BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 12:33 GMT, Thursday, 10 December 2009

Men in the pink

Men wearing pink clothes

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

A pressure group wants parents to resist buying pink toys for girls this Christmas. But the colour isn't just controversial for girls - men are only just getting over their fuchsia phobia and for boys pink really does stink.

If you're a typical little boy, pink is viewed as girly, effeminate, unmasculine, and, in short, to be avoided.

And yet, a strange thing seems to happen to the modern British boy when they reach adulthood. Pink no longer seems to be so rigidly associated with female dress.

In many areas of British life, like the City, pink shirts are seen as normal workwear. Pink ties are normal. Even pink socks make an appearance.

Boy in pink shirt
There are men who are comfortable in pink who would not dress their sons in pink

And it's not just in finance. Pink is a classic colour for polo shirts. On everyone from mods in Fred Perry, to those who model their dress on football "casuals", pink is not seen as fundamentally feminine.

The colour is currently popular in both high fashion and the High Street, says Robert Johnston, associate editor of GQ magazine.

"We have all grown up a bit. Pink is a flattering colour. This season there are a lot of pastels for men - a lot of those will be pink. Women like men in pink."

To take one example, 5% of shirts sold by the English shirtmaker Turnbull & Asser, based in London's Jermyn Street, are pink. "It is one of the default choices," says buyer Charles O 'Reilly.

Pink hasn't always been acceptable for men.

"We have come a long way even compared with 20 years ago," says Johnston. "Pink was the last taboo colour-wise."

Running for 18 months
Currently targeting Early Learning Centre
Activists argue that while a wide variety of boys' toys are available, those for girls are often predominantly pink

"If you look at places like Jermyn Street and Savile Row you will see pink," says Bronwyn Cosgrave, author of Costume & Fashion: A Complete History. " It is historic."

So the story of pink clothing acceptance isn't as simple as a recent innovation.

"Men, for centuries up to the dawn of the 20th Century, were far more elaborately dressed than women," says Ms Cosgrave. In the era of the dandy - the late 18th Century - pink wasn't that unorthodox for a man.

"There was a great sobering effect with the dawn of the Wall Street and City culture - men have gone to work in the last 100 years in pinstripes and white shirts."

There were exceptions. "Douglas Fairbanks and Cary Grant - immensely important in popularising modes of male dress - wore pink shirts and sweaters," says Ms Cosgrave.

In the 1960s and 1970s the influence of the counterculture on dress also began to loosen things up, she argues.

Quentin Tarantino gazes at Brad Pitt's pinkish suit
Pastel tones are apparently 'in' right now

Colour consultant Angela Wright concurs. "Until about 40 or 50 years ago, men did not show their feminine side at all. They were required to be strong and ultra masculine the whole time, so pink was out.

"There was little doubt in anyone's mind that a man wearing pink was definitely suspect. When the pace of evolving attitudes increased, around the same time as homosexuality between consenting adults was legalised, the strong demarcation lines between the sexes began to blur."

Even the idea that pink is a colour particularly associated with homosexuality doesn't bear out.

"Gay men don't actually appear to feel the need to stress that side of themselves in their dress," says Ms Wright, of consultancy firm Colour Affects. "It is more a case that society does that for them, by, for example, naming their purchasing habits 'The Pink Pound'."

Certain tailors, like Richard James and Ozwald Boateng, are associated with the use of flamboyant colours. And traditionalists have also beat a path.

Woman with pink shirts and blouses
Dress became less conservative in the 1960s and 1970s

"Thomas Pink really did legitimise men flaunting pastel shades such as pink and lavender," says Ms Cosgrave.

After the austerity of the middle years of the 20th Century, fashion has come back to the point where wearing pink would be seen as nothing more than flamboyant, or having certain "preppy" or upper class connotations.

"It has got that Ivy League, slightly public school [connotation], you think of posh boys, sweaters round their shoulders," says Johnston.

