentation. This makes it easier to market certain items to a group or segments of a common goal or need and will respond similarly towards the market. Market segmentation comes from researching products and brands that will be appealing to a large group of people. This was developed to minimize risk for a company launching a product.

Some people feel that this type of marketing plays a role in gender identity. Like the advertisements added notions of stereotypes about what people think of how a man acts or how a woman acts. Gender identity is the defined by perceptions of your own body, your own identity and expression. In advertising, especially when marketers and designers are using colours, gender expression of using pink and light blue on certain products can enforce current gender roles within a society. Children are taught stereotypical viewpoints of gender from an early age that persists throughout their lives.

The future of pink and light blue

The reason why pink and blue are used the way they have been still being because someone else used it that exact same way. Designers are people too who grew up with the same type of messages and most never really knew the history of the colours use and associations. Most don’t or can’t really venture out to try different colours in fear of it looking confusing or terrible. Colour choice is really important to convey a message. These colours are used way too often for either gender for products.

Social expectations of these colours will change over time. The expectations to live up to gender roles will always be apart of society regardless of colour association. Our social connection of pink has changed in modern times but other changes in society could change it into something else.


When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink? – Smithsonian
How did pink become a girly color? – Vox

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