Signaling Sex and Status: Our Fetish for Flaxen Hair

On Blondes , by Joanna Pitman. Bloomsbury, 261 pages, $24.95.

If you’re sitting at a dinner party, and you look around and see that more than half the women have the same streaky blond hair, blame it on Homer. He was the one who first gave the epithet “golden” to Aphrodite and caused women to wish for hair of her color. Down through the ages, blondes have been prized for their rarity and erotic allure-even though most of them were not authentic.

This is the story Joanna Pitman tells in On Blondes . We get the historical litany of blondes from ancient Greek goddesses to Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana. We learn that “by the mid-nineties [Diana] was spending £600 a year dying her hair blonde.” We learn about Queen Elizabeth I’s transformation, as she aged, from auburn hair to blondeness, about the courtesans of Venice sitting on their altane bleaching their hair in the sun so that Vittore Carpaccio might immortalize them, of Hitler’s equation of blondeness with Aryan purity, of Jean Harlow’s platinum revolution (which made her hair fall out), of Marilyn Monroe’s hair the color of a dirty pillow slip, and finally of Madonna’s banal conviction that “blonde is definitely a different state of mind.”

Dante Gabriel Rosetti was so obsessed with hair that he used to stalk women in the streets, drawn to their streaming manes. Hair was apparently a familial obsession, since in his sister Christina Rosetti’s poem “Goblin Market,” a golden lock is traded for forbidden sex with subhuman creatures. Hair and sex have been equated since the most ancient times. Alexander Pope hardly invented the theme in “The Rape of the Lock,” though he gave it the perfect ironic expression. And the Victorians who traded hair lockets and rings were perhaps trading favors of another kind. Of these depths in her theme, Ms. Pitman seems aware, though she rarely permits herself to delve fully into them.

None of her material is new. Some of it is fleetingly striking. (Like a blonde.) It did fascinate me that the ancient Romans so prized blond hair that they sheared Germanic slaves to make blond wigs for their Mediterranean-looking noble ladies-emulating, of course, the very people who would eventually overrun the empire. The irony is appealing. But such moments of epiphany are rare in this book, though it’s well written and exhaustively researched.

On Blondes struck me as the kind of book produced more and more often by contemporary publishing-a book that must have made for a great pitch meeting. You can summarize it in 30 seconds; even non-readers can imagine it. It seems to have a woman-friendly subject-and women, publishers hope, buy books. Ms. Pitman seems to me a talented writer searching for a book contract in a dumbed-down publishing universe. Her own inclination seems to have been to write a huge cultural history of hair, a kind of capillary Golden Bough in which all the myths and legends about hair through the ages would have been cataloged and compared. I wish she had done this, but perhaps she knew how hard it would be to get it published.

Ms. Pitman seems to have been inspired by a period of her own life spent in Africa, where her fair-haired looks made her particularly unusual. This is a fascinating beginning for a memoir. It also raises many interesting questions about fashions in beauty in a world where the races increasingly mix and intermarry. We have seen full lips replace rosebud lips as the standard of feminine beauty. Will other changes in the ideal come out of the mingling of races? Already, many of our goddesses of beauty are coffee-colored and yellow-haired. It is fascinating to speculate on the changes in store.

Probably the most interesting parts of Ms. Pitman’s book deal with the transformations in fashion from the idealization of dark beauties to the idealization of the fair. Dark beauties had their day during the reign of Louis XIV and in the 17th century, when Van Dyck, Rembrandt and Vermeer apotheosized the dark. Ms. Pitman points out that blond hair lost favor in the 17th century because dyes had fallen in price, and thus had become too available to the bourgeoisie. The rich needed a new sign of status, which they found first in dark hair, later in wigs of enormous complexity and expense. By the mid-18th century, enormous wigs supported ships in full sail on waves of powdered hair. Through the centuries, hair alternated between sexual symbol and status symbol. Often, it fulfilled both these roles at once.

How did blond hair reassert itself after a period of fascination with dark curls or powdered wigs? Ms. Pitman credits the fascination with folk tales, which reached its height in the 19th century. By the time of the brothers Grimm, blond hair-if it was natural-had returned as a symbol of purity and virtue. Blondeness had totally changed its meaning. Associated with Aphrodite in ancient Greece, it now was associated with virginity and innocence.

The deeper theme in this book is the infinite mutability of human symbols. Blondness has stood for vice and for purity in different cultural contexts. This ought to alert us to the human tendency to manipulate symbols so that they become an outer expression of inner drives. How does this process occur? How do fashions change, and why? How is it possible that the same symbol that stands for vice and experience also may stand for purity and virginity? “Blondes are the best victims,” said Alfred Hitchcock. “They’re like virgin snow which shows up the bloody footprints.” And yet, as Yeats wrote, “some woman’s yellow hair has maddened every mother’s son.” More interesting than the hair color itself is the human tendency to mythologize certain physical objects and ascribe magic to them. Considering how common blond hair has become in an age of single-process streaks, why does it still have power-and can that power last? I think not.

Fashion is nothing if not malleable, and it responds rapidly to political and social change. In an apocalyptic world where most of the have-nots are dark-haired, blond hair could come to be a symbol of oppression, of political incorrectness, of colonialism. Probably, in some places, it already has. I wish this book had liberated itself to become the full-blown philosophical and political treatise that’s always lurking in its margins. Hair and its historical meandering remains a subject full of promise. There are powerful forces in hair, as we know from the attempts of Muslim and Orthodox Jewish culture to cover it. There’s much more to say about both the threat and the allure of hair. On Blondes makes a worthy beginning.

Erica Jong’s new novel, Sappho’s Leap (W.W. Norton), will be published in May.