Hair To Dye For: Radical Redheads

February 22, 2012

Famous Red, Orange, and Auburn Haired Ladies
Flaming hot since 1558!

I’m a sorta-redhead. My hair can’t decide whether it wants to be mousy, dishwater blonde or a snappy strawberry (which makes picking out outfits a drag since some colors look good with redheads, but not with blondes and vice versa). My hair’s indecision began when I was just a baby; I have a natural pink mohawk in most of my baby photos thanks to my light strawberry blonde curls piling on top of my ivory skin. My hair turned blonde and straight when I was two, then switched back to curly auburn when I was 16. By junior prom, I was sick of my hair flip-flopping from red-to-blonde-to-brown-to-all-three. L’Oreal Excellence Creme in it’s cute, pink box promised to even out my hair color in just 30 minutes and a shower. Who was I to refuse? Dousing my unruly hair with dye disguised my hair’s spotty nature, and it’s pretty historically accurate at that!

Natural redheads are mutants (with recessive variant genes). Our superpowers are sticking out in a crowd and looking awesome. Many have scorned our powers by flogging us with insults (“Gingers have no souls!”) while others have venerated our hair’s glory with paintings, festivals, films, and flattery. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, redheads are the most flattered of all hair colors: Sixty percent of women who dye their hair do so at home. Of them, twenty six percent choose to go blonde, twenty seven percent go brunette, and over thirty percent choose to become redheads! Feel the power!

Jean Grey: Exploring both sides of the redhead stereotype since 1963.

The see-saw between scorn and veneration has been going on since redheads were first documented in Greek writing. Boudica, the warrior queen, is said to have had long red hair that–in addition to her stature–was a terrifying, powerful sight on the battlefield. The idea that redheads have fiery tempers stems not only from the flame coloring, but also from the politically powerful redheaded women like Boudica who were just as powerful and intelligent as men (if not more). This was naturally unnerving to a society in which women were expected to be subservient. Throughout history– even through the 1950s– redheaded ladies have been breaking rules and changing social norms!

Queen Elizabeth I

Perhaps the most famous redhead in history is England’s Queen Elizabeth I. Born to Hanry VIII’s most notorious wife, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth inherited her father’s golden-red hair. When she took the throne in 1558 at the age of 25, she brought wit and unprecedented political prowess with her. She refused to marry and actively participated in the jurisdiction of her country. Though she was affectionately called the “virgin Queen,” she is reported to have taken many lovers and favorites throughout her long reign. Beloved by her subjects and lauded for her role in England’s victory over the Spanish Armada, Queen Lizzie changed red hair from a fashion faux pas (blonde was the previous preferred color) into England’s must-have shade.

Elizabeth’s striking red hair set off the creamy whiteness of her skin. Light skin was considered to be the most important aspect of beauty and since the recessive gene that creates red hair also causes paler skin and lighter brows, natural redheads in Elizabethan England became suddenly fashionable. Creamy skin and ruby-tinged hair also meshed well with the rich jewel tones and heavy golden ornamentation that prevailed in courtly fashion. Ladies who weren’t in the lucky 4% of the population with the variant gene, there were all sorts of hair treatments:

For coloring the hair so that it is golden. Take the exterior shell of a walnut and the bark of the tree itself, and cook them in water, and with this water mix alum and oak apples, and with these mixed things you will smear the head (having first washed it) placing upon the hair leaves and tying them with strings for two days; you will be able to color [the hair]. And comb the head so that whatever adheres to the hair as excess comes off. Then place a coloring which is made from oriental crocus, dragon’s blood, and henna (whose larger part has been mixed with a decoction of brazilwood ) and thus let the woman remain for three days, and on the fourth day let her be washed with hot water, and never will [this coloring ] be removed easily.

I’ve highlighted the word henna because this particular plant was the primary source of red hair colorant since the age of the Pharaohs! Henna is mostly famous as a skin pigment, but this semi-arid shrub also works as a semi-permanent hair dye and was the most popular way to get red hair until synthetic dyes were invented in the late 1800s.

Queen Elizabeth herself dyed her hair as she aged and her hair became white. The auburn-red of her earlier portraits fades into a light pinkish-orange since henna is a naturally orange dye that only reddens the base color. If the base color is a brown, it tints it red. If the hair is blonde, henna creates a golden strawberry. By the end of her reign, Queen Elizabeth’s hair was fine and white, so the true color of the henna is revealed in her portraits.


