Vintage Hair Color
May 31, 2017 | by Ellen Dial
Vintage Hair Color, a Thankfully Brief History
Given the fact approximately 70% of American women use coloring products on their heads, I’m betting you, darling reader, do. Whether it’s a full color or highlights or lowlights, permanent or semi-perm. To darken, lighten, add depth or cover your gray – women (and a small number of our male counterparts) color their hair.
I do, or did. Since High school… Born blonde, my hair began to darken as I aged. Oh the humanity! Started with getting my hair “frosted” – pieces and hunks of my hair pulled through a plastic cap and bleached, remember those awful caps and the crochet hook used to pull the hair through? I recall a process early on called “sprinkle bleaching” – after a visit to the shampoo bowl (my favorite part!) – powdered bleach stuff was actually sprinkled on my wet head and combed through. Left to fester then washed out. More may have gone into it, but this is what I remember.
Woot! Looked pretty darn good!
After the cap and the sprinkles, came the dozens of foil packets (I have a load of hair, I’m lucky!) and a more sophisticated color solution – both high and low lights.
Very fancy and VERY expensive, many trips amounting to nearly $300 – taking upwards of four hours. And having a numb skull (pun intended? You decide.) for an hour after.
I completely respect the time, talent and skill that goes into providing these types of services, my totally over-the-top fantastic aunt Teresa is a long-time hair dresser and shop owner. Her equally gorgeous and talented granddaughter, Hanna, has taken up the mantel as well. Love and kudos to these wonderful women!
With that said, I’ve decided to let my hair go natural. No more streaks and dye. No more 2-plus hour hair ordeals. No more strong chemical smells or a head full of foil. All against the opinion of my amazing momma. “Too young”, says she.
Now my hair is quite gray and silver in the front and more salt and pepper toward the back. I’m a good 6 months into the grow out phase. Doesn’t look too bad! Not overly noticeable. I don’t look homeless.
Promise not to bore you with my grow out experience, you can Google “letting your hair go gray” and finds dozens of these stories on the YouTubes, Pinterest and blogs. It’s a thing and some of the stories are funny and interesting.
Back to color, or the history of hair color, vintage beauty and the fight for the perfect head of hair.
Vintage Hair Color | The Roman Legions
Back back in the way back, during the Roman Empire and before (think King Tut) people colored their locks. They used henna and the ashes of various plants and nuts to achieve the desired effect. Slathering this muck on their heads and baking their heads in the sun, sometimes for months to get the process completed. Golden or blonde colors were initially slotted for prostitutes as a symbol of their profession. Of course, other, non-prostitute women liked the look and followed suit, usually the wealthy.
If the goo failed, they wore blonde wigs.
Henna was used to cover the gray or to get a reddish tinge.
Saxon and Gaul warriors dyed their hair various colors to show wealth, influence and to intimidate enemies on the field of battle. “That dude with blue hair is a beast and rich, too …” Many movies set in this time show key military leader-types with vivid color streaks in their hair.
Who was the first person with the thought that blue/red/yellow hair would be like, uber-scary? Considering they didn’t WASH their hair much, if at all…. Not a good optic, methinks. But that’s a whole other issue.
Our long-ago ancestors motored along like this for quite some time.
Blonde meant fun, sexy and rich.
Others’ colors could mean fierce, brave and well, rich.
Vintage Hair Color | Red and Gold
Red hair was first noted in Scotland and came about as a genetic mutation back in the Dark Ages.
Elizabeth Tudor was a redhead – of course, other women followed suit. With that came suspicions surrounding redheads. Because witchcraft. Always witchcraft. Golden hair was a big thing back in the Renaissance- again, the sun and various natural remedies were used to achieve this color and when in doubt, wear a wig (as QE1 did as her hair started fading and graying out). Blonde hair was considered angelic. Very desirable.
If you wanted to go in the opposite direction, and enhance your naturally dark hair (over 60% of people have/had darker hair) you could use henna, indigo, sage or chamomile to boost and/or darken your hair color.
Or cover those pesky grays. Darn it!
Did they browse scandal rags while processing?
