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Blonde Like Me: Hair Coloring During the Regency

How I felt when I saw my new hair style
in the mirror for the first time.
(Wellcome Images© CC BY 4.0)
A few days ago I asked my hairstylist to put a highlights in my hair. I’ve had highlights before, but they were so subtle I almost couldn’t see them. And I’ve used a color-depositing shampoo to make my strawberry-blonde hair a bit more strawberry.  

So I’m not a complete hair color virgin.

But the highlights made my hair blonder than it’s been since I was little girl growing up in sun-drenched Southern California. And the experience got me thinking about the history of hair color, during the Regency and beyond.

I discovered that people have been coloring their hair for a long, long time. Historians have found over a hundred recipes that ancient Romans used to bleach or dye their hair.

Viking men dyed their beards blond, which makes me wonder about Thor’s true hair color. Roman men used a lead comb dipped in vinegar to darken their facial hair when it turned gray. It worked, but the lead had pesky side effects they didn’t know about, such as kidney failure and death.

In ancient Greece women dyed their hair gold or red-gold to look like Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Wealthy woman sprinkled actual gold dust on their hair to give it a blonde shimmer. Much like today, blonde hair was associated with youth and health as well as love. Unfortunately, blonde hair was also a trademark of prostitutes, especially high-class ones.

A Regency hairstylist. His customer must really trust him;
she's calmly reading a book while he works. If I were
her, I'd be concerned about the twin peaks on my head.
 (Wellcome Images© CC BY 4.0)
This most likely lead to the Church’s stance on hair coloring during the Middle Ages. It was pretty drastic; women who colored their hair blonde were condemned. This disapproval also encompassed woman whose hair was naturally blonde, in the belief that their seductive hair color would lead men astray. 

Red hair wasn’t too popular, either, until the reign of England’s Elizabeth I, a natural redhead. Not only did good Queen Bess make red hair fashionable, but her courtiers scrambled to dye their own hair or beards red to honor her.

Despite this brief rage for red hair, lead combs were still a popular and deadly way to cover gray hair. For those who wanted to lighten instead of darken their hair, one method was to apply lemon juice or chamomile to the hair and then sit in the sun to let nature finish the bleaching. Sound familiar? I remember girls doing the exact same thing when I was growing up, and I’m not exactly ancient.

Portrait of Lafayette, French hero of the American
Revolution, painted in 1830 when he was 73.
Notice his suspiciously dark hair.
(Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
In the 18th century just before the Regency era, the question of coloring hair became rather moot. That’s because fashionable men and women hid their natural hair color with powder, or wore powdered wigs. This whitening powder was made from starch, oak moss (called Cyprus powder) or even household flour, and everyone who was anyone was doing it.

Even the British Army got into the act. By one estimate, the flour that the army used just on its hair during this period would’ve been enough to make bread for 50,000 people.

This gross misuse of flour coincided with the French Revolution, when masses of people were hungry and the aristocracy didn’t seem to care all that much. Marie Antoinette’s famous (and highly disputed) retort when told the people were starving, “Let them eat cake,” could just as easily have been, “Let them powder their hair.”

Despite all this powdering, during the 18th century and the Regency actual hair dye was still frowned on. In both Europe and America, the obvious use of cosmetics or hair color on women was taboo. (Dandies who painted their faces were another matter.) A woman who dyed her hair was seen as exhibiting vanity or immorality, the opposite of the virtues that good wives and mothers were expected to display.  

But the urge to alter one’s appearance is strong, and society’s disapproval didn’t stop people in the 19th century from discreetly tinkering with their hair color. In 1839 Philadelphia shopkeeper Jules Hauel began keeping a vegetable-based hair dye on his shelves, and I bet both men and women hid that product in the bottom of their shopping baskets.

I wish I could say my hair was dressed by cherubs. Instead of angels dispensing a
vegetable "hair renewer" I had a stylist wielding strips of foil painted with bleach.
 (Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Darkening your hair was one thing, but blonde hair still carried a whiff of bad behavior. In his 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde had a character voice this rather snarky comment about a woman: "Her capacity for family affection is extraordinary. When her third husband died, her hair turned quite gold from grief."

Nevertheless, efforts to improve hair coloring continued. In 1909 a French chemist named Eugene Schiller was the first to create a synthetic hair dye using a chemical formerly used to dye textiles. He started a business, naming it the French Harmless Hair Dye Company to reassure his customers. A year later he changed the name to L’Oreal, and the rest is history.

Marilyn Monroe, the quintessential blonde.
(Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
As the 20th century progressed, companies like Clairol and Revlon along with L’Oreal developed better formulas in more shades of color. And movie stars like Jean Harlow (the original “Blonde Bombshell”) and Marilyn Monroe made blonde hair popular with the average woman, even if (or maybe because) it was considered sexy. 

Ad campaigns with slogans like “Is it true blondes have more fun?” and “If I have only one life to live, I’d rather live it as a blonde” helped too.

Today the stigma attached to blonde hair has pretty much disappeared. Even the perception that blondes are dumb if not immoral is fading, thanks to movies like Legally Blonde that feature smart blonde heroines. As of 2000, Clairol alone offered over 70 shades of blonde in its hair coloring products.

I’ll keep you posted on whether my newly blonde-streaked hair brings me more fun. For now, I’m just trying not to do a double-take every time I pass a mirror.

I don’t know how Khloé Kardashian does it.  

Sources for this post include Encyclopedia of Hair, A Cultural History by Victoria Sherrow


  1. Maureen,
    I liked hearing about the different things people did to dye their hair. It seems to be something that almost every woman, and a lot of men, try at one time or another. I dyed my hair for quite a while before I had my kids. Now it's turning "blonde" all by itself and it doesn't cost me a thing!!!


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