Hair dye’s long history

Miriam Balanescu 19 October 2017

I reckon most people have at least considered dying their hair. Like getting tattoos or piercings, it’s another part of our appearance that we have the power to change. And because we have that drive to self-improve, to alter and play around with the way we look (often, not always, fuelled by discontentment with the way we naturally are) an immense 70% of the female population in the US has decided to change their hair colour.

Nowadays, there’s little limitation to what you can do with your hair. There is now, literally, a whole spectrum of possibility (sorry). But the first hair dyes began as just black. It all started in Egypt, with women wanting to wipe out their grey hairs with henna and deny that they were aging. It is so incredibly ironic then that grey dyed hair has been a sweeping trend over the last couple of years, with famous people such as Rihanna and Cara Delevingne paying for extensive treatments to dye their hair this colour. Yet it is still the case that older women often attempt to hide away their natural colour behind dye. The idea that natural grey hair is unattractive still pervades society, and is an anxiety shared by both men and women. (I’ve had way too many conversations with friends of both genders about their grey hair fears!)

The next popular colour in hair dye’s history is yellow. During the time of the Roman Empire, yellow hair was used to indicate a profession in prostitution. Wigs were mostly used, but they also made dyes from plants and nuts. Blonde hair then boomed back into the spotlight around the 1930's, about fifty years after William Henry Perkins accidentally made the first synthetic dye whilst seeking a cure for malaria. Whoops. It’s true that Hollywood actresses, celebrities and popular media have led hair colour trends throughout the 20th century. Think Marilyn Monroe and other 1950's bombshells.

But it seems that now having hair unlike anyone else’s is a trend in itself. The last natural-looking hair dye to emerge was red, or auburn. When the red hair gene came into existence, the first record of it being in Scotland, people were suspicious and red-heads were associated with witchcraft. For some reason, there’s still some mockery of gingers today. I don’t really understand why, since red is such an eye-catching colour. Having fun and trying out eccentric unnatural hair colours is definitely what we’re moving towards, however. Hair is such an important piece in finding our own look.

I’ve always been on the fence about hair dye, tempted to dye my hair for years but then also wanting to stay with and be proud of my (kind of boring) brown colour. I finally decided, who cares, it’s better to go ahead and try something out now rather than wondering what it would have been like when you’re forty. Ironically, because the dye was natural, it barely shows up, but I’m still happy that I went for it. What is so odd, and fantastic, about the history of hair dye is that it started off as a way to conform, to cover up, but now it’s a way to add to your individuality and express how you want to be.