history of blondes
Blonde

A Brief History of Blondes: From Bird Poop to Balayage

by akesha / last updated July 11, 2019

When it comes to colouring hair, the desire to go blonde is nothing new. People have been using chemical treatments to lift and lighten hair for thousands of years with varying degrees of success – and safety. Here the Hair Historian Rachael Gibson gives us a brief history of blondes over the years…

Blonde has always been associated with youth, goodness and beauty – and while today’s clients look to social media to find their colour inspiration, in days gone by it was goddesses and figures from classic myths and legends that served as celebrity inspiration.

Bird Poop, Sulphur and Quicklime

Throughout Ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece, there is no shortage of evidence of people colouring their hair blonde to emulate these celestial beings – more than 100 recipes for hair dye were found in Roman ruins! While some wannabe blondes sprinkled real gold dust or pollen on their hair to get the desired look, it was more common to bake the hair under the hot sun with a coating of lifting ingredients; ranging from the relatively natural white wine, elderberries and honey to a highly unpleasant blend of bird poop, sulphur and quicklime – all of which had horrific side effects ranging from burning the scalp to fatal poisoning.

This questionable approach to hair colouring continued into the Middle Ages, with women using calf kidneys, eggs and flowers to create blonde hair colourants – or, as people had done for centuries, donning blonde wigs to get the desired result.

A Lethal Mix

People continued to use potent mixtures of fruit, plant and animal extracts for hundreds of years, but it wasn’t until the late 1800s when modern hair colour formulas as we know them today started to be developed. L’Oreal was founded in 1910 by Eugene Schuler, who created the first synthetic hair colour and from there, brands started developing their own safer, more effective blonding products. In 1917, double-processing was born; stripping natural colour, then applying a second colour in the second process.

While people were still nervous about the side effects of hair colour, the popularity of bleach blonde Hollywood icons like Jean Harlow continued to drive demand. A natural brunette, her blonde was achieved with a combination of ammonia, peroxide, laundry detergent and household bleach – which when mixed, created a noxious gas. Her hair ended up so damaged, she wore wigs from her early twenties.

Blondes Have More Fun

With the 1950s came the emergence of home colour that could lighten without lifting – and finally, colouring hair became less taboo and something that women didn’t have to hide. Clairol was one of these homecare brands, and they were credited with introducing the phrase, ‘blondes have more fun’ with their 1956 campaign.

In the 1970s, natural-looking blondes became the trend, with the introduction of highlighting. While the dreaded highlighting cap was first used in the 1900s, it was during the 1970s that this technique really came to the fore, before being largely replaced with foils in the 1980s, thanks to the freedom of placement and application that they provided.

Balayage – or free-hand painting of colour – developed in Paris in the 1970s, when the acclaimed Carita salon started promoting the technique. Originally called Balayage a Coton, thanks to the cotton wool pieces used to separate sections, it became popular with celebrity hairdressers in the US following a New York Times feature.

Today, there’s more choice than ever when it comes to blondes – from natural-looking balayage effects to creative pastels and dramatic blondes, without the damage, thanks to in-built bond strengtheners and innovative plexes.

While techniques and formulations might have changed – very much for the better! – the desire to transform hair colour is as strong today as it was in the earliest days of humankind.

Check out the Hair Historian on Instagram! 

Lead image via Rex Features

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