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The shows coincide with this week’s release of "On Blondes" (Bloomsbury), a history of blonde hair by Joanna Pitman, the former Tokyo correspondent and now the photography critic for The Times. The scholarly but lively book traces the mystique of blonde hair from ancient Greece — when courtesans dyed their hair with stinking potions in order to resemble Aphrodite — through the Renaissance, Nazi Germany and the age of Princess Diana.
"Blonde hair has had so many meanings over the years. It’s been sexy, divinely immaculate, sinister and a symbol of power," says Pitman. "Today, it can mean any and all of those things. But one thing is for sure — we’ve all left the dumb blonde behind."
Pitman, a blonde who was mistaken for a saint during a trip to Kenya years ago, says the idea for the book came from a more recent trip to Australia. "I was walking on the beach, and I saw a mother squeezing lemon juice onto her little girl’s head. I found the whole beach-body-fascism thing fascinating, and started doing some research at the London Library."
That research turned up poems by Ovid and bizarre tales of oversexed medieval clerics, and led to unusual musings on Margaret Thatcher. "The more powerful she became, the more blonde she became. She had this imperial, shining golden halo that represented Britain," adds Pitman. Thatcher certainly wasn’t the first Englishwoman to rule with a golden coiffure. At the beginning of her years on the throne, Queen Elizabeth I had auburn hair. Years later, at the time of the Spanish Armada victory, she was miraculously transformed — thanks to a golden wig — into a radiant blonde. Pitman argues that it was clearly a power thing.
She says the most fascinating part of her research was seeing to what extent women would go to in order to be blonde. To wit, during the Renaissance in northern Italy, they slathered a lethal mix of chemicals onto their heads, which an American chemist later figured out was a crude form of hydrogen peroxide.