Because I work with men who most likely have not had the opportunity to experience colour like women have, I like to introduce my clients to colour in a language they will likely understand, through science. Seeing colour as physics, or solar radiation, gives men an opportunity to appreciate colour for what it is – colour as light in its pure state instead of colour laden with social meaning.
For both social and physical reasons, men are apt to see colour differently than women. As a gender group, boys are not socialized to appreciate and be free with colour as girls are, and they are more prone to colour blindness.
“The fact that color blindness is so much more prevalent among men implies that, like hemophilia, it is carried on the X chromosome, of which men have only one copy,” says the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, “7 percent of [American] males either cannot distinguish red from green, or see red and green differently from most people, but this affects only .4 percent of women.”
I read some websites about infant perception and learned that by two months old, babies can pick up high-contrast colours, simple patterns and shapes, and by five months can distinguish between basic hues and softer pastels.
One of my cousins was born in 1980. My aunt and uncle found their son transfixed by the strong colours and geometric shapes of Split Enz’ True Colours album cover, so my aunt put it in his crib, and it worked like a pacifier.
The album cover came out in a series of different colours, even black and white. This video is one of the singles from the record and besides being a really great song, the set and lighting design plays with the colours and shapes on the album cover – quite clever. Enjoy:
Babies, like children and like adults, react to colour, especially bold and high-contrast colours. Somewhere along the line, we – and when I say we, I mean society at large, directed by designers and retailers who actually decide what we wear, move from brightly-coloured toys, clothes, furniture, bedding, and diapers for all babies, into a more rigid chromatic order when boys and girls move into school age and are socialized into gender roles.
When boys get to school, they are expected to suck up their feelings and conform to the look and behaviour associated with their gender. Colour choices for childhood clothing seem to symbolically reflect unnatural and socially-imposed behaviour (think “boys don’t cry”), and the bright happy colours that babies and young children enjoy are replaced by darker, muted colours by the time a boy is in grade school. Next time you’re in a department store, go by the children’s clothing section where you will see for yourself the differences in colour (also in brightness) between the girls and the boys clothes. You may find that girls have vivid, multi-coloured choices in clothing, while boys are offered drab reds, blues, greys, and earth tones.
I’m a huge proponent of wearing colours that reflect our personalities so muted colours to me are symbolic of muted expression, and assigning gender-specific colours is robbing everyone of chromatic joy.
History of gender-specific colour
Colour associations have always existed in human culture and continuously change over time. It hasn’t always been pink and blue that carried gender associations, as John Gage explains in his excellent colour theory book, Color and meaning: art, science, and symbolism, but many other colours that carry gender significance:
…about 1809 the German Romantic painter and theorist Philipp Otto Runge devised a colour-circle expressive of ideal and real values, on which the warm poles of yellow and orange represented the ‘masculine passion’ and the cool poles of blue and violet the feminine. When this scheme was taken up a century later by the neo-Romantic Expressionists in Munich these values were reversed, so that for Franz Marc blue became the masculine principle and yellow the feminine, ‘soft, cheerful, and sensual’.
Prior to the 20th century, the practice of dressing girls in pink and boys in blue was reversed. As quoted in a Smithsonian.com piece on this topic, a June 1918 article in Earnshaw’s Infants Department said, “The generally accepted rule is pink for boys and blue for girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”
“Pink and powder blue were used as lighter versions of red (the ‘masculine’ colour of blood and fighting) and blue (the iconographic colour of the Virgin Mary),” explains cognitive linguist, Veronika Kolle, in her excellent article, ‘Not just a colour’: pink as a gender and sexuality marker in visual communication.
Around World War 1, these colour associations began to change. A 1927 Time magazine chart showing sex-appropriate colors for girls and boys did not yet show a consensus on colour. A scale reflecting colour preferences in 10 different stores in 8 American cities saw 6 out of 10 stores identify pink for boys and half of the stores suggested blue for girls. It took some time for this change in traditional sex-related colours to occur, but once it did, there was no turning back for at least two generations.
