Books · Fashion & Beauty

Hair Change; The Power of Reinvention

America was founded on the concept of freedom, and wave after wave of immigrants have come to the United States to pursue the dream of a future without limits. Part of that freedom was the important idea of reinvention: the constraints of the old world did not necessarily apply here. And to the extent that they might, you could “assimilate” into the mainstream culture, erase your immigrant roots and the chains of the social caste systems that dominated so many other nations.

In the typical rags-to-riches story, members of each generation are more and more assimilated, and with each successive move they boost their options for entrée into the upper echelons. Shirley Polykoff, born in Flatbush but ending up on Park Avenue, was the child of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, and she wanted to live the life she saw for herself just the way she wanted. She was bold and original and daring, and she dressed accordingly. And she died her hair blonde, in a time when being a “bottle blonde” was associated with a certain kind of “cheap” woman.

When her boyfriend George took her home to meet his parents, his mother said to her son that she looked as if she “painted her hair,” and asked him (in Yiddish), “does she or doesn’t she?” The rest is history.

Polykoff was an advertising copywriter, and in the early 1960s the Gelb family, Lawrence and his sons Richard and Bruce, who ran Clairol, had the good sense to hire her agency to promote their new product: Nice n’Easy, the first one-step home hair coloring method. In twenty minutes, a “new you” was now within the grasp of every American female, and with Polykoff’s help, the bottles flew off the shelves.

“Does she or doesn’t she?” wasn’t the only iconic line that she and Clairol devised in her long and storied career. Other classics include “Is it true blondes have more fun?” and the all-time winner: “If I only heave one life to lead, let me live it as a blonde.”

That last one gets to the heart of the close relationship women have with their hair. It is an essential part of our identity. Some colors, like blonde or redhead, immediately convey a certain image. Anthropologist Grant McCracken, whose 1995 book, Big Hair: A Journey into the Transformation of Self, explores the various meanings of how we choose to wear our hair, even suggested a “blondness periodic table” with six categories:

  1. the “bombshell blonde” (Mae West, Marilyn Monroe)
  2. the “sunny blonde” (Doris Day, Goldie Hawn)
  3. the “brassy blonde” (Candice Bergen)
  4. the “dangerous blonde” (Sharon Stone)
  5. the “society blonde” (C. Z. Guest)
  6. the “cool blonde” (Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly).


Polykoff and Clairol had the brilliant idea that all women might long to be blonde, and millions fell for their ads, which showed a demure, fresh-faced housewife whose strawberry-blonde hair matched that of her daughter. This had the effect of muting down the sexual overtones of the “does she . . .” question, while at the same time implying the idea that a blonde you does lurk within, by genotype if not phenotype. (Your genotype is the set of genes you carry, whereas an organism’s phenotype is all of its observable characteristics — which are influenced both by its genotype and by the environment).

As feminism began to take hold during the next few decades, some “bottle blondes” were criticized for turning their backs on their natural beauty. But, (possibly with help from Gloria Steinem), the numbers of women dyeing their hair continued to grow—from 7 percent to 40 percent. I remember asking my grandmother why she still had blonde hair since she was an old lady. I’m sure she didn’t appreciate the question, which she declined to answer, but soon it seemed that everyone’s grandmother (and mother) had blonde hair.

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