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25th Jan 2015

Is it time to re-think pink? Fiona McGarry on the boy/girl colour divide

Pink for girls, blue for boys, right?

Fiona McGarry

It might not feel like it right now, but Spring Summer 2015 is just around that icy corner. While you mightn’t be quite ready to throw off the parka, the shops are already filling up with floaty fabrics in pastel shades. According to the Pantone Institute, the new season colours are inspired by “daydreams of simpler times”. While over at the fashion house, Moschino, pink is having a moment. Or maybe more than one.

At his pre-season shows, Creative Director Jeremy Scott gifted his audience with pink-clad Barbie dolls and Disney-branded iPhone covers in bubblegum pink. Fittingly, as Scott’s show was a riotous homage to Barbie, the 56-year old princess of plastic. In a runway kitsch-fest, models sported some her most memorable looks. Teetering down the runway, complete with curled blonde wigs and frozen stares, came beach babe Barbie, gym bunny Barbie and businesswoman Barbie – head-to-toe in various shades, from pastel to shocking pink.

While the audience went wild for Scott’s show, it’s not likely that any discerning fashionista would ever take serious style advice from Barbie. (For one thing, she can only walk on tiptoes. Flats are out, and she won’t be working printed moccasins anytime soon.) The Barbie all-pink palette only works when heavily accessorised with irony. Underneath Scott’s apparent celebration of all things pink and plastic, serious questions are being raised about colour, consumerism and conformity.

The colour pink, for example, is so closely associated with the western ideal of femininity that it has virtually become its trademark. And while the pink/blue divide certainly makes navigating the average children’s store a whole lot easier, the colour coding of gender should prompt questions. When we dress a little girl in pink, for instance, are we automatically branding her with certain ‘feminine’ qualities like passivity, docility, eagerness-to-please?

Let’s start with the notion that it’s somehow natural for girls to prefer pink. Here’s the science bit. Studies seem to agree that western children do have definite gender-based colour preferences. Some suggest that these are innate. Others find that children learn concepts of gender and colour from around the age of two. By the age of four girls will tend to identify with pink while boys will actively avoid it.

But if the pink/blue divide is a cultural thing, is it just a quaint custom?

In Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America Jo B Paoletti argues that the tradition is arbitrary and relatively recent. For a time, in the early 20th century, parents were actually urged to dress boys in pink (seen as the stronger, more robust colour) and girls in blue (calmer and more passive).

The 1940s saw the code being swapped around, while the rise of the Feminist movement brought an outright rejection of gender-specific colours. Paoletti believes that the advent of pre-natal gender testing, in the mid-‘80s, took the colour divide back into vogue and, ultimately, led companies to favour gender-specific consumer goods as a trick to boost sales.

Today, it seems we’re encouraged to brand girls in pink and boys in blue until they learn to do this for themselves. But more and more parents are choosing to reject this marketing gimmick and the stereotypes it propagates.

And that takes us back to Jeremy Scott’s SS15 collection. Behind the ‘plastic fantastic’ tone, Scott may also have been thinking about Barbie’s recent slump in sales. As parents, and children themselves reject the stereotypes, the plastic princess is getting left on the shelf. It looks like it’s time to re-think pink.

Fiona McGarry is a freelance journalist and radio producer. Her radio documentaries have been funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) and the Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund. She is a regular contributor to The Irish Times and The Irish Daily Mirror and happiest when well caffeinated in front of a good box set.