“It is the term color that is the key to much of the human pleasure in cosmetic self-decoration, though mankind has never repudiated either black or white for dramatic touches.” — Justine Cordwell
Today, people have the tools and technology to do just about anything with their hair. It can be cut, teased, crimped, curled, and of course — colored. Some chemically lighten their hair, dissolving their natural color pigments and adding a new hue. Others get creative, dying their hair any color (or colors) of the rainbow. Whether or not they relied on the help of professionals to dye their locks, about 66.87 million Americans used hair coloring products last year alone.
In 1973, anthropologist Justine Cordwell wrote a paper titled “The Very Human Arts of Transformation” in which she explains her theory for why people put such attention on changing their appearance. “Mankind, from earliest times,” she writes, “has probably regarded the human body as the primary form of sculpture — and not been particularly pleased with what he has seen.”
Fact is, when it comes to changing our appearance, “certainly no other member of the animal kingdom can claim a need for, or create, such a bewildering variety of transformations as can home sapiens.” The beginning of hair color history extends back — way back — to the Paleolithic period, where we find the first cases of dye application. Archaeological evidence shows that early humans used the iron oxide contained in dirt to color their dwellings, fabrics, skin, as well as their hair.
While early humans may not have had a lot of options when it came to coloring their hair, by the time of the Ancient Egyptians, methods had changed and improved. First, they shaved their hair, then they braided it and curled it into wigs. Until the 12th century BCE, these wigs were usually dyed black, though other colors gained popularity after that. Gold powder and plant material were used to get colors such as yellow, green, blue, or red.
According to Cordwell, a number of ancient cultures dabbled in the practice. “Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians used henna and bleaches, sometimes spending inordinate amounts of time turning dark brown hair to blond or light auburn,” she writes. “The latter effect was achieved with the leaves and stems of the henna plant, while darker colors were effected by an infusion using alfalfa leaves, with vinegar and alum as mordants.”
While natural pigments were able to alter the appearance of the ancients, these transformations were usually short lived. So, other approaches were explored. In “The Coloration of Human Hair” (2013), the authors argue:
“Pigments generated within hair are likely to form as nanoparticles. It has been postulated that the application of nanotechnology in hair dates back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans, when mixtures of lead oxide and calcium hydroxide were used to produce black colour on hair.”
When the approach was discovered to be toxic, the Romans switched to using leeches, which they fermented in lead pots for a couple of months. While most Roman citizens were free and eager to dye their hair dark, sex workers were required to have blond hair. Some of them did like the Egyptians and wore wigs; others soaked their hair in a solution of ashes from burnt nuts or plants to change the color. Although, “there was no specific hair color associated with slavery... blond and red were recognized as ‘foreign hair.'”
In “Telling the Difference: Signs of Ethnic Identity” (1998), Walter Pohl argues that the concept of foreign hair could be misleading: “Pliny remarked that the Gauls had invented a method to dye their hair with a soap made of tallow and the ashes of beechwood, which the Germans (men rather than women) had taken over.” This soap was known to make hair a flaming red. Pohl suggests that it was also widely used by many Romans: “It seems clear that the colour of the hair could be an object of symbolic strategies, without any hint of a specifically ethnic connotation.”
Between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, a number of dangerous hair coloring methods remained widely practiced, including the use of sulfuric acid, which was an accepted form of hair coloring around the 1600s, and laying out in the sun with hair covered in lye a century later. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the practices changed forever, when William Henry Perkin (1838-1907) accidentally created the world’s first synthetic dye, he called “mauveine.” It was a lovely vivid purple and it lasted a good long time.
Perkin’s teacher, August Wilhelm von Hofmann (1818-1892), figured out a way to make it into a dark and enduring hair dye. However, in 1863, the man credited as the first to actually use synthetic hair dye for commercial purposes is none other than L’Oréal founder, Eugène Schueller (1881-1957). The ambitious French chemist was approached by a barber who was interested in the creation of new hair dyes. The partnership didn’t last, with the young scientist branching off on his own soon thereafter.
Schueller had a breakthrough in 1907. He wrote: “Finally, I had the good fortune, which I think I deserved, to obtain a product of excellent quality that allowed me at last to launch my company.” In 1909 he founded the French Company of Inoffensive Hair Dyes, which in its native tongue is abbreviated to Loreal. Soon, though, he changed the name to something a little catchier —L’Oréal.
The building blocks of hair color have changed very little since the discoveries of Perkin, Hofmann, and Schueller, which proves just how important their work was to the hair color industry. Still, these products have gone through many changes and evolutions over the years.
By the middle of the 20th century, Clairol came out with the first at-home hair dye. Then, by the 1980s and 90s, bright and vivid hues became popular, with stars like Cyndi Lauper and David Bowie popularizing wildly colorful looks. More recently, hair color trends have turned to ombré (and sombré) styles, soft pastel hues, and even rainbow-colored hairdos. Indeed, perhaps nothing is quite so adaptable, and yet so universally dependable, as the desire to change one’s hair color.