Open thread: Should we use the terms “feminine” and “masculine” to describe decorating styles?

1954-kohler-pink-bathroom-croppedI have been thinking a lot this summer about labels. Labels have been frequently in the news, often surrounding very serious events. Two labels that occasionally (although not often) come up here are “feminine” and “masculine,” used to describe decor. These days I am not liking these labels. I am thinking: Never again will I use these words on this blog, unless used to examine history. Dear readers, what do you think? Above: In 1954, Kohler did not shy from putting a boy in a pink bathroom. Would any company do this today

Did you see this recent story about Target’s decision to no longer use gender descriptions to differentiate toys, home and entertainment? I’m liking this.

Here are a few of my thoughts on why the time has come to sideline the terms “feminine” and “masculine” to describe decor and decorating styles:

  • It seems that these labels are virtually all driven by cultural norms that change over time and are in no way absolute. For example, we’ve written before about Jo Paolettis’s book, Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America (affiliate link), which studied how the modern associations of pink for girls and blue for boys rose to prominence relatively recently in the history of child rearing. And wood paneling — probably widely viewed as a man-cave material today — well, that was such a common wall covering for so many decades in the 20th Century that I can’t imagine it was viewed as masculine or feminine. Is there any aspect of a decorating preference that is truly hard-wired into our biology based on our sex? Okay, I did track this story in 2008, but now the source link is dead, so I don’t know how to investigate further.
  • These decorating labels promote and reinforce hard-to-change cultural norms that run deep and which limit the behaviors and opportunities of people of both genders. As in: If so-called feminine decor is soft and ornamental –> then so must be girls and women. Ergo, hard-edged, no-nonsense “masculine” decor underscores the notion that men must be these things, too.
  • They are stereotypes. Nix these labels and instead, work a little harder to find and use more specific descriptive language about the decorating choices made by each unique individual.

Why do you think about using the terms “feminine” and “masculine” to describe decor, dear readers?


Categoriespostwar culture
  1. Rick G says:

    Although I’m late to the party, I’ll add my 2 cents …… I’ve never been able to understand how, or why people get so bent out of shape with certain colors that they’ve been brain washed into thinking are some type of sinister / magical sex symbol !! When I see pink, yellow & blue – I see the primary colors & that’s it. I feel that the style of a piece of furniture is much more an indicator, if it is a chunky it is often described as masculine, on the other hand, if it has refined, delicate features; feminine … that, I sort of see the reasoning. Anyways, I feel that if a person is wanting to paint a color in their place, they should just go ahead & do it for themselves – If it makes you smile, that is all that really matters.

  2. Jenny says:

    I do not believe a house or it’s d’core can be described in terms of the sexes per se’ but in terms of the times. Prior to 1970 , women spent 75% of the time in the home.. Women stayed home and took care of “their end of things” , which at that point of time ,was generally expected that the men made the money and was not home so much. The gender issues came about with women’s work outside the home , careers , and achievements. This is about marking territory and little to nothing to do with style. Our homes have become the proverbial fire hydrant!

  3. 1940sCrazy says:

    I’m with you, Pam. Whether it’s English Garden, 50s Modern, or eclectic, we style our homes to our own tastes anyway. I tend toward the more feminine (and we have a predominantly pink and green couch and chair in the LR), traditionally styled tables and lamps, because I like it cozy and inviting, not stark and sterile. And I was never a “traditional” stay at home mom until my late 60s.

    1. 1940sCrazy says:

      I meant to put “feminine” in quotes and to say that my 25yr old grandson (who lives w/me) or any other male has ever complained about the decor and just say it looks good.

  4. la563 says:

    No plumbing fixture company would put a boy in a pink bathroom in 2015, because THEY DON’T MAKE PINK BATHROOMS ANYMORE…..

    I can do without the gendered styles. I’m male and live with a woman so we both have to agree on everything (or at least she does :-). I’ve seen lots of suposedly masculine styles she picks out for herself and plenty of “feminine” styles (hearts everywhere!) that I want for the house. Good design trancends gender IMO.

  5. The Atomic Mom says:

    There is nothing wrong with using either of those words to describe things. People only feel “trapped” by those terms if they choose to feel that way. We shouldn’t fear those terms or what they mean. Please don’t give into political correctness.

  6. Cynthia says:

    Dear Pam, I was glad to read your clarification, that you will not ban comments using the words “masculine” or “feminine”, but you will omit them from your own posts. OK, that’s up to you. Writing is better and more creative without using shorthand descriptions or labels like those too often. To me it’s a matter of style or talent in writing, same as style or talent in décor, and nothing more. But no wrong is done by using them. A wise old priest once cautioned an excessively earnest and sincere parishioner against the error of “scrupulosity” in confession, wherein one agonizes over every tiny action or oversight as if it’s the unpardonable sin. If you don’t intend to insult, say what you will without censoring yourself or worrying that someone may take an innocent comment the wrong way. What’s happening to us?
    The 50s are decried as patriarchal and in that era the majority of dollars spent to buy, furnish and decorate homes were earned by men…who must not have objected to pink or other “feminine” décor completely, or they would have never “allowed” their wives to pick pink tile, appliances, floral prints, etc. Most men have traditionally lived in homes decorated by women and sometimes with so-called “feminine” taste to the exclusion of all else. It’s ok for most men or most women to be attracted to different colors and styles in decor. As for Target or any other retailer, it’s better business not to label toys, for example, as “”girls” or “boys” because that steers potential buyers away. Offer items for sale and whoever is attracted, let them buy.

  7. Mary Elizabeth says:

    Well, some people are bothered that Pam is being “politically correct,” whereas I think by eliminating the terms “masculine” and “feminine” from discussions of decor she is being historically correct. Louis XIV and Victorian as styles might be considered feminine by later generations, but actually they were furniture and decorating styles that were used equally by men and women. And as for Victorian, most of the designers of that era were men–think William Morris (wallpaper and textiles), Walter Crane (artist, design theorist), Louis Comfort Tiffany (stained glass), Owen Jones (architect and design theorist), etc.

    And, as Pam and other commenters point out, the idea of blue and pink as boys’ and girls’ colors is a recent phenomenon. Child development research shows that babies of both sexes do not gravitate toward pastels at all, but more toward primary colors and black and white.

    And remember, President Dwight Eisenhower had a “Mamie pink” bathroom in the White House. When people see our two bathrooms–the 1950s pink and gray restored bathroom and the 1970s recreated green and rust one in our new edition–they jokingly ask, “Is this the little girls’ room and that one the little boys’ room?” DH says, “Well, my wife designed both, I installed everything in both, and she helped. So we both use them.”

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