Message In a Bottle
Why do so many Texas women want to be blond? Once upon a time, I was dyeing to know.
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FOR MANY TEXAS WOMEN, there are three basic stages of hair color: original (natural childhood hue), blond (official state preference), and eventual (late-in-life silver). Some lucky ladies experience a natural overlap between numbers one and two; the rest of us can lighten up, thanks to the wonders of chemistry. As a lifelong Texan who has now experienced the entire hair spectrum, I have come to believe that blondness is even more Texan than Big Hair. It’s a pretty complicated topic, so let’s examine it with a fine-tooth comb.
I began life as a brunette, but in my early thirties—twenty years ago now—I started going gray. And not with any dramatic streaks, à la Cruella DeVil. No, it was merely an overall creeping blahness. (My older sister still has lovely dark-brown hair. Itch-bay.) For years I referred to myself as “prematurely gray,” until one of my young sons—who happened to be studying prefixes and suffixes in English class—asked if I really needed the “pre.” That did it; I could have dyed on the spot. I didn’t dare try a do-it-yourself kit lest I emerge with locks the color and texture of beef jerky. Luckily, I was blessed with the friendship of a talented stylist, Lisa Gilliam, who transformed my fading tresses into a marvelous ombré of light brown, titian, and gold. Her fee was well worth it, because so many women commented, “Your hair looks great!” (Naturally, half of them then added, “Do you color it?” Heck, no, I’d think, Lisa does, and say no with a clear conscience.)
Over the next few years, as my original color became a pigment of my imagination, I found I greatly enjoyed being a blonde. I definitely wasn’t having more fun—I was a mother of two working full-time—and I got used to hearing dumb-blonde jokes (I couldn’t object, as I knew where they came from: irked brunettes, as I used to be). But it was a kick nonetheless. Brunettes were usually stereotyped as serious and studious, but a blonde could be sexy or wild or icy or ditzy or—okay—cheap. “Blond” is a word that, like “Texas,” is just crammed with color.
So just when did the glorification of blondness begin? Well, for humanity in general, with Aphrodite—at least according to an exhibit on blondes that debuted in 2003 at London’s National Portrait Gallery. Hard to argue against the goddess of love, who has traditionally been portrayed as not only light of hair but also light on clothes. “Ladies fair”—a phrase that meant “comely” as often as “blond”—were the medieval ideal, and in literature and legend, queens and heroines were often blondes (Guinevere, Goldilocks, Little Nell). In the fourteenth century, noble ladies of the European courts first attempted to bleach their hair. The results were unfortunate, even fatal, as their potions included nasty poisonous elements such as mercury, sulfur, and lye. Absurdities in color and style—and concurrent excesses in makeup and fashion—peaked in the late eighteenth century under the aegis of Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette. The revolted peasants revolted, and the natural look was in for the next century-plus.
That included the nineteenth century, Texas’s formative years. Pioneer females of the era were consigned to braids or buns, depending on age, but hair color was God-given, period. (Remember, in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, how brown-haired Laura envied the flaxen curls of goody-two-shoes Mary?) Texans, like other settlers with strict Victorian mores, would have blanched at the thought of bleach. But after the turn of the century, several events combined to persuade such women to let down their hair. First was the rise of the motion-picture industry, with its glamorous, artificially blond stars; the look created a sensation (consider Mae West) and sparked a demand for cosmetic bleach, which had only recently been invented, in 1907. Life imitated art, and beauty shops popped up everywhere, offering shampoos and sets for as little as five cents and bleaching for a dime or so more.
Actress Mary Martin, of Weatherford, recalled in her autobiography that in 1928, at age fourteen, she and her friends treated their hair with chamomile tea, then sat in the sun to lighten it. (Martin later shot to superstardom as a blonde, albeit a boy: Broadway’s Peter Pan.) Then, in 1931, Jean Harlow’s film Platinum Blonde was a scandal and made her dyed, waved hairdo a craze. Male writers, notably practitioners of the hard-boiled-detective genre, were partial to dreaming up curvy, long-legged blondes. (As Raymond Chandler wrote in 1940’s Farewell, My Lovely, “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”) During World War II Betty Grable was the preferred pinup of our boys over there, and in another decade Marilyn Monroe became the ultimate sex symbol, thanks to her peroxided waves and come-hither comments (such as “I like to feel blond all over”).
