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“Newest Ideas about Brain Power”: Hair Color and Jean Harlow, Hollywood’s Platinum Blonde

Jean Harlow


Jean Harlow (1911-1937), born Harlean Carpenter, rose to display fame within the early 1930s enjoying characters with an unaffected, uninhibited, spontaneous sexuality. [See Figure 1.] Dubbed the “Platinum Blonde” by producer Howard Hughes, who employed her for a starring position in the aviation epic Hell’s Angels (1930), Harlow’s intense white-blond hair was a signature function of her star persona; indeed, it turned synecdochic shorthand for her reputation and distinctive attraction. Blondes in Hollywood have been nothing new, however Harlow’s fashion represented an unprecedented, rarefied version of a glance that laid naked most of the typically contradictory assumptions associated with female blondness, which signified beauty, modernity, pleasure, sensuality, naughtiness, superficiality, and artifice – but in addition discipline, struggling, and even a new sort of “brain power.” Employing fan magazine collections obtainable online and rare press clippings within the Howard Hughes Motion Image Data at the College of Nevada Las Vegas, this text investigates the public discourse surrounding Harlow’s eponymous hair, focusing on the period by which she emerged as a star, 1930-1931.

In 2018, artists John Lucas and Claudia Rankine interrogated the which means of blondness of their interactive set up Stamped. [See Figure 2.] As the description for the exhibition notes, “Historically, blondness has been a signifier for desirability and wonder. It speaks to ‘purity’ and whiteness . . . like no other bodily attribute except, perhaps, blue eyes. In the twenty-first century, blondness is the look desired [by many figures in popular culture, including our president].” Lucas and Rankine portray blondness as a journey through which People have fun or choose it for quite a lot of causes, resembling defying age or expressing a person type. They clarify, “For each consumer of blonde dye, the journey is private. Solely the blondes know the place the blondness sends them. On this means, they’re stamped, however it’s also their freedom.”

Figure 2: Stamped (2018 exhibition on blondness by John Lucas and Claudia Rankine at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, NY)

But that journey, that experience of blondness, might be public in addition to personal, and a particular model of blondness turned an integral part of Jean Harlow’s star persona in twentieth-century Hollywood. Simply as Lucas and Rankine’s installation problematizes the notion that twenty-first century blondness is solely about whiteness or magnificence, so too did the profession of Jean Harlow illustrate that intense feminine blondness, although coded racially and sexually, was not simply an easy articulation of present stereotypes.


In 1929, Harlow was unknown to the general public, though she had performed small, uncredited roles in shorts and a function, The Saturday Night time Kid. She started to appear in the press when Howard Hughes chosen her to exchange star Greta Nissen, whose voice was deemed unsuitable for the sound version of the troubled movie Hell’s Angels, which had been in manufacturing for 2 years. “Unknown Woman to Painting Lead in Epic Manufacturing,” small information gadgets announced in December 1929. At first, Harlow’s hair shade was not highlighted or talked about in discussions of her nascent stardom, although her scenes in Hell’s Angels as a blonde had already been shot when her casting was revealed. [See Figure 3.] “Announcement of Miss Harlow’s elevation to stellar elements was withheld till the finished image could possibly be seen and her work judged,” defined the Kansas Metropolis Star. “When this was carried out, her face and voice have been found to have screened completely.” The newspaper congratulated Harlow on receiving stardom as a “Christmas present” in late 1929. An early quotation of Harlow’s blondness in connection together with her stardom occurred on January 19, 1930, when a publication referred to as The Critic profiled the actress in a brief piece titled “Jean Harlow Arrives.” [See Figure 4.] The article refers to Harlow as “Hollywood’s latest Cinderella” and praises her putting magnificence and sensible efficiency in Hell’s Angels (which had not yet been launched), however does not call attention to her hair colour till the ultimate line,  which briefly notes that she is a “natural blonde.” Initially, Harlow was “bought” to the public not as a blonde but as a gorgeous society belle who was prepared to forego wealth for a career as an actress. [See Figure 5.] Variations of the headline “She Gave Up a Fortune for a $55 Movie Contract” appeared in dozens of publications in mid- to late January 1930. The press described Harlow as a disinherited heiress and a “new movie magnificence.” Blondness was not but a signature component of her id.

