"Pink!!! Everyone knows that!" Did you shout it at the computer monitor, or just think it? Either way, if blue is for boys, then of course, pink is for girls. Since the twentieth century, that is mostly true. But the majority of scholars of children’s clothing history agree that the widespread use of garment color to identify a baby’s gender first occurred after World War I, and initially, probably only in America. Almost a century after the end of the Regency, in a country on the other side of a vast ocean.
So, what colors did babies wear during the Regency, and why?
For centuries, babies were swaddled, and most of the cloth used in those swaddling bands was either white or unbleached natural color cloth. By the end of the eighteenth century, once they were out of swaddling clothes, which, by this time, was usually within a few months of their birth, most children went in to simplified caps and gowns which were mostly white, often of muslin. These garments might sometimes be trimmed with colored ribbons, but in most cases the colors of the ribbons used were those which pleased the children’s parents or which were available at the haberdashers when more ribbons were needed for new clothes. So it was, in most cases, but not in all.
Children’s clothing scholar, Elizabeth Ewing, discovered references in some aristocratic family papers dating from the late eighteenth century, which provide an explanation as to why the garments worn by the sons of at least some of these aristocratic families were trimmed with blue. But these little boys were not wearing blue-trimmed garments to identify their gender, though their gender was the reason why they wore those blue-trimmed garments. It seems that even at the end of the eighteenth century, even as the Age of Enlightenment was fading away, superstition still held powerful sway over some, even among well-educated aristocrats. These parents held an ancient belief that evil spirts would hover over infants with malicious intent. But this same ancient belief provided protection for these helpless babes. It was understood that these evil spirits could be repelled by certain colors. Of all colors, blue, with its association with the sky and thus the heavens, offered the most powerful protection. Therefore, parents who held this belief would ensure that their sons wore something blue at all times, since boys, being more important that girls, needed full-time protection.
Some parents thought girls, being of lesser value, needed no protection at all and made no effort to repel these evil spirits, even though they believed in them. However, there were a few parents, usually mothers, who, especially if they believed in these evil spirits, wished to protect their infant daughters just as they did their sons. These mothers would ensure their little girls had something blue as part of their garments. However, they might hide the bit of blue within the baby’s garments so as not to be thought too soft or overly affectionate by other members of the family. It seems that only babies were vulnerable to these evil spirits, so that this protective color was not needed for the garments of toddlers and older children, regardless of their gender. In those families who believed in the evil spirits which might threaten their sons, generations of parents, right through the Regency would ensure that their sons, and, in some cases, their daughters were protected with something blue on their garments to repel any malicious spirits.
There was also another ancient European legend which may have had some slight impact on the concept of particular colors related to gender in Britain. For centuries, many people, particularly of the peasant classes on the Continent, believed that newborn baby boys were to be found under cabbages. At that time, the outer leaves of the most common species of cabbage were blue. Baby girls, however, were believed to come into the world inside the bloom of a large pink rose. Though this legend was very well-known on the Continent in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, knowledge of it does not seem to have been as widespread in England, particularly among the educated classes. Therefore, it seems unlikely that this legend strongly affected the color choices which upper-class parents made for their infants’ clothing. However, if such choices were left to a nurse, especially a European, who was aware of this ancient legend, baby boys might very well end up in blue and baby girls in pink.
In general, during the Regency, few parents or nurses felt any pressure to identify the gender of an infant or even a toddler in their care in any way, for any reason. The majority of people who knew the family well would know the gender of the children. Since infants and even toddlers were seldom seen in public at this time, there was no reason to inform outsiders, who were of no consequence in the parent’s view anyway, of the gender of their children. The gender of a boy child would become apparent once they were breeched and they began wearing trousers instead of gowns. It was at this age that children typically first began to appear in public, and with boys in trousers and girls in gowns, there was no risk of any gender confusion at all.
