Vintage Sexism: Thinking About Pink

Revlon ad via The Nifty Fifties and Lustre Creme ad via The Society Pages.

My mom sends me care packages every now and then, and they usually include two toothbrushes. One pink, one green. One is meant for me, the other for my boyfriend.

I ask him, “Which toothbrush do you want?”

He replies, “Pink.”

For our latest stylebook, Girl Meets Glam, we hoped to depict Valentine’s Day style in a kitschy, playful, vintage catalog way. A pink background seemed perfect for that. There’s a whole lotta pink in this stylebook, and we’re glad if you like it! However, we realize that marketing and advertising historically assumed that “pink is for girls,” as each of the ads above state. You may disagree with that statement.

What kinds of messages have vintage ads sent about pink and women? Well, don your favorite color and read on!

Tony Curtis image via And Scene and tie image via Security is for Cadavers.

In this 1955 Van Heusen ad on the left, it seems that pink is for the singular and confident male, such as movie star Tony Curtis. I can agree with that. Funnily enough, though, the same company reverts back to “a man’s world” on the right, where the pink-wearer is a woman – a submissive one.

Soft-Weve image via Flickr user Sugarpie Honeybunch. Max Factor ad via Flickr user Revista_antiga.

These two ads use weak adjectives and laughable metaphors to describe their pink products. The groovy, 1967 Max Factor lipstick ad above is bold and fun. Yet, one of the lipstick shades is described as, “soft, feminine, fragile.” “Fragile” isn’t the kind of thing I’d want to wear.

I encourage you to view a larger version of the ad and read the Scott ad’s small print. It’s unclear, but to me it compares the bath tissue to “pink peau de soie,” the French phrase being a type of silky fabric. With that, I question their choice to pair pink toilet paper with a pink clad woman.

Top image via Flickr user Saltycotton, bottom images via Flickr user Jon Williamson.

Advertising often likens women to objects. While I wouldn’t turn down a pink oven or washer-dryer for the kitsch factor, the above suggest that pink-wearing women are pink appliances are one in the same. No, your mom is not the oven, she is a human being who offers to cook you dinner.

The Hotpoint Home Laundry ad accentuates the woman-appliance connection by dressing the two males in blue. There is the one young woman in blue, though. I guess she won’t stand for society-imposed gender roles!

Royal ad via Katnip.

If the copy were removed from this Royal typewriter ad, I’d probably set this image as my computer background. The text implies that a woman will work harder if a pretty accessory is dangled over her work space. What about women who work as hard as they can just to keep a roof over their heads?

Yves Laurent ad via The Fashion Spot. Sears ad via The Society Pages.

Google “baby gifts for girls.” What’s the most common color you see? Pink is often considered the official color for infant and young girls. The Sears ad on the right illustrates a girlishly innocent image through a youthful model in a very clean, simple setting. Despite the fact that the print says that you can buy this same dress in blue, your eye is drawn to the most striking item in the image – the pink dress. The Yves Saint Laurent ad on the left applies a similar minimalist treatment in which the product, a pink dress, is the center of attention. But the model, Linda Evangelista, is clearly not a little girl, but a sophisticated and elegant woman. This is where the statement “pink is for girls,” really bugs me. Linda Evangelista is a woman, but in pink, is she a girl?

As I touched on above, I like pink. Actually, I really love bright hot pink. And, so does my boyfriend. Regardless of what most advertising expected (or expects) we should like, pink appeals to both of us, and we’re not sure why. We just like it.

Pink not required! Image via Flickr user Sallyedelstein.

What are your thoughts on the relationship between colors and gender? What are your favorite colors and why?

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  1. Avatar
    Mindy Berardini 02/09/2012 at 11:05 am #

    I really loved this blog entry! I often am very sensitive to not play into gender roles, especially when considering shower gifts. I also can’t believe how many sexist adds are still on tv and in mags today! Particularly cleaning products..

    I love all colors!