"The gender separating of colours of clothing is more or less over."

Perhaps the strangest thing is that the bar against pink for boys persists. The very same men who are happy to wear a pink polo shirt might think twice about dressing a 10-year-old boy the same way.

"I remember when I was a kid little boys would throw away pink felt tips [from a set]."

Golfer in pink shirt and shoes
Pink no longer undermines a man

It has been noted, not least by the sceptic Ben Goldacre while attacking research on the subject, that the pink/blue split was not always as it is today.

He cited the Ladies' Home Journal from 1918 saying: "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 colour is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl."

So the mystery of why people will not dress boys in pink persists.

Here is a selection of your comments.

When I had my son a few years ago I was annoyed by the lack of imagination shown by manufacturers when it came to buying clothes and toys - most items for a boy are blue while girls are pink. Personally I hate baby blue and pink! The older members of my family rigidly stuck to this idea that a boy should only be in blue with one commenting after I had him wrapped in a cosy pink blanket, "He'll turn into a pansy if he's in pink". In a deliberately rebellious move on my part, I bought my son a pink T-Shirt in the summer which had "Tough Enough to Wear Pink" written on it. I've tried to encourage a range of colour in my son's life and not just one boring blue.
Angelene, Stenhousemuir

The French rugby club Stade Francais in 2005 decided to try and shock the rugby community by introducing a pink away strip.
Terry, Chicago

As a little girl I loathed pink, especially when my parents painted my room that colour. To this day it makes me physically ill. I'm not so sure about men wearing pink. I much prefer darker colours on them to bring out their colouring or their eyes. A nice pastel green or blue on a man is very nice, especially with a nice co-ordinating tie, but to me pink makes a man look "frilly" and I prefer my man to look and dress like a man.
Mary , Joshua, Texas USA

Whether you like him or loathe him (I fall into the former camp, I admit), one chap who wears pink quite often is Jeremy Clarkson. There's certainly nothing "dainty" or "pretty" about him! I've noticed one particular pink and white check number that has appeared on Top Gear so many times, it should be getting its own residuals...
Wyvern, London, UK

I think there is still a north/south divide on this issue. The men up here do not wear pink so readily as this article suggests! Give it a few years yet.
Simon Parry, Liverpool

There's a big difference between a masculine-looking bloke wearing pink (as I now do) and an androgenous boy (as I was) wearing pink. I remember well the ire of being being mistaken for a girl at a younger age. The last thing I needed then was to have worn pink.
Mike Rigby, Taunton, Somerset

Pink used to be very much a man's colour some decades ago. And when we visited the Carnival in Venice a few years ago, there was an elderly gentleman in a beautiful pink frock coat and breeches - he looked refined and magnificent!
Max McKean, Shiplake-on-Thames, Oxon, England

Our trading floor has "pink shirt Thursday" - so your article is timely. The trading floor is like a river of pink. And yes, we have pink socks on too!
Alastair, Tring, Herts

I have yet to see a man who looks good in pink! It really is an effeminate colour that seldom looks good on women! Please let men be real men and dress accordingly. There is nothing more depressing than seeing a guy being dragged around a clothes shop with a partner in hand insisting that they look fantastic in a horrendous pink shirt!
Victoria Nesbitt, Oxford

I've no objection in principle to men wearing pink, but all the examples illustrated in this article are hideous, especially that pink jacket with a grey cravat... *shudder*.
Ian Sutherland, Edinburgh

My 10 year old son still does throw pink pens and pencils away because they're girlie. As for why I won't even try to dress him in pink? A) he'd never speak to me again (or at least until he was hungry enough or wanted money) and B)his favourite colour is black, which doesn't show the dirt and washes well.
Anon, Lancashire

Mystery!? I've got one word for you. Bullying. Adults may have moved on but kids will be kids. Single your little boy out by making him wear pink and the bullies have found their new target. Hardly rocket science
Jobsworth, UK

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific