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  • Writer's pictureValerieBound

Why do we “think pink” in October?

Pink is everywhere in October. It's Cancer Awareness month, with advocates asking everyone to wear pink to raise awareness for breast cancer. For those of us who know someone who has suffered with the disease, it’s a time to reflect on what we can do to help and support our friends and family. But it also got me thinking about the color pink. How did it come to be a “feminine” color, and then make the leap to a pink ribbon for breast cancer?

It turns out that pink having any kind of gender focus at all is pretty new. In the 1700’s, when pastel hues were all the rage, pink was worn by men as well as women. In fact, pink was seen as more masculine because it was a softer red. Red was seen as a war-like, manly color.

Historically, it was not uncommon for men to wear pink suits, often embellished with ornate embroidery.

Historical men wearing pink suits
Historical men wearing pink suits

It starts with the babies….

The focus on gender nowadays seems to begin at birth, with moms decorating nurseries in blue or pink. Try going to Babies R Us to find gender-neutral clothes. It’s almost impossible! (Believe me, I have TRIED!) And not to pick on Babies R Us, it’s hard wherever you shop to find children’s clothes that don’t showcase gender. Of course, this whole situation, besides being kind of annoying, is a pretty recent development.

In reality, for most of American history, babies wore white. White cotton dresses. Boys wore long floor-length dresses in the Empire style, just like the ones worn by their mothers and sisters. The dresses were seen as practical, allowing babies to have freedom of movement and parents to be able to change diapers easily. And white cotton could be bleached if it got dirty.

It wasn’t until the age of around four that boys even began to wear pants.

1802 painting of Lady Mary Templeton and her 2 year old son Henry
1802 painting of Lady Mary Templeton and her 2 year old son Henry

Truth be told, babies wearing colored garments didn’t even really come about until after 1850. Pink and blue were introduced to the American public, along with many other pastel colors. Babies and toddlers wore blue, pink, lilac, and yellow, without any real focus on gender. Pink was seen as a healthy color, representing youth and vitality. Jo Paoletti writes in her book Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America that “Young men and women might wear pink clothing; old men and women did not.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1885. 3 years old
Former US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1885. 3 years old

Around 1890, dressing styles started to focus more around gender, with an effort to get boys to wear pants at earlier ages. That seemed to spur different efforts to color-code the genders, but there was disagreement for decades about which color went with which gender. Surprisingly, pink seemed to be the main choice for boys, not blue. A 1905 Times article said pink was for boys, as did a June 1918 Ladies’ Home Journal article, which stated, “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.” Other sources said blue was flattering for blonds, pink for brunettes; or blue was for blue-eyed babies, pink for brown-eyed babies. In 1939, Parents magazine was still saying pink was for the boys.

Enter Mamie Eisenhower

After World War II, things seemed to shift in favor of blue for boys. In 1948, newspapers reported Princess Elizabeth was obviously expecting a boy, since the Buckingham Palace nursery was decorated with blue satin. By the 1950’s, pink was firmly associated with femininity. America’s first lady at the time, Mamie Eisenhower, helped solidify America’s love affair with pink for women. Pink was Mamie’s favorite color, and she wasn’t shy about it! She loved wearing it, decorating with it, and millions of American women embraced the color right along with her.

Mamie Eisenhower at the 1953 inauguration
Mamie at the 1953 inauguration

Pink exploded in the 1950’s with pink clothing and furnishings. And America has never looked back.

Today, pink is everywhere. If you’re raising a daughter, it’s pointless trying to escape the endless array of pink clothing and toys. Some women embrace pink, some loathe it.

“Pink is the quintessential female color,” says Margaret Welch, former director of the Color Association of the United States. “The profile on pink is playful, life-affirming. We have studies as to its calming effect, its quieting effect, its lessening of stress.”

Linking pink to breast cancer

Breast cancer is a devastating illness for women. Unlike other diseases, it becomes about body image, nurturing, and your own femininity. You feel as if you are losing your very womanhood. In that context, pink, representing health and femininity, seems like the perfect color.

It turns out that pink for breast cancer almost didn’t happen. In 1992, Self magazine was working with Evelyn Lauder, a breast cancer survivor and Estée Lauder senior corporate vice president, to create the second annual Breast Cancer Awareness Month issue. They wanted to do something that would really move the needle and get the word out. It turns out there was an elderly woman who had been distributing peach-colored ribbons and asking people to wear them in support of raising funds and awareness about the disease. Although they contacted her and offered support, she wasn’t interested in going mainstream with her message. So they decided to stick with the ribbon theme, but change the color. Peach ribbons were out, and pink was in. It made sense.

The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation had been handing out bright pink visors to breast cancer survivors running in its annual Race for the Cure. In 1991, the foundation switched from visors to pink ribbons. In 1992, after Estée Lauder and Self settled on the pink ribbons, every Estee Lauder makeup counter across America gave out ribbons. Over a million were handed out, each accompanied by a laminated card describing a proper breast self-exam. They got the attention of America they were hoping for, and set up an annual tradition that we can all be a part of.

What are you doing this month to help battle breast cancer?


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