At some elusive point just before or after the war, the Texas blonde emerged as a distinct type. An early hint came in 1937, when Dallas, trying to get its money’s worth from the Fair Park complex, which had been expanded for the state’s centennial, hosted the Pan-American Exposition, with a bicultural theme of Texas and Mexico. Officials put out a call for Latina-looking “Texanita” hostesses, a move that prompted seven Dallas blondes to stage a well-publicized protest. After the war, many Texas blondes upped and headed to Hollywood, including fifties siren Jayne Mansfield, sixties stunner Sharon Tate, and in the seventies, the actress with the most famous blond hair ever, Farrah Fawcett. Her mane inspired descriptions such as this snippet from a quickie bio published during her Charlie’s Angels days: “Free, unbound, windblown. And there’s feeling behind it . . . it’s that fresh sporty feeling that really spells 1977.” A decade later, when Jo Thompson competed as Miss Greenville in the Miss Texas pageant, the judges asked her, during the interview phase, if she would have been willing to dye her brown hair blond to win. (She said no, but nabbed the ’87 tiara anyway.) Naturally, every once in a while a contrarian came along, like towheaded Patsy Ann McClenny, of Dallas, who once reminisced, “I spent my childhood wishing I’d grow up to be a sultry brunette, preferably Sophia Loren.” Instead, she decided to change her name and her outlook, and today we know her as another homegrown TV star, Morgan Fairchild.
Of course, not all blondes are actresses. The term “blond socialite” is almost redundant—consider Houston’s Lynn Wyatt and Carolyn Farb—and blondes can be bad rich girls too, such as Priscilla Davis, of Fort Worth, who remains almost as famous for wearing a gold “Rich Bitch” necklace as for being nearly killed in 1976 by a masked gunman whom she identified as her millionaire oilman husband, Cullen Davis. There are blond models (Jerry Hall, Anna Nicole Smith) and blond singers (Barbara Mandrell, Jessica Simpson). Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchison is a blonde, and so is Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who attended school in El Paso. (Does anyone dare tell them blonde jokes?) But the main reason so many daughters of Texas, famous or just folks, choose to go blond is to feel and look younger. Some think that, as blondes, they are more likely to attract men. No wonder zillions of Texas gals stay blond well into their sixties, seventies, or beyond. Gossip columnist Liz Smith, a Cowtowner turned New Yorker who turns 82 this month, titled her memoirs Natural Blonde—which she has never been.
As Texas blondes go, that’s a pretty fair sampling. But I, alas, no longer qualify for membership in such an elite sisterhood. Three years ago I quit coloring my hair, a decision based largely on salon fatigue, since the process took the better part of four hours (and two hundred bucks). To my astonishment, I discovered—over a period of months, as I suffered through the miserable growing-out period—that my hair had turned what I like to call “Arctic blond”: that is, white. Snow white, sheet white, walk-toward-the-light white.
For this reason, my role models (hairoines?) are two women rarely seen in the same sentence, much less the same room: Ann Richards and Barbara Bush. I love the fact that our former governor is immune to the vagaries of fashion; her distinctive bouffant do, the apotheosis of Big Hair, looks much the same as it did some thirty years ago, when she was a mere Travis County commissioner. Richards’s hair has inspired many a gag and gimmick; for example, at one gubernatorial bash, a concessionaire offered fluffy cotton candy piled atop a paper cone printed with Richards’s face. As for former first lady Bush, she explained in her autobiography why, on a Senate campaign trip in 1970, she decided to let nature take its course: “I tried a new hair color product, a rinse called ‘Fabulous Fawn.’ Well, as the day got hotter, and when the air-conditioning quit working on the plane, ‘Fabulous Fawn’ began to trickle down my back. All day I looked like I had a dirty neck. I think that was the last time I ever colored my hair.”