Does She or Doesn’t She…

Only her hairdresser knows for sure

May 12, 2020

Miss ClairolIn the era of COVID-19 this slogan from a 1960’s home hair coloring commercial has become outdated. With the shuttering of the beauty salon in the name of public safety, women (primarily) of a certain age, are seeing their true hair color for the first time in years.

Which, of course, got me wondering about the history of coloring one’s hair. The first documented use of anything to change a person’s hair color appears to be by the Celtic people between 30 and 60 B.C. From the Infallible Wikipedia:

“Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian, described in detail how Celtic people dyed their hair blonde: ‘Their aspect is terrifying… They are very tall in stature, with rippling muscles under clear white skin. Their hair is blond, but not naturally so: they bleach it, to this day, artificially, washing it in lime and combing it back from their foreheads. They look like wood-demons, their hair thick and shaggy like a horse’s mane. Some of them are clean-shaven, but others—especially those of high rank—shave their cheeks but leave a moustache that covers the whole mouth…’.

The dyeing of hair is an ancient art that involves treatment of the hair with various chemical  compounds. In ancient times, the dyes were obtained from plants. Some of the most well known are henna (Lawsonia inermis), indigo, Cassia obovata, senna, turmeric and amla. Others include katam (buxus dioica), black walnut hulls, red ochre and leeks. In the 1661 book Eighteen Books of the Secrets of Art & Nature, various methods of coloring hair black, gold, green, red, yellow, and white are explained. The development of synthetic dyes for hair is traced to the 1860s discovery of the reactivity of para-phenylenediamine (PPD) with air. Eugène Schueller, the founder of L’Oréal, is recognized for creating the first synthetic hair dye in 1907. In 1947 the German cosmetics firm Schwarzkopf launched the first home color product, ‘Poly Color’. Hair dyeing is now a multibillion-dollar industry that involves the use of both plant-derived and synthetic dyes.”

Nowadays you will see people with a veritable rainbow of colors in their hair, sporting bright hues of red, orange, green, blue, and purple.

The more traditional application of hair dye, however, still prevails with most using it to change to a preferred color or to hide the gray.

Unfortunately the Infallible Wikipedia’s statistics were from some eight years ago, but an internet search turned up a fun webpage with all sorts of facts on hair. It was one sentence in particular from Hollee Wood, the site’s author, which was most interesting:

“In our world of ever-changing hair color, it’s no secret that nearly 85% of women color their hair at least once every eight weeks (compared to just 7% in 1950). I mean… at that rate, it’s probable that you even color your hair! *gasp*”

Her article had a whole bunch of statistics including the fact that by the time most American’s reach age 60, nearly 60 percent of us will have grey hair.

Barb the towhead

The author in all her towheaded glory at age four

I’ve had a lifelong, on again off again, relationship with hair coloring products. Born a towhead (for those who do not know it’s a term to describe, usually, an extremely blonde child) I was blonde until about fifth grade and then my hair began to turn into a mix which I would describe as dirty blonde. My personal identity, however, was as a blonde and – when I was in ninth grade – I discovered a product which would bring back the blonde: Sun-In. The year was 1972 and both girls and guys did not believe in cutting one’s hair. It was the era of the hippie.

Sun-In 3I started using Sun-In approved by and aided by my mother! Every couple of months we would apply the stuff and, due to probably allowing it to stay on my hair longer than we should, I became blonder and blonder. This continued throughout high school and my first three years of college.

In the summer of 1978, with the long haired hippie era over, I did a very radical thing: I cut my hair. That fall I quit using Sun-In and my roots began to betray me. When I went home for Thanksgiving I did the second radical thing: I dyed my hair darker to try and locate my natural color. When I arrived back at the University of Puget Sound after the break, I got more than a few snapped heads with the total change in my appearance.

1977 vs 1978With the 1980’s came the era of big hair which, for someone whose hair has zero natural curl, required a different chemical process: the permanent wave. Turns out my hair was a fairly light brown and looked even lighter due to the perm.

By the late 1980’s, however, big hair was out and shorter hair was in. With motherhood in 1990 came the need for a practical haircut with little time to fuss over it.

And then, sometime in the mid 1990’s, my sister in law got me re-hooked on hair bleach and every couple of months I’d meet up with her to get my fix. And so it continued for nearly two decades until last fall when I decided it was time to wean myself from blonde (has anyone noticed how blonde starts to look like gray on an older person?) and back to light brown with highlights.

On March 16, 2020, the unthinkable occurred. All hair salons and barbershops in many states were deemed ‘dangerous’ for the spread of the Coronavirus and shut down. You could almost hear the panicked cry of millions of women across the U.S. as their ability to hide their natural hair color came to a crashing halt.

Now, two months later, they are – as the saying goes – showing their true colors. The worst case I saw was a woman with red hair… but the top of her head was pure white for at least an inch on either side of her part.


A speakeasy in the 1920’s

This whole thing has sparked what I call the “Speakeasy” of the 2020’s. In the 1920’s – under alcohol prohibition – secret locations where you could go to consume liquor sprang up in cities across the nation. During that time no one spoke publicly of these establishments but they did a booming business as history now tells us.

I find myself looking suspiciously at anyone with a decent haircut or obviously colored hair. “Where did you get your hair done?” I ask. They just smile and shrug their shoulders, unwilling to share their secrets.

As for me, I’m apparently part of the 40 percent who have not gone grey by age 60. Sure there are spots, but overall, I’m weathering the great graying of America okay. I am thinking of growing my hair long, buying some Sun-In, and reliving the glory days of 1974.

The question remains, however, with a twist: ‘will she or won’t she? Only her hairdresser – if she ever gets to see her again – knows for sure.

The links:

1974 Olympic National Park

The author at the height of the Sun-in years, 1974, shown here with her first co-conspirator, Mom, and also Dad, who never dyed his hair and never once squeezed the magic potion on my head.

Update May 12, 2022 – Thankfully, hair salons have reopened and we women who want a bit of color have options once again! Here’s to all the hardworking cosmetologists out there who will remain unnamed. Hey, we don’t want to give up our secrets.

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