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    Mommy 02/09/2012 at 11:18 am #

    The blog was interesting and exciting as always. I like old thoughts and new thoughts on colors and genders. If you look good In a certain color or style, get it. It should be your own choice, male or female!

    Good job Angela!


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    Sunita 02/09/2012 at 11:20 am #

    My favorite color is green because I think green is a fun color. When I was a little girl, blue was my favorite color. I don’t know if it’s because my mom tried to force my twin and me to be feminine or it was for another reason, but blue was the color for me.

    The color and gender relationship is nothing but a social construct accepted by a complacent society. I did some research (decades ago) on why boys are “supposed” to wear blue. The tradition reaches back hundreds of years when infant mortality rates were high. Hundreds of year ago, people were really superstitious and thought that when an infant died it was because a demon came by and took its soul. Demons cannot see the color blue (how anyone could ever confirm that “fact” is a mystery), so parents would clothe their boys in blue. As for where pink came from, I’m not sure, but wearing pink made the infants visible to any soul-hungry demons. The idea was the demons would be satisfied with eating the soul of a female infant and could not even see the boys swaddled in blue. After all, the boys were so much more important (do you hear the sarcasm?) so they had to be protected.

    What I find interesting is that men in many non-western countries do not have a problem with wearing pink, unlike most American men (my partner included).

    • Avatar
      Angela (ModCloth) 02/09/2012 at 11:44 am #

      Sunita, thank you for sharing this. I never heard of this before. Wow!

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      Katie F 02/09/2012 at 5:30 pm #

      Is that actually true, though? Because boys wearing blue and girls wearing pink is only really a thing from the 1940s onwards. In fact, before that, the colours were reversed: pink was a masculine colour (like red) and blue was a girly colour. (Source:

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      karen 02/09/2012 at 8:39 pm #

      Yes, Katie is right. Boys were dressed in pink and girls in blue. It changed most dramatically after the sexual revolution and the feminism movement.

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      Samantha 02/09/2012 at 8:42 pm #

      I’m so glad you brought that up, Katie F, and quoted a source to boot! Another interesting gender tidbit: Boys used to more commonly wear skirt or dress like clothing before the popularization of the novel “Little Lord Flanterloy”.

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      Meglet 04/21/2012 at 8:43 pm #

      Re: “demons cannot see the color blue…”

      I don’t know where the superstition or this particular practice originated, but you’ll find many older homes in the American South, and elsewhere, have the porch’s ceiling, floor, or both, or the tripping around doors and windows and around the roof, painted BLUE. Many folklorists attribute this to the once-wisepread belief that demons are unable to cross water. The blue paint is supposed to “trick” all evil to think it’s water, thus preventing demons or the Devil himself from entering the home.

      ::looks around my bedroom::

      Gee, I just thought a robin’s egg/antique blue was a pretty and soothing color for a bedroom. Now my walls have a huge bonus feature!

  4. Avatar
    Cyntia 02/09/2012 at 11:56 am #

    this is one of my favorite posts! I’m at the age where all of my friends are having kids and I feel like a broken record when I tell them that not EVERYTHING has to be pink if they are girl or blue if they are expecting a baby boy.

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    Nina Baltierra Kahn 02/09/2012 at 1:21 pm #

    While watching Pop Up Video the other day (Calm down! It’s not back– it was on Vh1 Classic), I learned that pink became the color for girls in 15th Century…England? It was chosen as a complement to blue (or was it the other way around?).

    Either way, it’s so wild that such an arbitrary decision like that can influence so much of our lives–thanks to marketing and advertising–centuries later.

    When I was little, my favorite color was green (I hated pink for years, and am only just starting to warm up to it), and my brother’s was purple.

    Take that, gender norms!

