Bizarrely there is some truth in this, but it’s a lot more complicated than one person initiating the trend.
The tradition of pink and blue as gender specific colours doesn’t actually go back that far – it wasn’t until the 1950s that the two colours became commonly associated with boys and girls. Until the end of the Victorian era, most babies and young children were dressed in white. Photographs of children in the early years of the 20th century show a gradual introduction of colour.
However the gender association with pink and blue was the opposite of what it is today. In 1918, a Ladies’ Home Journal article stated: “There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. 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.”
Likewise, American newspaper the Sunday Sentinel advised mothers in 1914 that, “If you like the colour note on the little one’s garments, use pink for the boy and blue for the girl, if you are a follower of convention.”
According to the book, Men and Women: Dressing the Part, pink-for-girls and blue-for-boys wasn’t uniform until the 1950’s. There was one significant event that happened in those intervening years…
During the Second World War, Hitler ordered the classification of homosexuals. Those deemed “curable” were sent to concentration camps and labelled with a pink triangle, as part of a colour-coding system used by the Nazis to determine the types of prisoner they were holding.
This suggests that pink was becoming associated with femininity and, whether it was intentional or not, the Nazi colour classification during the dark days of the Holocaust undoubtedly had a great effect on the connotations that we associate with the colour pink.
“In experiments where guns were painted pink and My Little Ponies were painted black and made to look spiky, three-year-old children assumed the gun was a girls’ toy and the pony a boys’ one. The colour rather than the function determined gender appeal”
Richard Plant’s book The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals states that from 1933 to 1944 between 50,000 and 63,000 gays were held as prisoners by the Germans. Concentration camp survivor Heinz Heger published a memoir, Men With The Pink Triangle in the early 1970s, which was hugely influential in the development of the gay rights movement. Originally intended as a badge of shame, the pink triangle (often inverted from its Nazi usage) was reclaimed as an international symbol of gay pride and the gay rights movement.
World War Two had other impacts on colour schemes. The American consumer boom that followed the war saw people moving away from the khakis, dark greens and greys of military uniforms. Marketing campaigns in the 1950s pushed brighter colours – and not just with clothes. Candy-pink kitchens were de rigueur, which only served to reinforce the colour as a feminine hue. By 1959 the infant-wear buyer for one department store was telling The New York Times, “A mother will allow her girl to wear blue, but daddy will never permit his son to wear pink.”
Fashions for adults constantly change of course, and the idea of a heterosexual man wearing pink no longer raises eyebrows. In 2004 Roger Wade, creative director at fashion label Boxfresh, told The Guardian: “A couple of years ago we couldn’t have given away pink T-shirts, now it’s our bestselling colour. It has gone from last choice to first.”
But the gender association of pink with children — especially babies — is still with us and from a young age children are bombarded with colour stereotypes. Professor of gender and culture at the UK’s Leeds University, Ruth Holliday, tells Esquire: “Even very young girls understand that pink things are for them. In experiments where guns were painted pink and My Little Ponies were painted black and made to look spiky, three-year-old children assumed the gun was a girls’ toy and the pony a boys’ one. The colour rather than the function determined gender appeal.”
So to answer the original question, Hitler may not have specifically chosen the colours that we now associate with gender and sexuality, but the Nazis clearly had a hand in shaping our attitudes towards them.
For Esquire magazine