Blond hair has only been around for 11,000 years or so, but in that (evolutionarily) short time it's made quite a mark on human culture. Especially in the West, where the highest concentration of flaxen-haired individuals sprang up. (Fun fact: there are also sizable blond populations in Oceania and the Pacific Islands.)
But since blondes began, the hair color has been interpreted in lots of different ways — from virtuous and pure to downright skanky — and every culture has its own norms when it comes to light hair. It's a fascinating case study in the ways something as simple as hair color can have an enormous amount of cultural import. Check out this history of tow-headedness for fascinating facts and cool insights about what it means to be a Betty instead of a Veronica.
The genetic mutation that's linked to blond hair only popped up about 11,000 years ago, spreading from modern-day Lithuania out across Scandinavia and the rest of northern Europe rapidly.
There are a couple of competing theories about why this happened. Some scientists believe that lighter hair, like lighter skin, allows for more effective vitamin D manufacturing, which was extremely important for maintaining health in the chilly, dark northern Europe of the last Ice Age.
The other school of thought holds that blondes evolved simply because the color was novel and interesting, so in a time when there were very few men compared to women, men were more likely to select blond mates, leading blond women to reproduce much more often.
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The ancient Greeks prized blond hair, and goddesses like Aphrodite (shown here riding a swan),
Athena, and Hera were said to be light haired, as were most of the heroes of the Iliad, including Achilles. Various Greek populations were also frequently blonde, including the legendarily militant Spartans.
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The ancient Romans originally considered yellow hair a mark of barbarity and prostitution, and lighter-haired women usually dyed theirs dark to be considered more beautiful.
However, in a huge change that also marked many other shifts in Roman life, the vogue for Greek culture shifted color preferences, making light hair desirable and driving Roman men and women of all classes to use alum, wood ash, and even hazardously caustic quicklime to bleach their hair. Ceres, the goddess of the harvest shown here, was said to have golden hair the shade of ripe wheat.
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The High Middle Ages
Eleanor of Aquitaine (shown in her funeral effigy here) was one of the most powerful women of the medieval period, and she introduced the ideals of romance and chivalry to courts across Europe. She was also blond, a hue that, during her time, was usually associated with seductresses.
Until the 1400s, blond hair in European art and culture was usually considered symbolic of provocative and "sexy" biblical figures. Eve and Mary Magdalene were usually portrayed as light haired.
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The Italian Renaissance
Renaissance women were rather fond of hair lightening and known to use all kinds of preparations to lift their hair.
To get golden ringlets like Lucrezia Borgia here, noblewomen would wear large fan-shaped hats that they could spread their hair on top of and then have their maids cover their hair in lemon juice. That way, they could sit outside lightening their hair without exposing their fashionably pale skin to the sun.
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The 18th Century
While in the century and half before, dark hair had been far more fashionable than light (King Louis XIV even wore dark wigs), by the time blond-haired Marie Antoinette became queen in the late 1700s, the pendulum had swung back, and powdered wigs were de rigueur for both sexes.
The original "dumb blonde" stereotype also has its origins in this period. Courtesan
Rosalie Duthe was infamous for being an irresistibly beautiful blonde, but also for being unbearably vacuous. A popular 1775 play, Les Curiosites de la Foire, brilliantly satirized her idiocy and sparked a legion of humorous knockoff characters that have remained a theatrical archetype for the last 250 years.
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Jean Harlow's platinum hair has inspired generations of women to douse their heads in ammonia and peroxide. Harlow was a natural light blonde, but ended up using incredibly harsh bleach on her hair because the pure monochrome of depigmented hair translated beautifully onto black and white film. Her hair was in such poor shape toward the end of her career that it reportedly broke constantly and was too delicate for regular styling.
Jean's hair color started a craze across the US; however, where rabid fans bleached their hair to look like hers. Howard Hughes even offered $10,000 to the beautician who could match Jean's hair color.
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Marilyn Monroe took the dumb blonde character that started with
Rosalie Duthe and made it something altogether more complex. Her "dumb" characters were actually quite cunning, using their soft voices, big eyes, and fluffy white hair to bilk men out of fortunes and get whatever they wanted whenever they wanted it.
In an America where women were still second-class citizens, Marilyn's trickster blondes were emblematic of a significant women's issue: how to get what you want without making men feel threatened.
Source: Memory Lane
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After women's lib, the dumb blonde stereotype continued to hang around, its popularity in Hollywood undimmed. But with the premiere of
Charlie's Angels, blondes became associated with sexy, crime fighter roles. Farrah Fawcett wasn't the brains of the operation, but she was the muscle. What her character lacked in intelligence, she made up for with skilled gunplay.
The hot blonde with a bloodlust has become a different kind of Hollywood trope, inspiring characters like
Uma Thurman's Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill.
Source: Memory Lane
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These days, blond hair hasn't escaped its historical associations with sexiness or stupidity, but there's a general awareness that the stereotypes are outdated.
Legally Blonde and movies of its ilk have successfully turned the trope on its head, exploiting the conventional wisdom about baby-voiced blondes for laughs.
Studies also show that it's not blondes who are dumb; it's the people around them. Because we tend to act out perceived stereotypes, people who encounter blondes actually tend to behave less intelligently in their presence.
So in fact, blondes often get a negatively skewed view of others' intelligence. It's an interesting piece of cultural commentary and good to remember next time you're talking to a light-haired person.
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