Is It Real, or Is It Clairol?

Fashion and its victims.
July 8 1998 3:30 AM

Is It Real, or Is It Clairol?

The end of natural blondness.

Illustration by Amanda Duffy

The other day, as I was sitting at a Paris cafe watching all the summery people sitting around or sauntering past, something struck me. Blondes were everywhere, their bright thatches catching the sun, but until that minute, I hadn't taken proper notice of the fact that not one of them was a natural. A few flaxen-headed children under 12 were, maybe. But I saw no teen-age, adult, or elderly blondes whose blond hair actually covered their scalps all the way to the roots. Everybody had abundant streaks or sizable tracts of blondness, all supported by dark roots under the outer layers of golden glow.

I further realized that this had been the case for years in Paris and New York and that I hadn't seen a real blonde--the kind with pale lashes to match--since the last time I was in Amsterdam. If you remain a pure blonde at 17 these days, you have to dye your hair coppery red or pitch-black or give up all hope of chic. Natural blondness, once the badge of physical and moral perfection, now marks you as hopelessly true-blue, white-bread, straight-arrow, old hat. You're no longer enticingly innocent and desirable but boringly earnest, naive, and solemn.

True blondes used to thank providence for their hair, then paint their brows and lashes dark to create enough smolder to match its conventionally sexy shimmer. Dark-haired girls could dye their hair blond, but no trace of the original color was permitted to show. Popular fiction of the 1940s and '50s was full of scathing descriptions of women whose deceptive blondness was dark at the roots. It was the visual evidence of feet of clay, a heart of sloth, a general moral degradation. Blondness could be false; but integrity dwelt in keeping it perfect. Dimming natural blondes would scrupulously dye the blond back in and touch up all traces of shadow at the roots weekly.

Today, sober or smoldering brunettes leave their natural roots in place and add blondness to taste, as a patent ornament and sophisticated reference. Hair dye that proclaims itself as such used to be marginal and nonfashionable, the exclusive privilege of prostitutes, actresses, strippers, drag queens, and anybody who didn't mind being taken for them. Now it is modish for both sexes. Dennis Rodman undoubtedly had a lot to do with this. Lately, we have all wanted to resemble exciting, quasimarginal celebrities. We want to show that we are not afraid of their beauty secrets and can appropriate their willful blondness or other visual caprices for our own ends.

Illustration by Amanda Duffy

One popular scheme for hair--top half blond, bottom half dark--seems to have originated in the punk styles of the late 1980s, when kids bleached the top half of their spiky hair so they could dye it green or purple. When the colors washed out, the bleached-blond effect remained; and when the whole thing grew out, the dark roots showed up under the pale spikes--presto! a new avant-garde fashion, contemporaneous with the start of body piercing. These evolving styles were much deplored by the mainstream at the time and have duly been adopted by all and sundry.

Intrigued by all this, I looked at a recent Paris Match for some pictures of desirable female blondes. There was Kelly Preston, the wife of John Travolta, her blond pile of hair covering only the top half of her skull, her nape and temples brown. There, too, was the French actress Julie Delpy, with a flowing blond mane and an inch of dark roots, the new ideal of perfect blond young womanhood. And there on the next page was the old ideal. It was the Grace Kelly of 1952, every bright golden hair on her head springing straight through her scalp out of her pure mind and elegant soul and reverently coiled into a triumph of gleaming sculpture.

Illustration by Amanda Duffy

Next I looked at blondes from the more distant past. Titian is the most famous for painting golden hair, along with his many Venetian Renaissance followers, and it's also well known that ladies in Renaissance Venice dyed their hair blond. There's a famous engraving showing them doing it, with a detailed description of the method.

What were the results? Many beauties portrayed by Titian, Palma Vecchio, and Paris Bordone catch the eye with their rippling cascades and looped braids of brilliant yellow hair. But a closer look shows they all have dark eyes and dark eyebrows and that their hair spreads from a center part where at least an inch or two of dark roots is clearly visible on either side. You can usually see more darkness along the hairline behind the ears, too. So these Venetians were theoretical blondes, just like Rodman and Delpy. Their dyed hair was meant not to deceive but to function as a sort of witty allusion to an outworn creed.

In the humanist High Renaissance, golden hair brought to mind the secular and classical beauty of Venus and her mythological colleagues, whom such beauties often posed as. At the same epoch, a Virgin Mary by Titian would be forthrightly dark-haired. But his errant and penitent Mary Magdalene would use Venus' skilled hairdresser.

To find the Grace Kelly of European painting, you have to go back to the 15th century in central Italy, France, and especially the Netherlands. There you see breathtakingly pure and candid golden hair, flowing down from the Virgin's head in a natural veil, suggesting the descending rays of an ultimate blessing from above. Eve wears it too, as do many female saints--the wayward Magdalene included--and many princesses. No artifice assists these honeylike waves. This is celestially ordained blondness, the mark of God's favor, affirming the signal beauty of the old pagan deities who had already given all blondes--torrid or chilly, fake or real--an edge for 2,000 years.

It's a sign of a permanently altered world that natural blondness should have such sacred power no longer. Instead, we have reinvented the much more flexible and imaginative Venetian blondness. We have a new awareness of how limiting and unfair the cult of fair hair can be. Natural dark-haired beauty--despised or exoticized for eons by Europeans, Britons, and Americans--has at last been universally recognized and welcomed. Its varicolored roots have grown in for all to see and for all to reckon with. Blondness has become just one of the many attractive ways to adorn dark hair.

Anne Hollander is Slate's fashion columnist.