    • Avatar
      Sunita 02/09/2012 at 5:05 pm #

      I hated pink for years as well, Nina. I warmed up to a few years ago. : )

  6. Avatar
    Birta 02/09/2012 at 3:09 pm #

    Actually, I want to point out this article:

    There it says:

    For example, a June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department said, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

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    Kelly 02/09/2012 at 3:38 pm #

    This article is a nice little summary of the changes in children’s clothing over time:

    When I buy baby clothes for friends I always try and pick gender neutral stuff, same goes for toys. I think it just makes sense practically. What if they have another child and it’s the opposite gender to the one they already have? I’d like them to be able to get wear out of my gift. But it is actually very difficult to find. Most stores stock very little gender neutral clothing. I suspect this is because of demand and because they can get you to everything all over again in blue if you than have a boy. I find that very sad.

    My niece will only wear pink and purple – mostly pink – because that’s what she sees fairies wearing. Consequently her mother buys a lot of pink clothing for her. It’s one big scary cycle. If I have a daughter, I pray the only fairy she looks up to is Tinkerbell!

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    Katherine 02/09/2012 at 4:06 pm #

    These old ads always shock me, but I guess it was a different time back then. Nowadays the sexist advertising is more subtle. Like ‘give mum a night off cooking’ and (as mentioned above) pink coloured cleaning products. I love pink and am instantly drawn to it, but is that a kind of social conditioning in women? I don’t know…I also love green and blue and yellow, not that it really matters 😉

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    Leah 02/09/2012 at 4:07 pm #

    I’ve already decided that I will never force a certain color on my child or children, should I have any. It’s ridiculous. We use color to signify a whole gender code. Pink = traditionally feminine = submissive housewife. Pink is fine, but it needs to disentangle itself from patriarchal gender values. – Leah

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    Angela (ModCloth) 02/09/2012 at 4:33 pm #

    It’s so interesting to me that there are different origins of why pink and blue have been associated with girls and boys. Proves that the color/gender separation is arbitrary!

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    beth 02/09/2012 at 5:29 pm #

    I’ve honestly never really cared much either way. Of course in the above ads pink does suggest submissive women or fragile, “just-there-to-look-pretty” women. To me that’s the problem in the ads. The color pink has been embraced as a symbol of strength for many women now, and it should be. Not just to say “we are smart whether we wear brown or pink,” but also because of Susan G. Komen for the cure. Pink stuff is everywhere and for good reason–it’s not only helping fund research, but it’s being used to raise major awareness. Pink is not a be quiet and serve a man color, it’s a statement. (And it’s just a color. It has always been just a color.) Anyway–as for the advertising world and pink vs. blue, everyone who hasn’t needs to watch this video:

    Riley on Marketing (not mine…it was a viral video for awhile.)

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    Kareena 02/09/2012 at 6:27 pm #

    I’ll admit, I’m not a fan of pink. Certain shades of it are *alright* (usually on other people, not me) but the bright, candy or fluorescent pinks make my teeth itch.

    Having said that, my (now) 6 year old son decided that pink is one of his favourite colours and *insisted* on getting bright, candy pink rain boots last year. Who am I to argue with him? He has longish curly blond hair & often gets mistaken for a girl because, apparently, only girls have gorgeous curls or some such nonsense. Anyway, the pink boots didn’t help with that issue but I admire the way he’s handled it. He knows who he is and he doesn’t let other people’s stereotypical ridiculousness bother him. 🙂

  13. Avatar
    Kel Marie 02/09/2012 at 8:00 pm #

    This was a great entry. I’m not really a girly girl and have rallied against anything Pink during most of my life…especially when I was a little girl. Baby Pink and frilly things made me feel awkward and like I was wearing someone else’s skin. I am also someone who likes to make her own decisions about things and I hated that I was supposed to like a color just because I was a girl.
    As I’ve gotten older Pink and I have come to terms and more and more of it has crept into my closet. I’ve become a fan of Soft Deep Rosy Pinks. I think it’s because I’ve become more confident as a woman and know how to express myself more clearly. These days I can wear pink and still be who I am.
    I still don’t like being defined by a color, though.

