Is the Gendered Children’s Room Finally Done?
In fact, notes Barr, pink was at the time “seen as the stronger and therefore more masculine color, appropriate for boys, and pale blue as softer and therefore was touted as more feminine.” Still, through the early 20th century, the colors were used sparingly, and children until about age six were dressed similarly as a matter of practicality. Yet with the impact of World War II and the solidifying of gender norms it brought, the pink-blue distinction became a money-making opportunity: “It’s not until the 1940s that Americans settled on pink for girls, and blue for boys,” says Barr. “It also connects to the rise of consumerism in American culture, post–World War II. Marketers realized that—if girls wore pink, and boys wore blue—they could potentially sell a lot more stuff. Marketing to children and their wallet-holding parents grew steadily through the late 20th century, but in the 1970s, more unisex or masculine-skewing kids clothing, toys, and interior decorations were fashionable. This reflects the women’s movement of the time and the thought that feminine gender norms were holding girls back.”
Trends in fashion—and scientific progress—in the mid-1980s created another cultural shift, with what Barr calls a return “to ‘traditional values’ and renewed interest in traditional, historicist interiors.” Thanks to the “rising availability of prenatal testing at this time,” she points out, “parents could learn months before the birth whether they were having a boy or a girl and could begin shopping, and decorating, along gender-specific lines right away.”
“As consumer culture grew through the late 1980s into today, the average American house grew significantly larger, and consumer goods become ever more affordable. Today it is within reach of many households to decorate not only for girls versus boys, but to redecorate for the arrival of each new child—and not only a bedroom but also perhaps a child’s bathroom and playroom, as well.”
It’s a trend that has infiltrated present-day gender reveal parties, where, on command, balloons explode with pink or blue confetti and cakes are sliced open to reveal the appropriately-dyed cake color indicating the unborn baby’s sex. “The mania” of the parties, says Barr, “is the latest extension of this interest in color-coding children’s genders even before they are born.”
At the high end, at least, children’s designers have been moving away from the dramatic decorative fluctuations of the last 70 years. Lora Appleton—founder of Kinder Modern, the children’s design gallery and studio, with pieces on view in the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collection—says “parents are finally less concerned about the delineation of gender and more interested in spaces that grow with their children. We are also spending much more time in our children’s spaces as families, so we often design for the parents who are much more interested in moving away from traditional color palettes of blue and pink to more fun color mixes: fun takes on primary and dramatic choices like monochromatic palettes, black and white and strong patterning as creative drivers.” The bounds of tradition, she says, are confining. “Part of a child’s development is influenced by the space around them, so why not create a space that allows for individuality in both color and concept?”