“Who’s the blonde? Who’s the blonde? The blonde?” A swarm of men—lust or dollar signs in their eyes—clamors to know at a 1950 screening of The Asphalt Jungle, featuring the newly minted Marilyn Monroe. As Joyce Carol Oates writes the scene in her 2000 novel Blonde (a film adaptation by Andrew Dominik arrives this fall, starring Ana de Armas), that word hangs in the air: a metonym for Monroe’s experience of being harangued, adored, and frayed to the very cortex, a hazard of preserving her self-described “pillow-case white.”
“That blonde,” the colorist Jenna Perry says, “it’s for a kept woman.” She is referring not to the Hollywood studio system (golden handcuffs of a peroxide sort) but to the tyranny of upkeep. Perry is known instead for her #NYCBlonde, a hand-painted, low-maintenance approach that gives clients (Chloë Sevigny, Tommy Dorfman) a longer reprieve from her new SoHo salon.
Style codes are a weather vane. “For a minute, it was not really cool to be a blonde, politically,” Perry ventures. I’m reminded of the post-2016 articles about the uniform dye jobs at Fox News (what New York’s Amy Larocca called a “dog whistle of whiteness”). Claudia Rankine, who co-mounted a 2018 exhibition on the hair color, sees a “complicit freedom” in the choice to go blonde: “What happens when what we want matches up with a kind of complicity around what is valued?”
This year’s two blonde poles, Marilyn and Barbie, suggest the comforts (and currency) of nostalgia but also signal a fresh assessment. It’s evident how these icons have been packaged for consumption, and what the costs are when women are treated as dolls and dolls as women (however adroit director Greta Gerwig’s protagonist might be on neon Rollerblades). Can self-awareness act as insulation against a caustic legacy of blonde?
At the formula level, it’s certainly a gentler road. After Olaplex debuted in 2014, promising to repair disulfide (or covalent) bonds in damaged strands, a product boom followed. (Such safeguards are why quick-change artists like Dua Lipa and Kim Kardashian can flirt with platinum for a break-the-internet flash.) Living Proof, a company built on research out of MIT’s Langer Lab, brings the latest high-tech salve: the heat-activated Triple Bond Complex, a weekly treatment that targets all three bonds. To Perry, who tested early samples, it’s a way of “future-proofing the hair,” even if the inspiration dates back decades. She foretells a comeback for bottle blondes—“and I say that with a little bit of sweat,” she adds, alluding to the maintenance involved and to a possible looming recession. We might soon find ourselves with a different new-old lodestar: punk-era Blondie.