Jean Harlow

Determine 3: Jean Harlow was forged in Hell’s Angels (1930) with James Corridor (left) and Ben Lyon (right) (Montreal Commonplace, February 1, 1930)

Jean Harlow

Determine four: Initially, Harlow’s blondness was not highlighted (The Critic, January 19, 1930)

Jean Harlow

Determine 5: Harlow was introduced as a society belle who had given up her wealth to be within the films (New Brunswick (NJ) Every day Occasions, January 24, 1930)

In January 1931, a number of months after Hell’s Angels was launched, fan magazines and newspapers started to make use of the adjective “platinum” to describe Harlow’s hair. Platinum is among the earth’s rarest and most respected metals, and publicity that celebrated Harlow as a “platinum blonde” advised that she was a one-of-a-kind find whose beauty was enviable and influential and troublesome to emulate. In “The Platinum Woman,” Display Ebook noted, “Little did these youngsters [who grew up with Harlow] reckon that the naughty little Nordic with the white hair would, before the thrifty thirties have been far misspent, turn into a meteoric phenomenon, to wit, however to not boot, the Platinum Princess. . . . If one can be correctly dazzling and seductive, now one should have platinum hair, because of Jean, who began this rage. The near blondes are lucky, for with the help of a couple of acids that desired silvery sheen could be obtained.” [See Figure 6.] Display Romances described Harlow as “the blonde extreme of feminine loveliness . . . whose silvery tresses are such that the shade touches that of platinum.” [See Figure 7.] Some authors explicitly related Harlow’s magnificence to an expression of whiteness, as when Dorothy Manners in Movement Picture Basic referred to her as “[the] whitely exotic Harlow woman.”

Jean Harlow

Determine 6: As Harlow’s persona advanced, “platinum” turned its crucial ingredient (Display Guide, January 1931)

As a result of Harlow’s “silvery tresses” represented an final model of blondness and perhaps of whiteness itself – an extrapolation of feminine beauty as it was conceived in early twentieth-century America – rhetoric about her hair took on a defensive, corrective high quality, maintaining that the depth of her talent, character, and mind have been much “extra” than audiences may anticipate. [See Figure 8.] Laura Benham of Silver Display defined that Harlow had been “grievously misunderstood” and was not simply “another dizzy blonde,” however “an enthralling, cultured woman with a sane, honest outlook on life.” Such discourse attempted to recuperate and have fun the worth of feminine whiteness, suggesting that major signifiers of it, resembling blond hair, might connote wisdom and substance, and shouldn’t be easily dismissed as vacuous or superficial.

Jean Harlow

Figure 7: Harlow as an “excessive” blonde (Display Romances, January 1931)

Jean Harlow

Figure eight: Harlow’s star persona was an exaggerated model of whiteness (Los Angeles Occasions, July 7, 1931)

In 1931, wire service articles with the headline “Queen of Flicker Blonds Achieved with Dangerous Woman Roles” appeared in major newspapers across the nation. The model revealed in the St. Paul Information describes Harlow’s hair as her defining function, noting that when one meets her, one “instantly forgets the whole lot besides platinum blond hair.” Yet the article additionally contends that Harlow’s hair had undeservedly earned her a fame as a “huzzy”: “Despite the ‘dangerous woman’ roles she has portrayed on the display, Jean actually lives a really quiet life. She is seldom seen at Hollywood’s social features and does practically no entertaining herself. And she or he works arduous all the time.” In September 1931, Trendy Display argued that though Harlow’s “platinum hair has pulsed like a candle flame throughout a thousand footlights,” she is “the star that no one knows.” She shouldn’t be a “celebration woman” and has “good sturdy American qualities. The one thing she hates above all else is hypocrisy. The one factor she loves most is work.” A related headline in the Missouri State Journal noted, “Platinum Blonde Movie Actress Is Largest Shock in Hollywood; She Reads Books and Prefers Tennis While Ready Probability for Straight Dramatics.” “Jean Harlow No Lowbrow,” echoed the Sioux Metropolis (IA) Journal. As a result of hair colour turned the inspiration of Harlow’s id, publicity about her needed to recuperate and defend her intellect in a method that was not vital for other stars, who weren’t “excessive” blondes or whose stardom did not appear dependent upon hair shade. Thus, for Harlow, public discourse actively worked towards stereotypes of female blondness.

