In the summer of 2010, Marion Cotillard appeared on the front of Vogue Magazine.
Christopher Nolan’s most recent film, Inception, had been released that same month, and Cotillard was, justifiably, all the rage. I’d never seen anyone make a short, wavy bob cut look so elegant. Seeing her cover photo for the first time, I remember thinking: I want hair like that. But purple.
I assume the purple inspiration came from the other colors in the photograph: the deep, berry tones of her dress, the plum tone in her lipstick, the blues and pinks in her halter top. Or maybe it’s that there’s something about the color purple I’ve always liked. In any case, the idea stuck with me. For years.
And as I continued thinking about it, the idea evolved. I wanted the short purple bob, but the idea of abandoning my natural hair color made me nervous. So I decided that, when I went to color my hair, I would take a year to do every color I could imagine, get it all over with, and then go back to my natural color. But first, I needed to find someone I could trust to do all this.
Thus, the hair journey was born.
I showed Elizabeth my purple hair aspiration the very first day we met. As I’ve already related, she was the first person to call this whole process a “hair journey,” and we spent most of that conversation planning the stages. Talking to Elizabeth definitely helped me understand the process better, and she gave me better expectations for heading into it. She also gave me some inspiration for the different stages, and as a result the journey definitely took a few details along the way. But after over a year of experimentation, last December I finally decided the time had come. Seven and a half years after first deciding I wanted to cut my hair short and dye it purple, I was ready to take the last step.
I’m going to get pretty detailed about the process on this one, because it took a long time, and Elizabeth is always telling me how one of the biggest misconceptions people have about hair color is that you can just walk in and totally transform your hair in an hour.
Doing it right takes time. In this case, about six hours. This is why.
Step one: The rough cut.
Elizabeth always does a rough-cut of my hair before we start so that she doesn’t waste any product on hair that’s just going to be chopped off. We discussed the length I wanted, and she took off enough to bring me to about chin-length. As you can see, my copper hair held up really well, right to the end.
Step 2: Lightening.
Hair dye isn’t opaque. While a strong dye can cover a lot, whatever you have underneath will show through, especially over time. This meant that going from copper to purple was a mixed bag: on the one hand, they are on the complete opposite ends of the color wheel. On the other hand, so long as Elizabeth could lighten it enough, the warm undertones could be an unexpected aid in helping my purple hair not feel so cold.
After cutting my hair to about the right length, Elizabeth applied lightener (bleach) and let that process. Then we washed it out, blow-dried my hair, and she started shaping the cut into more of a layered bob.
Between the rough-cut, applying the lightener, leaving it to process, washing it out, drying, and shaping, we’re now about two or three hours into the hair appointment and purple dye has yet to touch my hair. You see why this takes time.
Step 3: Purple (finally!)
Applying the actual color is the most time-consuming and magical part of the process. While Elizabeth wastes no time getting this stuff on my head, it also takes her a good hour to paint it all in. And when I say “paint,” I mean she’s literally painting colors into my hair.
During our initial consultation about the color, we settled on a deep plum color for the root. But I also wanted there to be some depth and variation to the color, so Elizabeth tracked down a couple other shades to add highlights: a bluish violet, and a deep berry tone. Fresh out of the bottle, these dyes had a far more vibrant hue than anything I’d ever envisioned putting on my head, but a year of working with Elizabeth taught me to trust her judgment in these matters.
What you see in the picture above is my hair with the dark root color applied, as well as some foils in the back. The foils are how Elizabeth paints in the highlights: she takes strands of hair, and brushes on colors, blending them together to great depth and variation.
Step 4: Processing.
I don’t have pictures of this, because the processing stage is really just sitting in a chair and waiting for the dye to do its thing. At this point, Elizabeth also ordered me some lunch from the restaurant next door and ran over to pick it up for me. It usually takes a good half hour after she puts the dye into my hair to let it reach the stage she wants, and during that time I usually read a book.
Step 5: Wash, dry, style.
From this point, it’s basically like any other hair appointment. We head to the sink, she washes my hair, and usually she applies a special Olaplex treatment to help reduce the amount of damage to my hair from all the bleach and dye. Then she dries my hair and texturizes it, which recently has meant pulling out a razor to give the style a lighter, wispier feel. Finally, she usually takes a few minutes to add in some curls, because nothing shows off a dimensional color job than a lot of waves to catch the light.
This time, after we finished up, Elizabeth also wanted to take some extra pictures using a ring light to really capture the full effect. The above do a good job of capturing the pure glee I felt during the moment.
I wasn’t the only one caught up in the moment. Elizabeth paraded me through the whole salon, and I had a whole row of sweet older ladies ooh-ing and aah-ing over it with genuine delight. “I wish I still had enough hair to do that,” one told me. It was adorable.
But wait, there’s more!
You probably noticed that I did all this back in December. Well, as I learned with my first round of copper, color that’s applied to bleached hair doesn’t last very long. Doubly so for vibrant hues. That bright purple color that took so long to achieve? It faded fast.
That’s OK. It’s how hair works. I might have been upset if this was my first time dying my hair, but I expected this. The real gamble here is what your hair will look like as it fades. To my relief (and excitement), my faded-out hair looked really cool.
When I first started blogging this whole thing, I knew I would want to make sure I had good pictures of every step along the way. When it came to my purple hair, I wanted to make sure I had a really good picture, and part of that involved finishing a dress I’d started sewing back in the fall. Unfortunately, my hair faded out before I could get a good picture taken, so I had to hold off on writing my purple hair post until I could get the color redone. (Actually this happened twice, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)
I waited six weeks for my next appointment with Elizabeth. By the time I went back, my purple hair had faded to a dusky mauve with blonde highlights. This is where the copper undertones really showed through, but in a good way.
