“Let us go back to the language considered as a product of society at work: it is a set of signs fixed by agreement between the members of that society; these signs evoke ideas, but in that respect it’s rather like rituals, for instance.” (Saussure)
In 1918, Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department publicly signified gender in the United States by assigning colors to children’s clothing. Previously, children had been dressed in white dresses until age 6 or 7, a practical choice given the ability to bleach the clothing.
Their publication read thus: “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. 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.” (Smithsonian)
Because visual language is directly influenced by social usage, it is important to recognize that this representation of gender by color had been a part of social languaging around gender for quite some time, which differed between cultures across the globe depending on the fashion and the retailers advertisements. In this way, companies soon gained social control of what color signified.
Saussure reference to signs in language is applicable here, despite the “sign” not being one that references the symbols we commonly see in reference to language. Visual language itself is as complex as any written or spoken language. Here, I apply the term “sign” to the visual component color. As a global society, thanks mostly to capitalism and advertisement, we have come to signify pink as a girls color, and blue as a boys color. The value assigned to these colors is in direct connection to their differences, as Saussure indicates is the only way in which they can have meaning: “It is only through the differences between signs that it will be possible to give them a function, a value” (Chapter VI).
There is nothing in nature that indicates that color belongs to any gender. Many species of animals are similarly colored along gender lines, though birds do differ more between male and female, with males being more colored than females–however, no specific color belongs to males in general.
Despite the social agreement that these colors signify gender, there have been attempts to change the social languaging of color through gender neutral clothing, first beginning in the 1970’s and continuing to today. However, the mainstream signifiers of gender remain in place and are upheld by retailers and consumers.
Saussure, F. de. (n.d.). Third Course of Lectures on General Linguistics. Retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/fr/saussure.htm
Smithsonian Institute. (2011, April 7). When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink? Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/when-did-girls-start-wearing-pink-1370097/