Maybe probably the most exceptional example of that impulse was in a full-page newspaper article reprinted across the nation in March 1931, “Newest Ideas about Brain Energy.” [See Figure 9.] The caption beneath Harlow’s photograph reads, “Jean Harlow of the platinum-blond hair. Such blonds are often regarded as aggressive, lively, changeable, in a phrase, ‘dizzy.’” However, the article asserts, “Blonds are simply as apt to be brainy as brunets.” Harlow was chosen because the exemplar of unfair stereotypes about blondes because she was the era’s whitest blonde and the star whose persona was related most immediately together with her blond hair colour.

Jean Harlow

Determine 9: The article argues that science demonstrates that “blonds are simply as apt to be brainy as brunets.” (Rocky Mountain News, March 15, 1931)

Harlow’s distinction and intelligence have been defended whether she was described as a pure blonde or a star who heroically suffered via the poisonous procedures that have been crucial to supply the silvery shade that turned her trademark. The notion that Harlow’s platinum hair was the result of dyeing implied that whiteness was a constructed high quality that could possibly be created by these with conviction and dedication. Readers have been regularly warned of the risks of pursuing extreme blondness, hinting that there was an undercurrent of worry at the prospect of huge numbers of American females with the ability to cross as white, and even “ultra white.” The exclusivity and power of whiteness have been something to be defended, as is clear in the barely hysterical tone of headlines that decried the doubtless damaging effects of pursuing white-blond hair.

The primary line of defense was to elucidate that Harlow’s hair was utterly untreated, and subsequently making an attempt to recreate her noteworthy hue was a objective doomed to failure. “The one disadvantage about [Harlow’s] present display success,” explained a columnist within the Tulsa (OK) Tribune, “is that since she has develop into referred to as ‘The Platinum Blonde,’ the fad for platinum blondeness has brought on three ladies that I do know of to attempt experimenting with the natural colour of their hair till every ruined her hair and had to have her head shaved.” The writer cites Harlow herself, who says, “I’ve been in beauty outlets in Chicago and Detroit the place I was advised that they offered a platinum rinse that is just the same as Jean Harlow uses. Now, it happens that I don’t use any synthetic remedy to paint my hair. I assume I am just a pure tow head.”

General, publicity about Harlow was cut up on the origin of her platinum tresses, with an almost equal variety of sources attributing them to nature or to artifice. “Relating to that head of platinum hair, Jean swore up and right down to me that it was not dyed,” one newspaper article assured readers. “No matter the truth that her hair is colorless, each in shade and story, she [Harlow] is instantly chargeable for a brand new craze because of it. Probably you’ve got observed women who was redheads, blondes, and brunettes, arranging dates for platinum rinses.” The Atlanta Journal explained that Harlow “rinsed her hair in a bluing answer” to create its shiny whiteness, and the New York Graphic revealed that “Harlow is likely one of the new platinum blondes and has to go to the hairdresser each three days.”

Some sources that targeted on Harlow’s hairstyle celebrated the wave of eager tow-headed followers that followed in her wake, however most warned ardently towards the risks of making an attempt to mimic her tresses. “Don’t Go Platinum But! Read Earlier than You Dye!” cautioned Photoplay dramatically in November 1931. [See Figure 10.] “Here is the stark fact concerning the new fad. . . . [Platinum blondness] is appropriate to only one lady in a thousand, and, inexpertly achieved, is a hazardous proceeding which may be adopted by the keenest regret.” The article insists that Harlow’s hair is totally unaltered and subsequently very troublesome to emulate with synthetic means. Harmful chemical compounds (akin to ammonia and peroxide and a last platinum rinse) have to be employed in any try and mimic it – and will not have the desired impact for many who do not begin with the “proper” hair. A large photograph of Harlow within the article features a caption that explicitly makes an attempt to order platinum blondness for (very) white People: “Beauty specialists warn ladies . . . that only these gifted together with her [Harlow’s] naturally mild coloring, clear pores and skin, [and] white tooth should contemplate it.” A associated argument was that platinum blond hair might be attempted – and even achieved – by anybody, but that it will spoil the seems to be of those that were not suited to the shade. “There may be no denying that her [Harlow’s] influence has been baneful within the excessive,” complained one columnist. “Hollywood is being corrupted with bottles of the pernicious fluid that converts in any other case normal women into platinum blondes. The stuff, whatever it is referred to as, is rank poison. Its distillation should be prohibited by regulation. . . . I’ve seen loads of maidens transformed into monstrosities by whatever form of dye it is that provides the platinum impact.” Thus, women who weren’t “white sufficient already” have been advised to avoid the aim of platinum hair for their own protection, lest they danger turning into caricatures of themselves.