While my purple shampoo probably didn’t do a lot to maintain the color, I do think it helped give my hair a unified tone as it faded. Although, of all the colors, I think the bright violet highlights lasted the longest, as you can see on some of the side views.
In my second appointment, I decided I wanted more of the berry tones and less of the ultra-violet. This lasted much better than the first round, but I realized partway through that I missed the blue-er tones. Much to my surprise, I decided that the cooler tones looked better with my skin tone than the warmer ones.
On my third appointment, I asked Elizabeth to put more of the ultra violet back in, which she did. And now I’m in love with it, and want more color in that direction. I’ve told Elizabeth we can go off-script now and start experimenting, and I think she’s pulling together some ideas for where we could go next.
One of my biggest take-aways from this whole process is: if you want your hair to stay healthy, you have to pay for it. Elizabeth tells me I have hair of steel, that after everything I’ve put it through it should be a lot more damaged than it is. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t borne a lot in the past year and a half.
Having purple hair brings out some funny compliments. The other day, my brother admitted that he was surprised by how good it looked. Apparently, when I told him I was dying my hair purple, he’d envisioned a frazzled mess. Seeing it looking so healthy, he was impressed by how natural it looked.
My grandparents, too, had a lot of questions and wanted to know about all the steps. Even my dad tells me he likes it.
For myself, I’ve grown acclimated to the purple hair to such an extent that I sometimes forget how new it is to everyone else. That’s not to say I take it for granted (I enjoy watching it change as it fades), only I’ve internalized the vision of myself as being purple-haired to such an extent that it’s just my hair now. I’m not a person with light brown hair pretending to have hair of a different color. I’m just a person with purple hair.
And then I meet someone new, or someone I haven’t seen in a while, and suddenly having purple hair lands me back in the spotlight. It’s like having a giant flashing sign on your head everywhere you go. You can’t not be noticed when you walk into a room.
That said, I’ve been amazed by how universally positive people have been. I knew that dyeing my hair this color would invite comment, but I often wondered if, when someone tells me they like something about my appearance (the clothes I picked out, the makeup I’m wearing, the way I styled my hair) what they really mean is that they noticed. I haven’t wondered this with my hair. So many people seem exceptionally delighted that I’m beginning to wonder if it’s just my own vanity exaggerating the extent of someone else’s praise.
(About the only time I’ve gotten any sense that someone didn’t care for the purple is when they complimented my hair cut but didn’t mention the color. I’ve joked about this, but it is probably the politest response I could expect, and while I don’t color my hair to fish for compliments, it’s also true that doing something obviously different usually invites some commentary whether you want it or not.)
Originally, I intended this to be the last stop on my hair journey before chopping my hair down to a pixie cut and growing it out natural. But now, I’m not so sure.
My nieces and nephews all have ideas about what I should color it next. Margie (3) takes endless delight in asking me why my hair is purple and when I’m going to color it something else. The conversation tends to run like this:
Margie: Why yo hair purple?
Me: Because I like it that way and it’s fun.
Margie: Oh. When yo hair gonna be pink?
Me: I don’t know. Maybe I’ll dye it that next.
Margie: When yo hair ‘lello?
Me: Well, I did that this summer, when it went blonde.
Margie: Oh. When yo hair blue?
Me: I don’t know if it will ever be blue.
(Margie also climbed up behind my chair the other day and spent a good ten minutes gently combing through my hair and looking at all the colors. It was adorable.)
Meanwhile, Peter (5) has asked me repeatedly if I’ll dye my hair green. I keep telling him that’s not in my plans for the future, but he’s very interested in the possibility. Emma (8) has requested I dye my hair teal blue, which is her current favorite color. I’ve told her that I’m thinking about dying my hair black, but that I like the idea of a couple streaks of teal at my temples.
Whatever I do next, I achieved The Plan. I set out to get a wavy, purple bob cut, and I succeeded.
And, other than costing a lot, it wasn’t that hard to attain. I think about this sometimes. It is strangely, remarkably easy to view some things as unachievable when they’re actually simple to accomplish if you want it enough. Other than finding a colorist I trusted and committing the financial resources to make it happen (which was not a small thing, I suppose), all it took to reach this goal of seven and a half years was to show up for an appointment.
Oh man, was it worth it, though. Walking out of the studio with purple hair felt giddy to an almost absurd degree. There’s no way coloring your hair should make you feel this happy, but what can I say. It’s pure fun.
That said, if there’s anything I’ve learned from this whole experience (apart from the science of hair coloring), it is how surprisingly entangled our (or perhaps just my) self-perceptions and anxiety about other people’s perceptions of ourselves can be. We have so many strange cultural ideas about hair color and what it signifies about a person’s character, and maybe in an age where people can actively choose to identify with those ideas we’re beginning to lend credence to those stereotypes. But the obvious reality is that you don’t become a different person by changing your hair color. At the most, you simply give other people a marginally more meaningful shortcut to understanding your personality than they had before.
And, like any overt statement of self-expression, doing so involves some vulnerability. I do feel more exposed with colorful hair. It’s not easy to hide in a room full of people when your hair is glowing like a radioactive space flower.
But I also feel more approachable. It gives people a talking point. It’s an introduction. And while I wouldn’t say I enjoy standing out, I do like making people feel comfortable. For whatever reason, having oddly-colored hair seems to help.
Hair Journey: fin?!
I’m going in to see Elizabeth this morning. We’re keeping most of the purple, but the plan is to add in some teal highlights. I’ve since found inspiration for more ideas, and I’m getting excited to try them. I’ve realized that there’s no rush to go back to my natural color, so I’ll probably stay on this journey for as long as I’m still having fun.
Will I keep blogging about it? Maybe sporadically.
But for now, I’m ready to put a bookmark in this series. I’ll finish when I’m ready.