From 1500 BC to 2015 AD: The Extraordinary History of Hair Colour
If you're lucky, you escaped the dangers of your early teens (and perhaps pre-teen years)—namely the drastic and inevitably unflattering hair-colour change, often at the hands of your best friend. If you're even luckier, you've made it this far with having to sit down in hairdresser's chair and hear the words "colour correction." And if you're really lucky, you've avoided the hair colourist's chair and the bathroom hair dye situation altogether. To those fortunate few, we say mazel tov. The rest of us, for better or worse, have been dyeing, highlighting, balayaging, toning, and glossing enough to make your head spin. Because for the majority of women, hair colour is an important part of beauty (more on this below). And we've come a long way in the journey to beautiful, vibrant, hair commercial colour. Just how far? Just how many hairs have been tinted throughout the course of history? Keep reading to find out!
Given how accomplished the Egyptians were as a civilisation, it shouldn’t really surprise us that they too dabbled in hair dye. They would use henna to camouflage grey hair (yes, the preoccupation with greys dates way back).
Years later, the Greeks and Romans used plant extracts to color their strands. They also created a permanent black hair dye. However, when they discovered it was too toxic to use, they switched to a formula made with leeches that had been fermented in a lead vessel for two months. It took a few hundred years to expand the color choices beyond black.
During the Roman Empire, prostitutes were required to have yellow hair to indicate their profession. Most wore wigs, but some used a mixture made from the ashes of burnt plants or nuts to achieve the hue. Meanwhile, other ancient civilisations like the Gaul and the Saxons were dying their hair a variety of vibrant colours to show their rank and as a means of intimidating opponents on the battlefield.
Red hair first appeared as the result of a genetic mutation in the Dark Ages, with the first documented case of natural-born redhead occurring in Scotland. For many years, people with natural red hair were subjected to suspicions of witchcraft. It wasn’t until Queen Elizabeth I took her reign that red hair became more acceptable.
Not much changed until the 1800s when English chemist William Henry Perkin made an accidental discovery that changed hair dye forever. In an attempt to generate a cure for malaria, Perkins created the first synthesised dye in 1863. The color was mauve and appropriately named Mauveine. Soon after, his chemistry professor August Hoffman derived a color-changing molecule from Mauveine (called para-phenylenediamine or PPD), and it remains the foundation for most permanent hair dyes today.
In 1907, Eugene Schueller created the first chemical dye for commercial purposes. He called it “Aureole.” It would later be called “L’Oréal,” as would the company he founded.
Ever wonder where the term platinum blonde comes from? You can thank Howard Hughes (and Jean Harlow) for that. In 1931, with what might just be the most successful public relations strategy ever, Hughes released a film called Platinum Blonde, titled to promote and capitalise on the hair color of the young star, Jean Harlow. Many fans quickly followed suit, dyeing their hair to match Harlow’s. Hughes’s team even organized a chain of “Platinum Blonde” clubs across the country with a $10,000 prize that would go to any hairdresser who could Harlow’s shade.
Ironically, Harlow never admitted to dyeing her hair.
Prior to 1950, going blond involved bleach and a lot of damage. Lawrence Gelb advanced formulas in the 1930s, but the truly revolutionary discovery came in 1950. That year, Clairol, the company Gelb founded with wife Jane Clair, introduced first one-step hair dye product that actually lightened hair without bleaching it. Miss Clairol Hair Colour Bath, which allowed women to color their hair at home, discreetly (this was important as women preferred not to publicize the fact that they colored their at this time), became a huge hit with the masses.
By the late 1960s, colouring your hair commonplace, and 1968 was the last year Americans were asked to state their hair color on passports—the prevalence of hair dye made this information pointless. And by the 1970s, public sentiments towards dyeing your hair began to change. Slogans like L’Oréal’s “because you’re worth it” encouraged acceptance of openly using hair color products. Clearly, the shift in viewpoint was a lasting one.
Today you can’t turn on the television without seeing Eva Longoria, Sarah Jessica Parker, or some gorgeous celeb trying to sell you hair colour. Well, all that began in the 80s, the decade of celebrity endorsements. Brands started securing the biggest names in Hollywood (think Cybil Shepherd and Heather Locklear) to endorse their products—a natural progression given Hollywood starlets had been serving as hair colour inspiration since the '30s.
In May of 2014, while most of the population was embracing sombré and other more natural-looking hair colour techniques, Kylie Jenner took the opposite approach and made her first major hair colour transformation. The youngest Jenner sister set herself apart with the now iconic teal blue tips. Little did we know this would be the first of many vibrant hair colours for Jenner.
Today, an “estimated 70 percent of women in the U.S. use hair-colouring products," according to The Atlantic. And these days, hair colours ran the gamut. From believable looks like lived-in colour, to buzzy techniques like tortoiseshell hair, to pastel creations like opal hair, it’s clear the future of hair colour is going to be as rich as its past. Equally as evident? We all need to stock up on colour protectors if we want to carry on this way—shop our favorite colour-saving products here.
Do you colour your hair? Tell us how in the comments below!