Monday, 9 June 2014

Jane Austen thought boys should wear pink

She was not making any challenge to gender stereotypes and she was not at all alone in her opinion. In the old days, pink was considered a boys' colour and blue was for girls. Pink is a shade of red, which was thought to be masculine and strong; whereas blue was considered delicate and soft and feminine. My sole authority for this is an episode of QI, so if I am wrong, I blame that program entirely.

Apparently, this was the case until the 20th century. Stephen Fry shared a story about a princess in Belgium, I think, in the 1930s who had painted her nursery blue in anticipation of having a baby girl. It was quite scandalous when she had a boy, and the press laughed at the idea of putting a baby boy in a blue room. She would definitely have to re-paint lest she offend her son's masculinity.

I suspect this was more the case in Europe. I asked my grandmother, who was around in the 1930s, and she had never heard of this reversal. I have been told by a friend that the French used pink for girls and blue for boys, and the Germans the reverse. French came to dominate in the area of fashion, so we now all think of blue as a boy colour and pink as a girl colour, or at least that they used to be so. Pink is, of course, for everyone, as is blue.

I am sure I have read many places that English children wore white. They certainly did as babies. They wore long white dresses. It was much easier to dress and to change them that way, and was much warmer. At what point they started wearing colours I am not sure.

In the same episode of QI, we were also told that all children used to be called girls. Boys were called knave girls and girls were called gay girls. I looked this up. At least according to Wikipedia, it is true. The word girl came to be used exclusively for females around the end of the 1500s.

While on the subject, the word man used to be used for all people. Wer, or werman meant man and wif or wifman meant woman. Eventually, the wer was dropped for men and wifman developed into woman. After the great vowel shift (see earlier post) wif became wife, and came to refer to a married woman, though it is still used to mean woman in the word midwife. Wer is mostly gone, with the exception of werwolf.

So, when someone refers to the race of men, or mankind, they are not being sexist; they are just being old-fashioned, and, in a sense, more accurate.

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

Read Chapter 1      Watch the Trailers      Download eBook      Order Paperback

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