A Colouful Theory

In my vast amounts of spare time, (yeah right,) I am rather an avid reader. Depending on the mood I am in, will determine which genre of book I am drawn to.  I am presently trapped in the 1930-1940s Hollywood glamour era, and to be honest, I quite like it there.  It will probably come as no surprise that I am currently obsessed with the biography,  Platinum Girl – The Life and Legends of Jean Harlow. She’s a character that has always fascinated me. Well let’s be honest, anyone who was single handedly responsible for launching the ‘Platinum Blonde,’ which saw the nations beauty parlors jam packed with women demanding to be transformed into blond bombshells, was always going to peak my interest.

She’s the original platinum blonde. Before there was Jayne Mansfield, Kim Novak, Debbie Harry, or Gwen Stefani, there was Marilyn. But the very first celebrity to rock white blonde strands was Jean Harlow. Why did she decide to put her hair through such torture? Howard Hughes wanted to create a moniker for Harlow to set her apart from the other wannabe leading ladies. Hughes' publicity director came up with "Platinum Blonde,". The gimmick was to be her hair colour and some hairdresser was daft enough to do it. We are talking about one of the most difficult colours to achieve nowadays, so I dread to think about the state of her hair in the 1930s. We have a hundred years of knowledge since those days and are still snapping off hair. It was said that in the 1930s only a handful of beauty parlours would attempt a full head of bleach because of the damage it would do to the hair and scalp.

Most of Jean’s early roles were very much of the same theme.  A tart with a heart, a gangsters mole or a girl from the wrong side of the tracks. She was given mainly "dumb blonde" parts and was considered by some to be the same in real life. She was in fact the complete opposite.  This got me thinking. Just what is it that makes people stereotype women with platinum blonde hair? Is it because the colour is so powerful, that it begs attention? Is that what people don’t like? Is it the hair equivalent to a low cut top or short skirts?

As Jean’s career progressed, she wanted to be taken more seriously and be regarded as a true artist. So what did she do? She toned down her hair, growing out the white blonde and opting for a much more natural, soft blonde tint. In fact,  in her later films she bears little resemblance to the Jean Harlow from her early career.

The point I am making, is that from Jean, we learn the power of image and how our image affects how we are seen, treated and even employed. As a hairdresser I am very aware of the power we carry with regards to peoples image. Even after all these years working in the hair industry it never ceases to amaze me just how much we judge each other on the merits of our appearance. Who was it that decided platinum blondes are all air heads? Why do blondes tend to not be taken as seriously as women with a darker hair colour?

Take Madonna as another example, upon releasing her ‘Ray of Light’ she dyed her famous white blonde locks dark to reflect her new more grown up music.  I could go on forever with examples of stars who over the last 70 years have had similar experiences. Perhaps the moral of the story is not to judge a book by its cover, because very often, if you take the time to actually read the book you will find a very different reality.

And it doesn’t stop with blonde hair. Red heads are apparently better in bed. They are also stereotyped as being fiery. Women with short cropped hair are of course butch or gay. Men with skinheads are racist. Women and men of colour for years have straightened their beautiful afro hair to ‘fit in’.  Recently, football player Colin Kaepernick who refused to stand for the national anthem before games to protest the oppression of people of colour in the United States faced criticism for his afro – fellow player Micheal Vick said that Kaepernick should ‘cut his hair and try to be more presentable,’ if he wanted to get signed by another NFL squad.

How easy we make assumptions about people just from how they choose to wear their hair. One of my first experiences of this was with my own Mother. Throughout my Mums life she was constantly changing her hair colour and styles. However, when she dipped into the world of coppers and titians my Father barked his defiance telling her she looked like a tarty landlady. It was only after he died that she went back to the colour she loved and stuck with it till the day she left this world.

When choosing strong hair colours,- platinum blonde, pillar box red or jet black you cannot deny that you are demanding attention. Those colours will get you that second look from men AND women. So, is it THAT which we find so offensive in our culture, that somebody should have the audacity to demand that kind of attention.

I think we need to be a little less two dimensional when we meet people. Next time you are looking at a platinum blonde and find yourself thinking she looks a  bit tarty, just consider this - it’s a bloody miracle that her hair is still on her hair and whoever her hairdresser is a bloody genius.