The Unknown History of Hair Colour



Don’t you just love to change hair colour? It can give you a fresh feel, change your mood, and even help change your whole wardrobe, creating a new style to match the bright new locks. Now you can do all kinds of crazy things with your hair – from gorgeous balayage techniques to dyeing your hair blue, pink, and all colours of the rainbow. But when did this all start? It turns out ancient women were also into hair colouring and have been doing it for thousands of years! Here’s the history of hair colour you had no idea about.

Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptians loved to change their hair colour, but mostly did it when the hair was no longer on their heads. Probably a wise choice as most dyes were toxic one way or the other and natural ones washed off pretty quickly. Around 1500 BC the ladies of Ancient Egypt coloured their hair red, blue, green, and even created a beautiful yellow colour using gold powder. Henna was used to hide those pesky grey hairs we still don’t like so much today.

Ancient Greece

Ancient Greeks were largely into dark hair colour and used a specially created permanent dye to achieve the desired effect. Later they came up with a less toxic concoction that used leeches to create the dye. Leeches were put into a lead vessel where they underwent to process of fermentation, turning into a dye. Much later ladies started yearning for lighter tresses and came up with a more pleasant mix of gold flakes, pollen, olive oil, and lemon juice to highlight their hair. As you know, lemon juice does work as a natural lightener.

The Roman Empire

Blonde hair got a bit of a bad reputation during the Roman Empire as this was the time when prostitutes had to lighten their hair as an indicator of their occupation. It was a requirement enforced by law! Most of them just used yellow wigs, but others created a special dye made from ashes of burned nuts and plants to lighten their hair. Gauls and Saxons from the same time period (around 300 BC) coloured their hair all kinds of bright colours mostly to intimidate their enemies during combat.

1500s

What about redheads, you might ask? Well, it turns out they didn’t exist until the Dark Ages, when the appearance of redheads was first documented. It’s believed that red hair colour is the result of a genetic mutation, which happened in Scotland. Well, they do have lots of redheads there! Because this hair colour was so rare and unusual, redheads were pegged as witches for decades until Queen Elizabeth I took the throne rocking her red hair like a real queen. Everyone had to accept that red hair colour wasn’t connected with the Devil after all.

1600s

During the Renaissance dyes went a little bit further and became more chemical-based and less natural. Delights for Ladies, a curious book that contained all kinds of beauty recipes and household concoctions, described a dye named Oil of Vitriol that could lift the colour from black to chestnut. It was advised to avoid this dye touching the skin and today we can easily understand why as this ‘dye’ was actually sulphuric acid.

1800s

We should all thank William Henry Perkin, a chemist from England, who unknowingly revolutionized the hair dye process as well as the whole colouring industry. He accidentally invented the colour we know today as Mauveine, while trying to synthesize a cure for malaria. While that didn’t go as planned, his discovery changed the textile colouring industry and allowed ladies to create permanent colours without destroying their hair. Mauveine is still part of modern dyes, but today it is known as para-phenylenediamine.

1900s – 1950s

In 1907, Eugene Shueller, a French chemist, came up with a dye named Aureole. If the name sounds familiar, well, it’s because it later transformed into the world known brand – L’Oreal. It was the first ever commercial highlighter. In 1931, Howard Hughes released the movie Platinum Blonde, creating a huge hype around platinum blonde hair. Everyone wanted to look like the leading lady Jean Harlow! In the 50s women could finally start lightening hair at home with the invention of one-step hair dye that didn’t require a time-consuming procedure in a beauty salon. Miss Clairol Hair Colour Bath was developed by another famous brand named Clairol and provided a bleach-less hair-lightening procedure.

1960s – 1970s

While in the 50s women were still shy about colouring their hair and preferred to keep it a secret, things became less strict in the upcoming decades. Funny enough, until 1968 Americans had to describe their hair colour in passport. It turned into a useless piece of information as everyone was dyeing their hair. In the 70s L’Oreal came up with their legendary slogan ‘Because you are worth it’, starting a new era of open hair colouring that wasn’t frowned upon by the society. Now women owned it fully! It was also the time when hairdressers introduced the highlighting method using a cap.

1980s

You might have already experienced the modern hype surrounding the 80s balayage lightening technique. Basically it’s a freehand bleaching style that results in very natural-looking highlights and creates a beautiful look if done properly. Not many beauty salons offer this procedure and even less hairdressers know how to do it beautifully – that’s why it has become so popular! This was also the time when the foil method of lightening hair was introduced by some hairdressers. It made the whole bleaching process faster and easier.

1990s

The hair foil highlighting method becomes more elaborate and we see hairstyles develop accordingly. At that time it was very cool to create high-contrasting highlights like we’ve seen on young Britney Spears. Colour blocking was also introduced with really heavy dark strands and really bright lighter strands of hair. Everyone was crazy about this look when Christina Aguilera rocked it back in the day!

2013

Around year 2013 we’ve seen a huge spike in popularity of the ombre hair colouring technique. It has been around for quite some time, but that was definitely the year when celebrities went all kinds of crazy over it and used it in flattering (or not really) hairstyles. Drew Barrymore and Beyoncé were among those celebs that did their best to pull off the ombre look.

2020

Here we are in the year 2020, when people are combining all the techniques to create various hair styles. There is balayage, freehand hair colouring, lighting hair using a special cap, there is also some colour blocking happening, as well as foil highlighting to create some chunkier hair colour styles. Ombre is still very much popular, but is performed mostly with brighter colours like blue, pink, and purple. There’s the E-Girl style of painting hair, which involves contrasting hair strands that frame the face, while all the others remain neutral. There is also galaxy hair, tortoiseshell hair, opal hair, and the fascinating comeback of grey hair that has women all over the world rocking their natural silver colour!