Vintage Hair Color | Victorian Scientists and Mistakes
As with most discoveries, a more permanent solution to the wrong hair color dilemma came about as a mistake. The epically bearded William Henry Perkin was researching a treatment for malaria in the mid-1800’s when he stumbled upon a solution.
Now, putting this on one’s head is a wonderful idea, right?
Can’t cure a disease, but you can color your hair… wait for it…. Mauve. And who doesn’t want mauve hair? He created the first aniline dye- purple mauveine. Used for both cloth and hair.
The commercial hair color industry is born. The first commercially available product was called L’ Aureole, we know it as L’Oreal today.
Now, men had been using silver nitrate (a chemical also used to process photographs) on their facial hair for many years prior, “Grecian Water” (Remember Grecian Formula 16 ?) was combed in to cover gray – I feel certain some of this water made it onto their heads and the heads of the female members of their households, and why not? Of course, I’m just speculating here.
In the name of discretion, the practice of coloring one’s hair, was done secretively and in private. Not something one would want everyone to know about, for shame! Only loose women did it openly, natch.
Before and during the Great War, hair color took a wild turn, pink, yes pink hair became a thing! Really!
Fashion mags of the day touted the beauty and stylishness of pink hair. In January of 1914 the writer Margaret Mason extolled the glories of pink hair – encouraging women to lean towards a bright shade of cerise. The use of henna could boost your red and/or move you to pink, she stated, “Pink hair is the pink of fashionable perfection.”
Which seems to go in the opposite direction of the fashion austerity that was promoted during wartime, it was considered poor taste to be opulently clothed while tens of thousands of boys were dying in the trenches. Pink hair is pretty opulent, right? Perhaps a carryover from the wild Edwardians.
Vintage Hair Color | It’s Platinum, Baby!
Throughout the 1920’s flappers colored their hair, and of course, only flappers since respectable ladies didn’t do such things! The rebellious flappers colored their hair to suit their care-free, youthful exuberance and to match the spirit of the day. Dark hair was it – think Louise Brooks, Theda Bara and the other “naturally” dark haired goddesses of the silent screen.
No, not all women were flappers back then, check out this past article. (Shameless plug)
A big hair color trend started brewing in the 20’s and came to fruition in the 1930’s was the platinum blonde, Howard Hughes coined the term with the release of his movie Platinum Blonde starring the glamorous Jean Harlow. Who, of course, never admitted to dying her hair.
If Hollywood does it – so must we!
Women flocked to their hair dresser and attempted it at home, wanting to achieve this new look. Very glam. Very sexy. Very bad!
How did they achieve this siren look? Poison. Clorox, peroxide, ammonia and Lux soap flakes. Mix this household chemical mess up and slather it on. How could this be a bad idea? In droves, women fried their hair and burned their scalps. BTW? Bleach and ammonia mixed together make hydrochloric acid. Think about it. Really, really dangerous – can cause kidney damage when inhaled. Rumor has it that this lethal blend contributed to Harlow’s early death, she was in her late 20’s.
Many, many stars jumped on the blonde bandwagon – Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and scads of others. Did they know how bad this was?
Pain for beauty.
Through the years, coloring one’s hair has become more and more mainstream. We all remember the ads for Miss Clairol “Does she, or doesn’t she?” And more recent ads on the TV-machine, “I’m gonna wash that gray right out of my hair.”
We did and we do. Wild hair trends come and go, right now it’s “Unicorn Hair”, a melange of pastel steaks. Ombré color is hot too, some of the examples look great! Even my wonderful friend Becky did pink hair – she looked amazing! An example of individuality that worked. Sometimes, not so much.
Women spend millions of dollars each year to get rid of the gray or follow the latest color trend. I know I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on my mane over my life time. Did (do) I have good hair? Yep. But at this moment in time, I’d rather use the money for wine.
A girl must have her priorities.
To our darling readers: What color trends have you followed? Do you color your hair? Are you thinking about going natural?
The writer would like to thank: Wikipedia.com, theatlantic.com, hairfinder.com, latimes.com, beautifulwithbrains.com, slate.com, weheartvintage.com.
And those who post images freely on the internet.