  14. Avatar
    Emma 02/09/2012 at 11:08 pm #

    This certainly is an interesting post and an interesting point raised. As a childcare worker you are taught not to submit to gender stereotyping but its a very hard thing to learn and you have to make a conscientious effort not to say pink for girls blue for boys as it was drummed into us from a young age.

    However it is interesting to note that historically pink was seen as a masculine colour as it is a lighter form or red a colour associated with blood, rage, fighting, hunting and other ‘manly’ pursuits. Blue was associated with girls as it is seen to be serene which is why the Virgin Mary is often depicted wearing blue.

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    Miranda 02/10/2012 at 7:26 am #

    I was a pink girl (actually, all pastels were my favorite) when I was little bitty, but once I made it past early elementary school, I preferred red, yellow and lime green (that last one only lasted my senior year, truthfully). Now, I favor neutrals, jewel tones and rich autumnal colors.
    The thing that bothered me most about this article wasn’t the concentration on pink, but the Sears advertisement offering fashionable clothing for “chubby” girls. I was one of those chubby girls in junior-high and am very thankful that they changed the wording to “girls plus” by the time the early nineties rolled around!

    • Avatar
      Angela (ModCloth) 02/10/2012 at 10:20 am #

      Miranda, I’m glad you noticed that. I wasn’t sure if I should mention it or now, because, I mean wow! I agree with you that the language around sizes has become more sensitive. As for the ad, I kept thinking – that’s young woman isn’t chubby-looking to me! What are they talking about? Oh advertising…

  16. Avatar
    Beth 02/10/2012 at 10:21 am #

    I used to not like pink, and when I was expecting my first daughter, I vowed to not dress her in pink and purple (I like red and yellow). I even painted her nursery blue and yellow. BUT when she came, I actually PREFERRED pink because she looked like a little flower when she wore it. And when she wore blue, people mistook her for a boy (which is highly irritating to me because she was, well, a Girl!). I think it is JUST FINE to associate a color with a gender, because I really just see it as identification, but I agree that it shouldn’t be a characterization. Note: My hubby bought big ticket baby items in BLUE, so that they would be “Gender-Neutral!” ……and chubby girl clothes? really, they called it that?

  17. Avatar
    Eliza 02/10/2012 at 11:26 am #

    I think that girls, while they should be in touch with their femeninity, should still be able to be strong when they need to. This is why I love Modcloth. While they sell lovely, frilly, femenine dresses, they still sell pants and menswear-inspired items. Pink happens to be my favorite color, but I still love green and blue, typically “masculine” colors. Variety is the spice of life. These ads, while portrayed in a “humorous” way, are insulting. Many femenine women do not like pink, and the insinuation here is that “femenine” women like pink.

    Aren’t we glad people aren’t this way anymore? Aren’t we all aware of the sarcasm I’m typing with?

    Keep up with the good work, Modcloth!

    • Avatar
      Eliza 02/10/2012 at 11:30 am #

      Also, something I noticed about the Van Heusen ad, “Show her it’s a man’s world!” Seriously???

      If women weren’t here, it wouldn’t be anyone’s world!

  18. Avatar
    Deirdre 02/11/2012 at 9:51 am #

    I love this article, it reminds me of a book I read back called “Pink Think,Becoming a Woman in Many Uneasy lessons” The author collected articles, ads, pamphlets all on how to “BE” a woman.. or rather “Feminine” from the !940s-1970s. Its really amazing how far our culture has gone in such a short time, and how empowering the color can be today

  19. Avatar
    Mandy 02/12/2012 at 7:17 am #

    Very interesting thoughts! Working in the field of art therapy, this topic has always been of great interest to me, and I think it’s suprising to find out which colors really stand out for each gender. For me, I think the relationship between colors and gender has often been portrayed as men evolving into bold hues of colors (particularly red, blue, and yellow) with women evolving into pastel shades of these colors, but mostly being represented by pink. In this sense, it makes me think that the colors representing men were “bold” or “strong”, while pastel’s remind me of “softness” and “delicacy”. Remembering that pink is a transformation of red, these studies seem to make sense:

    “Dorcus (1926) found yellow had a higher affective value for the men than women and St. George (1938) maintained that blue for men stands out far more than for women. An even earlier study by Jastrow (1897) found men preferred blue to red and women red to blue” (and if women preferred red back then, maybe that’s why baby boy’s wore pink instead of blue??)