The Pre-Raphealites

Red hair gained popularity again in the mid-1800s, culminating with the Pre-Raphealites and their beautiful models like Fanny Cornforth, Alexa Wilding, and Elizabeth Siddal: ladies with deep burgundy and  ginger-flamed hair. The Pre-Raphealite Brotherhood, a group of artists, began in 1848 and lasted for an all-to-brief decade. Their influence on artistic style and fashion was much longer lived. The mauves, greens, and blues of dreamy pre-raphealite paintings were perfectly suited to complement cascading red hair.

Paired with swaths of roses and loosely draped gowns, pre-raphealite paintings recreated classical Greek, Medieval, and folk fashions with a heavy dose of dreamy fantasy quite unlike the rigid world of corsets and hoopskirts in the 1850s and 1860s. There was plenty of controversy surrounding these sensual models, especially considering that many were mistresses of the painters themselves! These ladies appear unfettered by any social, sexual, or fashion restraints in their pictures: clinging silks drenched in rain hug every curve, a corsetless waist is girdled softly with gold, and hair flies around their shoulders freely. Though the fashions might be too much for the everyday Victorian lady, glowing crimson locks were well within the average woman’s reach. The red-haired beauties filling the canvases inspired women to once again run to their nearest druggist for the reddening power of henna dye.


Lucille Ball

No list of spunky, game-changing redheads would be complete with Ms. Lucy! The saucy sit-com queen is famous for her brilliant red mound of spunky curls. From 1951 to 1960, Lucille Ball entertained the world on her TV shows I Love Lucy and The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. Though these are her most famous accomplishments, Lucille’s resume includes much more, including modeling, a brief stint as a Broadway chorus girl, and acting work in films alongside the Three Stooges, Ginger Rogers, and Katherine Hepburn. She’s known for being outspoken and participated in a few small tiffs with social norms, most famously her marriage and divorce to Desi Arnaz.

Ball met and eloped with the Cuban bandleader in 1940. Lucy was 6 years older than Desi, sparking a little social friction since some people thought an older woman marrying a younger man was improper. During her first pregnancy, Lucille continued to film I Love Lucy even though she was showing, but the broadcasting company forbade any mention of Lucille’s “condition” on-air.  Lucille’s and Desi’s first child, Lucie Désirée Arnaz, was born when Lucille was almost 40 years old! Lucille’s second pregnancy, however, is the one she is most famous for. TV in the 1950s was heavily censored and everything that went on air had to be approved by a committee. This time around, Lucille’s real-life pregnancy was worked into I Love Lucy’s plot. In a magnificent segment, she appears on camera, glowing, to surprise Ricky with the news. It was a huge moment in television history.

Even though much of her film and TV work was done in black and white, Lucille Ball’s hair was a key part to her personality and characters. In fact, we associate the color red with her so much, it’s hard to recognize her with any other haircolor:

Here’s a bit of a surprise: Lucille Ball was not a redhead. Lucille Ball was actually a natural brunette/dark blonde, but she dyed her hair using that fabulous plant dye, henna. As her fame grew, so did the demand for red hair dyes, driving the sale of  natural henna color through the roof. The queen of mid-century comedy continued to dye her hair throughout her life, maintaining the titian tint that came to define her.


Today, most hair dyes are synthetic and can be done at any hair salon, or at home with a box kit. The coloring agents come in liquids, foams, brushes, and sprays in every color under the sun! With all these magic concoctions so readily available and inexpensive, it’s hard to imagine that such a seemingly innocuous thing like dying your hair for prom or using a color rinse shampoo before a date could have such a huge impact on fashion and society. What if Elizabeth had been raven-haired? What if Pre-Raphealite painters preferred blondes? What if Lucille had never dyed her hair that brilliant orange-red? Knowing that so much of who you are as a person can be linked to something as simple as hair color makes me wonder: What’s my “true” color?

2 Responses to “Hair To Dye For: Radical Redheads”

  1. Douglas Slevin Says:

    Thanks for your post

  2. Rose Says:

    Great post, but I’d like to mention that henna is far from semi-permanent. It may take a few applications to deepen the color, but it does not wash out.

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