From 1500 BC to 2015 AD: The Extraordinary History of Hair Color

Updated 10/04/19
Imaxtree

If you're lucky, you escaped the dangers of your early teens (and perhaps preteen years)—namely the drastic and inevitably unflattering hair color change, often at the hands of your best friend. If you're even luckier, you've made it this far without having to sit down in hairdresser's chair and hear the words "color correction." And if you're really lucky, you've avoided the hair colorist's chair and the bathroom hair dye situation altogether. To those fortunate few, we say mazel tov. The rest of us, for better or worse, have been dyeing, highlighting, balayaging, toning, and glossing enough to make your head spin. Because for the majority of women, hair color is an important part of beauty (more on this below). And we've come a long way in the journey to beautiful, vibrant, hair commercial color. Just how far? Just how many hairs have been tinted throughout the course of history? Keep reading to find out!

1500 BC

1500 BC
via Forum Biodiversity

Given how accomplished the Egyptians were as a civilization, it shouldn’t really surprise us that they, too, dabbled in hair dye. They would use henna to camouflage gray hair (yes, the preoccupation with grays dates way back).

Years later, the Greeks and Romans used plant extracts to color their strands. They also created a permanent black hair dye. However, when they discovered it was too toxic to use, they switched to a formula made with leeches that had been fermented in a lead vessel for two months. It took a few hundred years to expand the color choices beyond black.

300 BC

300 BC
via Wikimedia Commons

During the Roman Empire, prostitutes were required to have yellow hair to indicate their profession. Most wore wigs, but some used a mixture made from the ashes of burned plants or nuts to achieve the hue. Meanwhile, other ancient civilizations like the Gaul and the Saxons were dyeing their hair a variety of vibrant colors to show their rank and as a means of intimidating opponents on the battlefield.

500–1500s AD

500–1500s AD
via Beauty Tidbits

Red hair first appeared as the result of a genetic mutation in the Dark Ages, with the first documented case of natural-born redhead occurring in Scotland. For many years, people with natural red hair were subjected to suspicions of witchcraft. It wasn’t until Queen Elizabeth I took her reign that red hair become more acceptable.

1800s

1800s
via Wikimedia Commons

Not much changed until the 1800s, when English chemist William Henry Perkin made an accidental discovery that changed hair dye forever. In an attempt to generate a cure for malaria, Perkins created the first synthesized dye in 1863. The color was mauve and appropriately named Mauveine. Soon after, his chemistry professor August Hoffman derived a color-changing molecule from Mauveine (called para-phenylenediamine, or PPD), and it remains the foundation for most permanent hair dyes today.

1907

1907
L'Oréal Paris

In 1907, Eugene Schueller created the first chemical dye for commercial purposes. He called it Aureole. It would later be called L’Oréal, as would the company he founded.

1931

1931
Getty/Culture Club

Ever wonder where the term platinum blonde comes from? You can thank Howard Hughes (and Jean Harlow) for that. In 1931, in what might just be the most successful public relations strategy ever, Hughes released a film called Platinum Blonde, titled to promote and capitalize on the hair color of the young star, Jean Harlow. Many fans quickly followed suit, dyeing their hair to match Harlow’s. Hughes’s team even organized a chain of Platinum Blonde clubs across the country, with a $10,000 prize that would go to any hairdresser who could copy Harlow’s shade.

Ironically, Harlow never admitted to dyeing her hair.

1950

1950
Clairol

Prior to 1950, going blond involved bleach and a lot of damage. Lawrence Gelb advanced formulas in the 1930s, but the truly revolutionary discovery came in 1950. That year, Clairol, the company Gelb founded with wife Jane Clair, introduced the first one-step hair dye product that actually lightened hair without bleaching it. Miss Clairol Hair Color Bath, which allowed women to color their hair at home, discreetly (this was important, as women preferred not to publicize the fact that they colored their at this time) became a huge hit with the masses.

1960s–1970s

1960s–1970s
L'Oréal Paris

By the late 1960s, coloring your hair was commonplace, and 1968 was the last year Americans were asked to state their hair color on passports—the prevalence of hair dye made this information pointless. And by the 1970s, public sentiments toward dyeing your hair began to change. Slogans like L’Oréal’s “Because you’re worth it” encouraged acceptance of openly using hair color products. Clearly, the shift in viewpoint was a lasting one.

1980s

1980s
Getty/Harry Langdon

Today you can’t turn on the television without seeing Eva Longoria, Sarah Jessica Parker, or some gorgeous celeb trying to sell you hair color. Well, all that began in the ’80s, the decade of celebrity endorsements. Brands started securing the biggest names in Hollywood (think Cybill Shepherd and Heather Locklear) to endorse their products—a natural progression, given Hollywood starlets had been serving as hair color inspiration since the ’30s.

2014

kylie-jenner-blue-hair
Getty/Denise Truscello

In May of 2014, while most of the population was embracing sombré and other, more natural-looking hair color techniques, Kylie Jenner took the opposite approach and made her first major hair color transformation. The youngest Jenner sister set herself apart with the now-iconic teal blue tips. Little did we know this would be the first of many vibrant hair colors for Jenner.

Present

rainbow-hair
Noah Boskey for Nylon

As of 2015, an “estimated 70 percent of women in the U.S. use hair-coloring products," according to The Atlantic. And these days, hair colors ran the gamut. From believable looks like lived-in color to buzzy techniques like tortoiseshell hair to pastel creations like opal hair, it’s clear the future of hair color is going to be as rich as its past. Equally as evident? We all need to stock up on color protectors if we want to carry on this way.

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