    As for different shades of colors, this also offers some explanation:

    “Guilford and Smith (1959) found men were generally more tolerant toward achromatic colors than women. Thus, Guilford and Smith proposed that women might be more color-concious and their color tastes more flexible and diverse. Likewise, McInnis and Shearer (1964) found that blue green was more favored among women than men, and women preferred tints more than shades.”

    Overall, I think the whole women and pink deal was just something societal that has stuck to this day. Personally, I was never a fan of pink or red, but I do prefer various hues and hybrids of these colors. My favorite is blue and all of it’s hues. I tend to lean towards cooler colors because to me they feeling calming, relaxing, and centered. Red gives me anxiety :-X

  20. Avatar
    serena 02/12/2012 at 11:08 am #

    Oh the dreaded colors. When I was little I was obsessed with pink I wanted pink everything (including hair) The problem was I had a blonde haired, blue eyed little sister who looked like a porcelain doll. I was a tall awkward brunette with brown eyes who loved to run around at the speed of light. So I was cast in the “male” role to all the relatives despite the fact that I’m a girl. So while my sister received beautiful pink everything.. I was stuck with blue and purple. I didn’t actually like those colors until far later in my life.

  21. Avatar
    Sophie 02/12/2012 at 1:25 pm #

    I’m late commenting on this, but I must say I don’t like that people use these as an excuse to rail against pink (my favorite color!). If you like pink but feel like you need to avoid it to prove you’re not a stereotype, you’re being just as controlled as if you were wearing it because you think it makes you more feminine. Women are still the major users of household appliances for many reasons, not least of which is that stay at home moms are still more common than stay at home dads. I mean, I find that one with the wife kneeling rather awful, but as the target demographic changes, the ads do too. I don’t think a woman in a pink dress standing by a pink oven (with a daughter in blue) means she is only good for baking/cooking, and I feel like trying to dig out reasons to be offended just gets people worked up.

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    C 02/13/2012 at 9:34 am #

    When I was younger, I passionately loved pink and purple, ruffles and lace, romance and generally being a girl. The older I got, however, the more I rejected what I considered the weaker points of stereotypes of femininity e.g. mood swings, obsession with boys and love, superficiality, fickleness, materialism, obsession with appearance and social standing, formulaic romantic comedies aka chick flicks, and ruffles. I strongly associate the color pink with negative female stereotypes. I like to dress in a feminine way, but I would rather convey that through a feminine silhouette. I may pick up something pink occassionally, but I’ll probably balance it out with a leather jacket or something unless it’s Easter or I am going to a wedding. Then I just rock the full-blown vintage look.

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    Mari 02/14/2012 at 8:04 am #

    I hated pink for many years, but my mother always insisted on shoving me into it. Finally, one day when I was thirteen she walked in on me throwing all of my pink clothes into the garbage and fluffing out the section that was navy blue. We’ve had a mutual understanding since then.
    My favorite colors are red, black, and gree, but in recent years, I’ve caught myself warming up to pink a little bit. My entire wardrobe is made up of dresses, and yes, one of the girliest ones is blush pink.

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    April 02/24/2012 at 11:37 am #

    Growing up, my mom always got me pink stuff while my sister always seemd to have baby blue or light green things..I was always so upset!! Now that we’re older, it’s my sister loves pink. And I love blue. I never enjoyed having a certain color forced on me lol. My 3 yr old niece loves pink by choice. She lets us know that blue or green or brown colors are not for her 😉 Freedom of choice I guess

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    Kate 07/09/2012 at 4:41 pm #

    I love many colours including pink!Bright,cheery,bold and uplifting are nice.I’ve been studying a bit about colour healing and consciousness…

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