A look back on hair's colorful history reveals its dark and sometimes laughable past.
Most women who describe themselves to a blind date start with their hair color. Why?
Partly because we all bring up weight last. Even slender women are sensitive on this one. But more so, because of the emotional connection between a woman and her hair color is based on thousands of years of psychological mystique.
When you select a hair color, you not only make a statement about yourself, you tell the world who you are and with whom you want jot be associated.
A pretty heady concept for what seems simply cosmetic, but recall what Jane Russell, Liz Taylor and Sophia Loren did for brunettes.
Raven-haired beauties like Angelina Jolie owe their reputation for being sultry and exotic to such silver-screen sirens.
Then, there's Jennifer Lopez and Catherine Zeta Jones!
As for redheads, Rita Hayworth and Maureen O'Hara forever secured the idea that those formerly dubbed as "carrot-tops" are both fiery and passionate (an idea Nicole Kidman helps along), while blondes were never looked at in the same way after Marilyn and Mansfield.
Of course, Madonna has made every color hot!
Rumor and Humor
Hair color history is filled with both rumor and humor, but its timeline does reveal what we're attracted to when we select a color and where the roots of cultural attitudes lie.
Archaeologists believe that cave men used minerals, insects and plants to paint their bodies and hair to appeal or repel, though no one has yet discovered the first color to bewitch the Neanderthal man.
In 27 BC (which could be thought of as "pre-carrot-top"), the Gauls dyed their hair red to indicate class rank. But in the Dark Ages, red was associated with witchcraft. Probably because the first documented natural redhead, an actual genetic error, appeared in Scotland about this time.
Queen Elizabeth gave regal red its proper place in history when her auburn tresses were imitated to reflect royal class and today Fergie carries on the blueblood torch.
Blonde, it seems, has always been considered the most alluring to men. Roman law decreed that yellow or blonde was to be worn by "women of the night," perhaps the first indication that blondes were having more fun.
Renaissance women favored golden hues, by then considered angelic, and enhanced them by mixing black sulfur, alum and honey, applying it to their hair and spreading their tresses over a brimless hat until the sun helped them achieve the shade they desired.
Centuries later when bleaches were developed, Hollywood's blonde bombshells put the angelic image to rest and created the blonde "bad girl" who is synonymous with sexy.
While brunettes, who make up more than 60 percent of the population, never got the reputation or social attention that blondes and redheads did, they always had the greatest variety of shades to choose from, since early hair color, such as henna, indigo, sage and chamomile, could only darken hair—not lighten it.
Because so much of the Asian, south American and African population fell into the brunette category, it came to connote exotic to Europeans.
As attitudes about color changed, so did hair color formulations. Egyptian henna (now experiencing a resurgence in popularity because of its natural appeal) and mixtures made from plants and insects were the first hair colors.
Natural ingredients, limited as they were, remained the essence of hair color until the 19th century.
In the 1800s, men began using silver nitrate to darken their mustaches and in 1825, the first real hair color formulation was developed.
Grecian Water—a mixture of distilled water, silver nitrate and gum water—was highly popular until it was discovered that after repeated usage it turned hair purple.
As history is inclined to repeat itself, hair now turns slightly green when "gray coverage" products that contain metallic salts, continue to oxidize on hair.
In 1859, a German student, working with coal tar, diluted it with alcohol and the result was a purple dye. This lead to the first synthetic dye to be used on fabrics and hair, and later, to 20th century dyes, which were compounded from petroleum products.
Modern formulations, which can look natural and leave hair in beautiful condition, were fast to follow, rapidly changing attitudes about hair color and the women who use it.
Color with Pride
In the '20s, henna re-emerged as the color of choice. The '30s saw hair color go back in the closet because only 'loose girls" used it. By the end of the '30s, women admitted they colored their hair – and reveled in it.
Still, tints could only darken hair and harsh bleach was required to lighten it.
Then, in 1950, came the first real breakthrough that lightened hair without bleach. Clairol introduced Miss Clairol Hair Color Bath, which lightened and tinted in a single step, making blonde an easy thing to be. With this watershed discovery, color took off.
Spray-in colors became popular in the '50s, and the '60s saw the introduction of shampoo-in color.
Henna re-emerged as a favorite and by the '80s, women had the choice of temporary, permanent, semi-permanent and now, semi-permanent color, which combines the gentleness of semi-permanent with no-fade properties of permanent hair color.
In addition to henna, we now have vegetable dyes, to satisfy those with a "natural" bent.
Laboratories throughout the world are now working on the first laser color. While lasers can lighten in a nanosecond, the process has yet to be controlled. Unless you want to go from black to white blonde (or maybe hairless) in a lightening flash, forget lasers for the time being. They're more perfected for use in hair removal.
Given all these modern choices, the biggest question women now face is "What's best for me?"
But before you make the leap, consider this:
While you might be tempted to select a color based on your wildest fantasies, your best bet is to match your eye color and skin tone. In general, cool skin and eye tones are best complemented with cool or "ash" shades. Warm, golden skin and eye tones look most natural with warm hair colors, such as golden blonde, burnished brunette or red.
Any color can be warm or cool, depending on its primary base. The manufacturer's name usually indicates into which category a color fails.
If you prefer a natural look, also stay with a few shades of your natural hair color. (Hairdressers refer to shades as levels. Those levels range from one, which is black, to 10, which is pale blonde.) Go a bit lighter or darker, more golden or red, but avoid going from rich, dark brown to blazing red, unless daring is your style.
Also, the farther you move from your natural hair color, the more obvious your roots will be as they grow out.
Women who defect from brunette to auburn may not have to touch-up their roots for as long as two months, but if you're brunette and want to be a pale blonde, you can expect roots to be visible in as little as four weeks.
As for color categories, temporaries wash out, semi-permanent shades slowly fade in four to six weeks and permanent colors are just that. So, if you're certain you like the color, it's less costly to choose a permanent hair color.
At Home Color
Hair condition matters, too. If your hair is permed or relaxed, semi-permanent color is an advantageous choice because it's gentler on hair that's been previously exposed to chemicals. (Never bleach relaxed hair.)
The new semi-permanent or long-lasting semi-permanent colors, the newest color category, combine gentleness with long-lasting shades for one of the best choices yet. And if you're just experimenting, sheer or slightly tinted color glossers add healthy looking sheen and shine without noticeably altering your natural color.
Whatever color you choose, use a color refresher shampoo to extend the life of your hair color—and your budget. To create a quick color rinse at home, steep chamomile flowers and use when the water has cooled to extend a blonde; mix rosemary with strong, dark tea to add luster to a brunette; try saffron to brighten a red.
Experiment with customizing an herbal rinse yourself, but avoid acidic fruits, such as lemons, and strong vegetable colors. Over time, their effect is too uncontrollable, as thousands of women in the Ukraine and Russia can attest from using a beet juice rinse to achieve red.
As hair grows out, the uncolored re-growth takes on some color while the older, porous ends grab and retain lots. Sun exposure enhances the effect. The result looks like the rings of a tree stump—in several shades.
Read hair color instructions carefully and when in doubt, always do a test on a small strand first. But if you've made a mistake, don't hide under a hat for months. Salons have color removers that take you right back to where you started, where hopefully, history won't repeat itself.
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- Revised Publication Date: 03/09/10
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