Jean Harlow

Figure 10: Platinum blondness was solely protected for ladies with “naturally mild shade, transparent skin, and white tooth.” (Photoplay journal, November 1931, p. 30)


“Platinum” turned a successful mark of distinction for Harlow as a blonde because it intersected with the social and cultural dynamics of the period. Platinum blondness might be particularly reserved for white ladies, and thus signified a specific rarity, a degree of beauty few might really achieve. It was an inadvertent technique of demonstrating the exclusivity of “pure” whiteness, feeding into eugenic undercurrents of the 1920s and 1930s. One had to be born with it, or be one lady in a thousand who might efficiently obtain it. The phrase “platinum” additionally signified modernity and the innovation of the machine age, suggesting that whiteness was not an element of nostalgia for the past, however an important ingredient of a popular, dynamic future, a reassuring prospect for white audiences. Describing Harlow appearing at a nightclub, the Hollywood Filmograph enthused, “Up rose the platinum-haired sensation of Screenland. In the highlight her beautiful loveliness proven like a brand new comet flashing all of the sudden athwart the blue flame of heaven.” One newspaper even described an “ultra-modern” electrical system that “proved” Harlow’s hair was the exact shade of platinum metallic. [See Figure 11.]

Along with signifying shortage and high worth, platinum, a white metallic typically in comparison with its costly however more widespread counterpart, gold, was a whiter model of ordinary (golden) blondness, making Harlow the embodiment not solely of final blondness, but in addition whiteness, extrapolated to its most excessive incarnation. [See Figure 12.] In November 1930, Screenland declared, “There’s completely no one like her – on or off the display. . . . Jean Harlow’s hair is white. I imply it. It’s so blonde, it’s white. . . . Her eyes are blue, shockingly, electrically blue.” Here, the journal highlights the two options that the majority clearly code Harlow as “ultra-white” – her silvery tresses and her intensely blue eyes.

Jean Harlow

Figure 11: A device created by electrical engineers “proved” that Harlow’s hair was the exact colour of platinum metallic (Pittsburgh Solar-Telegraph, December 11, 1931)

Jean Harlow

Figure 12: Harlow was an incarnation of “ultra-whiteness” (Image Play journal, Might 1931)


The task of historians is to dig deeply and discover the truth beyond the illusive shadows in Plato’s cave, although they essentially work with evidence that’s incomplete. The fan magazine discourse cited right here might recommend that Harlow’s star persona was reductive, grounded in little more than the shade of her hair, however the actuality was more complicated. In the early 1930s, her persona was the sum complete of all her publicity, appearances, performances, and interviews, lots of which have left no traces for current historians to look at. Yet what remains means that her platinum blond hair, created at producer Howard Hughes’s urging, embraced the anxieties and ideals of her age.

Apparently, Harlow’s reign as a platinum blonde was temporary. Her extreme blondness implied that she may additionally harbor an intense sexuality, bringing her underneath the scrutiny of the Catholic Legion of Decency, which within the early 1930s was trying to fight what it seen as Hollywood’s manufacturing of immoral motion footage. Hollywood responded by implementing a restrictive Production Code and adjusting the personas of stars like Harlow, whose characters especially irked the Church because of their obvious enjoyment of intercourse. In 1935, MGM, which had turn out to be Harlow’s studio after shopping for her contract from Hughes, altered her famous hair, partly to tone down her sexuality, but in addition to fight the injury achieved by fixed bleaching. As an alternative of being the display’s signature platinum blonde, she sported a medium brown rinse termed “brownette” and have become a reinvented, more modest sex image before tragically dying of kidney failure in 1937, on the age of 26.

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