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After posting about the lack of distinction in colours in 18th century/early 19th century children’s dress last week in the post about Emma’s nephew’s cockade, I’ve had a few  emails expressing astonishment and one, complete incredulity that the colours pink and blue were not assigned exclusively to girls(pink) and boys(blue) in the long 18th century. So I hope you don’t mind but I’m going to write a little more about it just to attempt to clear up the lingering doubts some of you clearly have.

All the illustrations in this post are all taken from the exhibition catalogue produced by the wonderful Holburne Museum in Bath for their 2005 exhibit, Pictures of Innocence: Portraits of Children from Hogarth to Lawrence. Below is the cover, showing Thomas Gainsborough’s beautiful and enigmatic double portrait of his daughters, The Painter’s Daughters chasing a Butterfly, circa 1756

The first portrait I am going to refer to  dates from 1767 and shows Queen Charlotte, wife and Queen Consort of George III, holding her fourth child and first daughter, the Princess Royal. This is a pastel and is beautifully executed by Francis Cotes, with the Queen raising her finger, warning the approaching viewer to be quiet and not wake her sleeping baby. You can clearly see that the  trimmings on the child’s predominantly white clothing are blue and not pink,as we might expect given the child’s sex.

The next portrait is of the eminent Victorian writer and artist, John Ruskin as a boy. Born in 1819, this portrait was made in 1822 when he was 3 years old. It was painted by James Northcote. Clearly not yet  breeched, he wears blue shoes and a blue sash and his white long dress has blue trimmings upon it.

Below is an earlier portrait by Arthur Devis of an unknown boy in a landscape circa 1745.

The unbreeched boy wears a mixture of colours: a blue trimming to his hat and a blue sash to his white dress, yet he wears red shoes, though he clutches a crop or switch, presumably to delineate his masculinity.

This full-sized portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds of the Lamb Children c 1783 shows the three sons of the first Viscount Melbourne. Peniston on the left is the oldest boy at 13 years old. Nearly grown up and a scholar at Eton, he wears  a sober coloured gentleman’s suit with knee beeches, buckles and white stockings though his immaturity is shown by his hair not being dressed. William, on the right, is shown cheerfully steadying his baby brother. Later to become Prime Minster,and a favourite of the young Queen Victoria William is dressed in a skeleton suite, the loose trousers of which were inspired by the  hard-wearing and loose clothing of labourers and sailors. Perfect wear therefore for lively little boys. The unbreeched baby Fred is shown wearing a white dress and pink sash,and a very elaborate hat.

This portrait, above, by Johan Zoffany of George, Prince of Wales and Frederick, later to be the Duke of York ,the sons of George III, was completed circa 1764-5. The Prince of Wales wears a deep pink dress with blue sash,whereas Frederick wears a blue dress with deep pink sash. Clearly here there is no allocation of these colours  to a child’s sex : both boys and girls wear pink and blue, and indeed a mixture of these colours. It was only in the mid 20th century that the allocation of pink for a girl and blue for a boy was made.

Next time you find yourself  in an art gallery, or grand house, you might care to seek out portraits of children from the long 18th century and  try to discern when the colours pink and blue became associated with one sex. Hint- it was certainly not in our time period!

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