What would you say of a woman who had blue hair, green eyelashes and gilded teeth? In Egypt, at the time of the pharaohs, this was a pretty woman.
According to their bas-reliefs and monumental paintings, we see that not only did they know how to lengthen their eyes, and blacken or green their eyelashes and eyebrows, they were also successful in modifying the colour of their hair. Henna was used to change hair colour, and was also used to paint the palms of the hands an orangey red.
They knew how to obtain tinted hair of different shades. In the ancient tombs of Gizah, mummies of dancers with light blue hair have been found.
This custom of tinting hair continues with the Persians. Young men and old tint their hair and their beards every week, using the following method: firstly, they applied the henna, which they had made into a paste with water and, after half-an-hour of contact, they applied a blue powder in the same way. They obtained a magnificent black coloration.
The Greeks and Romans took their secrets from Egypt and India. The Greek women, who took care of their hair, except during periods of mourning, loved to show it off and decorate it, and they looked after it carefully. Lucian says: “They made their hair as brilliant as the midday sun, dyeing it like wool, using all of the odours of Arabia to perfume it.”
Among the methods they used for procuring a false blond, the most usual was to wash the hair in the water mixture used for washing clothes. They then rubbed it with a sort of pomade made from yellow flowers, then let it dry. The men too had the habit of hiding their white hair. A habit which was not to everyone’s taste.
One day, Alexander seeing a Macedonian occupied in blackening his grey hair, said to him: “Old man, if you really want to make some repairs to your ancient self, you should start by propping up your trembling knees.”
More than makeup and perfumes, hair was the big thing with the Roman women. They usually had black hair, and blond hair being rare, it was much sought after. This created the habit of tinting hair blond.
Those who had white or greying hair, used safran to tint it and give themselves a bright blond. But blond could be obtained in a lot of other ways. Either with vinegar dregs and pistachio oil, or with quince juice mixed with privet juice.
Roman ladies were so passionate about bright blond hair that they often wore blond wigs mounted on kid skin, sometimes sprinkled with gold powder. This passion for blond also reigned among the men. They used gold powder mixed with the colour with which they tinted their hair.
It was mainly after the conquest of Germania that blond became the favourite colour. A little later, red hair was preferred.
Roman men also tried to hide their white hair by using a good number of ingredients like wild atriplex, St John’s wort, myrtle wine, cypress leaves, wild sage, boiled leek peelings or walnut husks.
Here is a recipe from Pliny: “Take one setier of leeches and two setiers of pure vinegar; beat the lot, then place it in a lead vase, where you leave it to ferment for sixty days. At the end of this time, rub your hair with it in the sunshine. It will become a magnificent black.” Pliny adds: “Above all, do not forget to keep oil in your mouth during the operation, otherwise your teeth will take on the same black colour.”
The colouring substance was probably due to the lead which had detached itself from the vase under the influence of the vinegar’s acetic acid. As for the oil in the mouth, this was apparently only a charlatan’s juggling, wanting to hide the means he employed – unless these preparations used a mercury base, and this was a means of preventing its noxious action on teeth.
It is however pertinent to warn of the danger of these decolorations and dyes. A good number of Roman women used these preparations, which were fatal for the skin. Some of them even provoked the loss of all the hair.
The Church Fathers forcefully rose against the mania of Christians for tinting their hair. Tertullian, among others, had noticed that the dyes were harmful for the brain. Saint Clement of Alexandria said: “We shouldn’t change the natural colour of our hair and eyebrows with artificial colours. If we are fobidden to wear clothes of different or mixed colours, it is even more strongly forbidden for us to destroy the whiteness of our hair, which is a cause for respect and a sign of authority.”
In the Middle Ages, blondness was also a beauty criterium. The blond hair of the heroines of knightly stories, the fear of black hair – in particular that of the Sarrasins – bear witness to it. Recipes for blonding and even whitening the hair are found in the XIVth Century and up until the end of the XVIth Century.
Black, on the other hand, was very much appreciated in the Orient, where the art of dyes, which coloured hair a brilliant and permanent black, appeared during the XVIth Century.
The mania for blond hair was general in Italy. Vecellio writes: “During the hours when the sun darts its most vertical rays, they [the women] climb onto the little wooden loggias and condemn themselves to be grilled and serve themselves up there. Seated, they bathe and re-bathe their hair continuously, with a sponge drenched in Jouvence [youth] water, which they have prepared themselves, or bought. Has the sun dried their hair? Quickly, they bathe it again with the same mixture, drying it again with the fire in the sky and renewing, without stopping, the same thing.”
Second and last part tomorrow.