Regency Baby Clothes:   Blue for Boys, ??? for Girls

"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.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era. Β  An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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23 Responses to Regency Baby Clothes:   Blue for Boys, ??? for Girls

  1. judy gumaer testa says:

    from what i have been told in 30 years of researching family & local history, is that Pre-Victorian baby colors were the opposite of what we know today… Pink for Boys (Blood/Valor) & Blue for Girls (Sky/Nature.)

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thanks for posting your research! I had not come across the blood and sky references. That makes a lot of sense in light of attitudes at the time.

      My research indicated that these colors were used in the assumption that these attributes would be imparted to the children while they wore them, rather than simply to identify their gender to others. Does your research bear that out?

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. I knew about the 19th century concept of hunting pink for a boy and blue for a girl, but the rest of this post is entirely new to me – fascinating! Is the idea of blue as a protection also the origin of the rhyme for a wedding gown ‘something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue’? Interesting legend that boys were found under cabbages and girls in roses, though surely that was but a children’s tale to quiet embarrassing questions of those too young to understand the facts of life, like Britain’s claim that babies were found under a gooseberry bush? [the house of the village midwives who delivered me, by the way, was ‘The Gooseberry Bush’; they both had a sense of humour]. Would it really have that much impact on the choice of colours by a nurse from the continent?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I wondered about the blue with regard to the wedding gown issue, but did not have the time to research it. It may not have been, since Elizabeth Ewing’s research showed that the evil spirits which threatened children were only a danger to infants. However, if those evil spirits were “allergic” to blue, (her term) it would seem to follow that other evil spirits would also be repelled by blue, since it was the color of the heavens and thus the location of powerful goodness.

      The few references to the cabbage/rose tale all suggested that it was European, and was very old, but gave no specific date or country of origin. It would make sense in our day to use such a tale to avoid a full explanation of the facts of life to young children. But my research suggests that parents in centuries past were not so squeamish, and certainly for children growing up in rural, farming communities, it would have been completely unnecessary, so I am not sure why it developed. I can tell you that two of my great-grandmothers were German and each of them had told a similar tale to their daughters, my grandmothers. And primarily for that reason, my grandmothers, as had their mothers before them, ensured that their children and their grandchildren were dressed in the “correct” color. Perhaps there is some lost clause in the tale that suggested those colors were not only gender-specific, but also protective in some way. Both of my great-grandmothers were born in the 1870s and my grandmothers were both born near the end of the 1890s, so that tale clearly lingered on for some time after the Regency.

      I love the name of your midwives’ house!!! Very clever!

      Thanks for sharing,

      Kat

      • I found a reference to it as a French legend explaining the use of ‘chou’ as an endearment. There’s some versions of Beauty and the Beast where plucked roses turn into cabbages.

        Hah! I just found a reference to the children of Agamemmnon, the daughters were wrapped in rose petals and Orestes in cabbage leaves, though I don’t have any serious provenance for that at all, and it’s not something I recall at all when I was reading the Iliad. There really is precious little out there, I’ll have to trawl through my collection of European folk tales though I do not recall coming on this at all beyond the pejorative for someone who looks a bit of a mess or is acting a bit stupid, ‘were you dug up in a cabbage patch or something?’

  3. Kathryn Kane says:

    The reference to the children of Agamemnon is very tantalizing, since people were so interested in anything Greek during the Regency. I have never heard of it before, but it would be most enlightening to find any references which show it was known at that time.

    Here, if we ask someone if they were born in a cabbage patch, it is meant to suggest they are naive or ignorant of the world.

    Thanks for following up!

    =^..^=

    • I’ll go poking around tomorrow… really, what’s the point of having a classicist son when he’s moved 200 miles away and never answers emails…

      • Kathryn Kane says:

        I laughed out loud when I read this! πŸ˜€

        I have a couple of friends with grown children who are also chronically tardy about returning emails. Ironic, really, since they are the ones who pushed their parents into using email.

        =^..^=

        • No result to my poking around, net-wise [bar the original comment] or otherwise; certainly nothing in Lempriere. I’m thinking this might be, if it wasn’t something the single source dreamed up, some Medieval addition that I haven’t tracked down. And yes, it was the errant son who got me using email…
          I made all the baby clothes in green, white and yellow when I was expecting, to do equally well whatever happened; no such thing as sexing babies by scan in those days! I don’t recall ever being dressed in pink at all myself though my mum remembers wanting to be dressed in pink and not being allowed to be because of being a redhead, incidentally another tradition about choosing colours for one’s children!. Jane, good for your daughter! one of the things I hate is too much Barbie-pink stuff, right down to pink lego, for girls. Stepping away from the rant about pink lego.

  4. Jane Squires says:

    Interesting. My youngest daughter always wondered why she couldn’t just wear blue as she loved it. She hates pink. She always asked me why it was boys wore blue and girls pink. She likes green on her daughter and orange.

  5. Kathryn Kane says:

    Well, I hope no one will throw things at me, but as you may already suspect, based on the colors used here, I like pink, very much!

    =^..^=

  6. I’m a pink fan as well. And my two red heads are often dressed in baby pink ;o)

  7. Cheryl E. says:

    Interesting to see how what we now accept as an obvious “fact” is of such recent origin. When visiting historic Richmond in 2005, I came across the following quote from The infants Department, 1918: “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 color is more suitable for the boy; while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Amazing! Today, most parents I know would not allow their boys to be caught dead in pink! I am constantly fascinated by how reactions and perceptions to color change over time.

      Thanks for stopping by and for taking the time to share your information.

      Regards,

      Kat

  8. Pingback: Green is for Babies | The Regency Redingote

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  11. Sia says:

    I wonder if the ‘blue for girls’ thing has anything to do with the fact that a particular Mary (Yes, the Virgin Mary – that Mary.) is often portrayed dressed in blue?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I wondered about that myself, but could find no definitive evidence. The bulk of the information I found ascribed these clothing color choices to pagan superstitions. However, over the years, I found several instances in other situations in which, over time, pagan superstitions and religious beliefs blended together and people no longer knew the exact origins of a practice, even though they continued with it. There is just no way to know with this one.

      Regards,

      Kat

  12. Beth says:

    This is a really intersting article. I would love to find out more – do you have any references?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Unfortunately, I wrote this article more than five years ago, and I no longer have access to my research notes. However, I do remember combing through dozens of books and articles on children’s clothes and superstitions relating to color for babies while I was doing my research. As I recall, I only found tidbits of information scattered here and there. It took me quite some time to piece it together.

      By now, there may be more information available on the Internet. My suggestion would be to run some Internet searches on phrases like “blue and pink baby clothes,” “baby clothing color superstitions,” “history of baby clothes colors,” or other phrases which you think might pull up information of interest to you. If you need help crafting your search keywords and phrases, I would recommend that you check with the research librarian at your local library. They should be able to help you refine your searches to get the most useful results.

      In particular, I would suggest that you run such searches on Google Books. Those results will give you a list of books which contain the kind of information you want. Even if the full book is not available for viewing on Google Books, you will have the bibliographic citations for any books which interest you. That will enable you to get copies of those books from your local library, or request them through their Inter-Library Loan Department. Plus, in most cases, your searches should also include the page numbers for any references your Internet searches turn up. If you make a note of those, you will be able to quickly find the information you want once you get your hands on the books.

      Good Luck!

      Kat

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