In today’s popular culture, pink is seen as the most ‘feminine’ color, while blue is seen as the most ‘masculine’ color. However, these associations are relatively new: only around the turn of the 20th century did the pastel tones become the culturally dominant designation for girls or boys.
Not a naturally occurring pigment and quite rare, blue has had an air of mystery around it throughout history. One of the earliest blue pigments, known as ultramarine, was being used by the Egyptians some 6000 years ago when they imported the mineral responsible for the dye from Afghanistan, lapis lazuli.
It was only around the 5th century, however, that blue become a popular pigment using in painting with the advent of the less expensive mineral azurite.
After the Council of Ephesus declared dogmatically in 431 AD that Mary was “Queen of Heaven, Spiritual Mother, and Intercessor,” the Byzantine church began producing icons depicting Mary in blue robes with the new pigment from azurite that became known as Marian blue.
Depictions of Christ however, used the mineral cinnabar for the pigment, producing a bright, rich red known as vermilion to evoke connotations of martyrdom and the Blood of Christ.
These Christiological and Mariological color associations peaked with the litany of religious art produced during the High Renaissance, and eventually evolved into the gender associations that used to be.
As recently as 1918, these associations were still holding steadfast in popular culture. Ladies Home Journal in 1918 wrote:
“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.”
When exactly the switch occurred is unclear, but sometime in the 1950s the reverse association became more culturally dominant and the current tradition became blue for boys, pink for girls.