From the later eighteenth century right through the Regency, red was actually a color that was strongly associated with pre-teen and even teenage girls, usually by their choice. But this preference for red was almost completely isolated to one particular garment, a cloak. And it was very important that this cloak had a hood, or the little girl who wore it would be quite disappointed. If an image of Little Red Riding Hood leaps to mind, so it should, for the huge popularity of that fairy tale was the reason why all these little girls wanted a red cloak, with a hood. The red hooded cloak remained a much-desired garment for most little girls well into the reign of Queen Victoria, even though young girls were seldom allowed to wear other garments which were predominantly red in color during these years. Because of the association with the fairy tale, few parents took exception to allowing their daughters to wear a red cloak, which most seemed to recognize as a childhood whim which would eventually be outgrown. Through that time period, even during the Regency, some mothers who had loved that tale of a young girl’s victory over evil, chose to have tiny red hooded cloaks made for their infant daughters.
By the second half of the nineteenth century, long after the Regency was over, infants and toddlers were more often seen in public as the growing middle classes enjoyed more leisure time. Yet even then, few parents felt the need to identify the gender of these very young children. But they were beginning to choose colors they thought appropriate to their children, usually based on their gender. By this time, the superstitious belief in malicious spirits which threatened babies was mostly forgotten, but there was still a strong belief in the power of certain colors. Perhaps that is why the colors chosen for babies at this time was reversed from those which had been used in the previous century. Pink, not the pale, insipid color which carries that name today, but a deeper color more like the scarlet coat worn by the master of a hunt or a dress military uniform, was considered most appropriate for boys. It was symbolic of power, aggression and energy, believed to be necessary masculine attributes. Blue was the color most often chosen for girls, since it was emblematic of placidity, gentleness and serenity, all ideal attributes of femininity.
After World War I, in America, once rigid class distinctions were breaking down. Many people, even those with infants, often went out in public to stroll the streets or parks. Very soon, these people wanted the gender of their child to be obvious, even to unknown passers-by. Curiously, though colors were used to identify a child’s gender, the colors which had been aligned with each gender in the previous century were reversed once again. Blue, usually a light blue, was used for clothing and other accessories for boys, while a pastel pink was the color used most often for girls. Within a generation, these gender-identifying colors had crossed over the wide ocean to Britain and Europe, and they have held sway over most Western cultures for nearly a century.
During the Regency, the majority of garments for infants and babies, whether swaddling bands or simple gowns, were typically linen or cotton, either white or unbleached natural color cloth. As any mother will tell you, babies are not the tidiest of beings and their clothes had to be laundered often. In the days before the introduction of the reliably colorfast aniline dyes, white or undyed cloth would stand up best to constant laundering. In addition, though mothers and nurses would not have known it at the time, undyed cloth would be the most gentle against a baby’s skin, because it would not contain the sometimes harsh chemical remains of the dyes and mordants which could irritate sensitive skin. Of course, most babies had some "best" clothes, in which they would be dressed when being shown off to visiting family and friends. Those garments were usually also white, but they would often have colored trims of some kind, either ribbons, laces or embroidered designs. But those special garments would not have to be laundered as frequently as their everyday clothing, so their colors would not fade as quickly.
Regency parents felt no need to dress their infants and toddlers in garments which identified the gender of their little ones, it would never have occurred to them that it was necessary. But those superstitious parents who still believed in malicious spirits which might harm their children, particularly their sons, made sure there was something blue incorporated into their infants’ clothing, often blue ribbons or laces, to ward off those evil spirits. Some superstitious parents, usually mothers who loved and valued their girl children, might slip some bit of blue into their baby daughters’ clothes as well, hiding it if they thought their husbands or other family members might object or tease them about it. Families who employed European nurses to care for their children might find their sons dressed in blue-trimmed garments and their daughters dressed in those trimmed in pink, if they left it to the nurse to choose those garments, since most European nurses knew the old legend that boys came from under cabbages and girls from rose blossoms, and they would have thought those colors fitting. But the concept of blue for boys and pink for girls was completely unknown during the Regency. It did not originate until nearly a century later, and on another continent.