Last month the first photos of a newborn Riot Rose Mayers, the second son of Rihanna and A$AP Rocky, were released to remarks ranging from adoration to confusion. Why? The baby boy, who was born in August, was photographed wearing pink, causing some commenters to question whether his pop star mother had actually given birth to a girl.
Although it has become mainstream for girls to incorporate boys' clothing styles into their wardrobe, many feel it is still verboten for baby boys to wear pink or other styles branded as "feminine." While there are still several issues with baby girl fashion, it seems that boys may have even less leeway in experimenting with things like ruffles, bows, floral prints and colors like purple and pink.
However, these gender associations weren’t always the standard. Here's what history tells us about the connotations of children's clothing and how they affect us today.
The history of pink and blue
Professor Joey Fink, who specializes in gender history at High Point University, tells Yahoo Life that well into the 19th century, clothing for babies and young children was decidedly gender neutral. “Children wore white dresses until about 4 or 6 years old," she says. "The lack of color and the uniformity of the garb was pragmatic: Simple long pieces of clothing could be easily adjusted to accommodate the growing child, and plain white could be boiled, bleached and scoured with strong lye soap without fear of damaging colors.”
After children progressed past the toddler stage, gender differentiations started to emerge, with boys wearing trousers and girls in dresses or skirts. But it wasn't until the early 20th century that colors were considered gendered, though not in the way they are today, according to Fink. "Some popular magazines in the 1910s and 1920s insisted that blue was a more delicate and dainty color, suitable for girls, while pink — with its affinity to red, the ultimate power color — was for boys," she says. "In the post-World War II era, we start to see an emphasis on gender differentiating clothing and accessories for babies and young children, and the association of pink with girls and blue for boys.”
Author Katy Huie Harrison has dedicated her career to challenging societal norms that affect parents and children. She shares that current stylistic stereotypes fell into place after World War II when femininity resurged. “[After the war], when marketing was booming and women were relegated back into the home, women traded in their Rosie the Riveter denim for house dresses. Straight hemlines started to get more intricate and ornate, and florals came into style.”
Jo Paoletti, professor emerita at the University of Maryland, is the author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America. According to Paoletti’s research, pink clothes for little boys could be found as late as the 1970s, but by then it was rare.
Does color matter? What the research says about stereotypes.
Here's what studies have found about how gender-coded clothing affects how we perceive both others and ourselves.
In a 2014 experiment examining decision making for infants’ health during a fictional flu outbreak, participants more often selected a risk-averse treatment for boys in blue and a risk-taking treatment for boys in pink.
Published in 2018, this Japanese study observed how wearing the color pink may relate to gender-related self-cognition and sex-role attitudes. Male participants who were assigned to wear a pink coat expressed stronger egalitarian sex-role attitudes and weaker benevolent sexism than those who were assigned to wear a blue coat.
A 2011 study found that "gender-stereotyped colors" dominated the choices consumers have been buying children's goods, and that color-based associations sway young children's behavior while also reinforcing stereotypes in adulthood.
What experts say
According to Harrison, the problem with pink and blue isn't the colors themselves; it's what they've come to symbolize. “What we're doing is reinforcing a harmful stereotype — one that can have dire consequences," she says, adding that "when a person feels misaligned with what society expects of them, the mental health impacts can be enormous.”
That can start at a young age. Licensed professional counselor Marissa Moore explains that children are highly sensitive to social norms and expectations. “Some people may hold the stereotype that boys who wear pink are less masculine or are somehow challenging traditional masculinity. When boys are subjected to criticism, teasing or exclusion for wearing pink, it can create stress and social pressure," Moore tells Yahoo Life.
This can have long-lasting consequences on mental health. “Constant exposure to negative reactions or stereotypes can impact a child's self-esteem," she says. "These experiences can influence a child's sense of identity and self-concept. They may grapple with questions about their gender identity and expression.” However, some children may become emboldened by the experience. "On a positive note, some children may develop resilience and a sense of empowerment through these experiences," Moore adds. "They learn to assert their individuality and challenge gender stereotypes.”
What other options do parents have?
Some clothing brands are working to help children and their parents feel more confident (and stylish!) while bucking traditional expectations. Unisex baby clothes brands, like MORI, don’t arrange their site by gender but still offer variety in colors and patterns, including pink. According to MORI’s senior buyer, Amie Flynn, the wares are meant to be "passed on."As she tells Yahoo Life, "A lot of our designs are gender neutral so families can pass [them] from brother to sister, cousin to friend. Our prints are aimed at the unisex market and when we do tend to incorporate colors into our ranges, we do it with the mindset that boys can wear pink too."
StereoType Kids was founded by Elizabeth Brunner, mom of boy/girl twins, with an explicit mission to break fashion rules with its gender-free clothing collection. When Brunner's twins were young, her son was interested in skirts and dresses while her daughter gravitated toward camo and baseball hats. As a parent, she wanted to support her children; as a designer, she was inspired to create a clothing company where “unisex” didn’t rely on neutral colors and patterns.
Brunner was in the unique position of seeing how differently society reacted to each of her twins. “My daughter, being more masculine in her choices, wouldn't get much comment," she tells Yahoo Life. "But my son, dressing in a skirt, would get more looks or people trying to ‘correct’ him, telling him that skirts are for girls. When you put labels on children you limit them. I didn't want my children limited.”
Brunner suspects that the pushback over boys dabbling in feminine-coded prints and colors may stem from our patriarchal society, which makes it more acceptable for a girl to express themselves in a masculine way. Similarly, it's now mainstream for baby girls to be given traditional boy names like James, Blake or Billie while gender-neutral names like Terry and Leslie have fallen out of favor for boys.
While seeing celebrity babies like Riot Rose — whose very name resists convention — in pink onesies help move the needle? History tells us that how we view colors evolves — but there's a long way to go, baby.