The colour code identifying pink for boys and blue for girls “persisted not only in Catholic countries until the First World War,” Kolle says, “when changing gender roles and increasing secularization led to the decentering of the quintessential maternal figure of the Virgin Mary. The colour blue consequently came to signify male professions, most notably the navy, rather than being an element of religious iconography.”
Academic author, Alison Lurie, has said that blue as the colour of faith in the Christian Church became associated with trust and hard work (“blue collar”), and was adopted by males to represent their loyalty and perseverance.
Some argue that gender colour segregation was created by retailers to achieve higher profit margins. (If you noticed, the pink for boys and blue for girls idea was suggested above by Earnshaw’s, a children’s clothing retailer.)
“The more you individualize clothing, the more you can sell,” Jo Paoletti, author of Pink & Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, says of colour differentiation. Chiming in, Kolle says “Marketing and consumer culture helped disseminate the new colour code across almost all Western cultures.”
“Nowadays,” Paoletti says, “people just have to know the sex of a baby or young child at first glance… 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.’ ”
Visual artist, JeongMee Yoon does a really interesting job of looking at the relationship between gender, colour, consumerism, and socialization in her Pink and Blue Project.
“Perhaps it is the influence of pervasive commercial advertisements aimed at little girls and their parents, such as the universally popular Barbie and Hello Kitty merchandise that has developed into a modern trend. Girls train subconsciously and unconsciously to wear the color pink in order to look feminine.”
What does this all boil down to? My next statement may shock some of you, but gender-specific colours that you may believe to be real and true are actually manufactured concepts and nothing more than manipulation by the retail industry to get you to spend more money. Gender-specific marketing drives profits, you see.
Salmon, bubble gum, watermelon, cherry, strawberry, fuchsia, rose, carnation, coral, blush, peach, magenta, and puce are all types of pink, a tint of red, the longest solar wavelength, measuring 630–740 nanometers (billionths of a meter, nm often used to measure atomic particles), if you choose to get scientific about it. Pink results when red is tinted with white.
Pink, like any other colour, is light absorbed by the rods and cones in the retinas of our eyes. Anything outside of this, as in the cultural meaning of colour, is purely and arbitrarily fabricated by humans.
Kolle says, “What is associated with a colour or shade is indicative not of the colour itself but of the cultural and historical formation in which it is constructed as having particular characteristics and being suitable for particular social groups.” In other words, people attach meaning to things and concepts that actually have no meaning at all.
When segregated gender colour is so heavy-handed, as imposed on Baby Boomers and the Gen-Xers that were spawned by the Boomers, this kind of social expectation and peer pressure can be so deeply ingrained and so rigid, that it moves from childhood into adulthood without missing a beat.
Sometimes I come across men who refuse to see colour as solar vibration as I try to present it, because to them, colour comes with gender identity and meaning attached to it.
I worked with a client a couple of years ago who is a former law enforcement officer (I mention this because an industry such as policing tends to adhere to rigid gender identities). After analyzing his personality and his colouring, he allowed me to choose the fabrics and colours for his new shirts that he would order from an overseas shirt maker. I chose shirts for him in colours true to his palette, including white, blue, yellow, and a light salmony pink. After a few weeks, I emailed him to see if his shirts had arrived and how he liked them. Everything was fine except for one thing.
“The shirts are great, but I will NEVER wear pink,” he wrote.
A die-hard social stance on the adoption or rejection of certain colours starts in childhood and takes away from the wonderful chromatic sensations that light offers our eyes.
Paoletti says, “One thing I can say now is that I’m not real keen on the gender binary – the idea that you have very masculine and very feminine things. The loss of neutral clothing is something that people should think more about. And there is a growing demand for neutral clothing for babies and toddlers now too.”
With any luck, the colour spectrum will be stripped of gender connotations and people will be open to experience the unbiased joy of chroma. As Oscar Wilde said, “Mere colour, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.”