By Joanna Pitman

Bloomsbury. 292 pp. $24.95

"It was a blonde," Raymond Chandler wrote in one of his Philip Marlowe novels. "A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window." Was it Madonna, maybe? "Being blonde is definitely a different state of mind," she has said. "I can't really put my finger on it, but the artifice of being blonde has some incredible sort of sexual connotation." Artifice is the word for it, all right. "Only one in 20 white American adults is naturally blonde," Joanna Pitman writes in "On Blondes," "and roughly the same ratio applies to white northern Europeans." She continues:

"But you would never think it, walking down a crowded street in the urban West. Here, virtually one in three white adult female heads is dyed a shade of blonde, be it honey, platinum, ash, 'dirty pillow slip' or any other colour from our rich lexicon of blonde shades. To achieve it, women have gone to extraordinary lengths. In Ancient Rome, the most ruthless beauties used pigeon dung; in Renaissance Venice they resorted to horse urine. Today women spend hundreds of [dollars] sitting for hours in hairdressing salons having their hair lightened."

To what purpose they do this, and to what effect, are the chief subjects of Pitman's witty, informative and agreeably concise tour d'horizon of blondness from Aphrodite to Barbie, with innumerable stops between. A British journalist whose own hair is naturally brown but turns blond under the sun, she has had personal experience of the "sort of instant decadent glamour" a woman achieves when she undergoes the transformation from mousy brown to brilliant blond -- from, if you will, Jane Eyre to Marilyn Monroe. "On Blondes" is a bit once-over-lightly, but this is probably just what the subject deserves: a quick, deft survey rather than a lumbering academic exegesis.

Aphrodite, Pitman argues, "was the first universal blonde, the world's original model of sexual fantasy and power." A creature brought to life in the imaginations of the men of ancient Greece, men "bewitched by blonde hair," she was immortalized in statues that were, in turn, worshiped by men and women alike: "More than two thousand marble Aphrodites survive today, as well as many more in bronze and in terracotta, from temples, tombs and gardens. So two thousand years ago her image must have been seen by everyone, a universal and utterly democratic blonde goddess inspiring Greeks of all classes, ages and inclinations."

When the Romans appropriated her, as they appropriated so much else that was Greek, they called her Venus. The blond goddess was imitated by privileged women in the palaces of Rome, where such exemplars of "vice, extravagance and power-crazed lust" as the empresses Messalina and Poppaea devoted vast amounts of time and money to keeping their tresses as blond as the hairdressing techniques of the day allowed. As a consequence of their flamboyant behavior, blondness became associated with luxury, lust and lechery. Those associations in turn were appropriated by early Christians, who often depicted the temptresses Eve and Mary Magdalene as blondes, since "blonde was both beautiful and dangerous, both eternally desirable and for ever forbidden."

But the allure of blond was too powerful. The church fathers had to appropriate it, so in the 14th century, the Virgin Mary began to appear in works of art granted the church's seal of approval as "a pillar of blonde virtue," in whom blondness became "the ultimate manifestation of pure, superior beauty." This, as Pitman quite cleverly and (so it seems) correctly surmises, posed a conundrum:

"Few perhaps made the comparison at the time, but the symbolic purity of the Virgin Mary's colouring provided the first evidence of the dichotomy in blondeness that was to plague and intrigue men and women for hundreds of years to come. With the unveiling of the Virgin, blonde hair was shown to possess a dangerous ambivalence. It could signify immaculate, innocent and uncorruptible beauty -- no one could better the Virgin Mary in divine beauty, or it could signal the greedily manipulative desire to seduce, manifest in such wily operators as Eve and Mary Magdalene. Context was essential for judgment and the clues were generally pretty clear."

To put it in more contemporary and secular terms, it is the difference between Doris Day blond and Marilyn Monroe blond.

Somewhat paradoxically, Monroe was presented as both the sexy blonde and the dumb blonde, but there was precedent for that. "In Paris in 1775, a beautiful courtesan named Mademoiselle Rosalie Duthe acquired the dubious honor of becoming the first officially recorded dumb blonde," having "developed a habit of long pregnant silences." This may well have been because "she had nothing to say," but she was ridiculed in a publication of the day as a "mechanical woman" and then lampooned in a one-act play that she attended unaware that she was its subject, though she seems to have been smart enough to have figured that out and to have demanded (without success) that her lover complain to the manager of the theater.

Yet the dumb blonde, though she persists in Hollywood and on television and in pulp fiction, contrasts starkly with the fairy-tale princess who became a staple of mythology and children's literature. "With the exception of Snow White, who has always been distinguished by her black hair, the heroines of these fairytales were always blonde": Goldilocks, Cinderella and, perhaps most to the point, "the virtuous but wronged Rapunzel [who] uses her long blonde hair to pull her lover up into her tower." The Victorians added their own concoctions to the brew: the blond Alice, who went to Wonderland, and the poetry of Ernest Dowson, in which the depiction of innocent blond girls had a powerful undercurrent of "sexually fraught material."

Undercurrents of a far more disturbing nature were coming into the light at about the same time: "By the mid-nineteenth century most Victorian commentators agreed that, within Europe, the Teutonic peoples of the north and west were racially superior to the Latin hordes to the south and the Slavonic peoples to the east. The belief in the natural superiority of blonde-haired and blue-eyed northern Europeans was gradually gaining acceptance." The notion of Aryan superiority found receptive ears in Britain and the United States, becoming entangled with class in the former and race in the latter, but the most receptive ears of all were German:

"Germany's blonde ideals had ominous origins roots dating back to the race theories of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But under the Nazis, the concept of blonde Aryan supremacy was taken with great efficiency to such innovative and diabolical political extremes that it still exerts a horrifying fascination. . . . The imagery of the pure blonde Aryan provided the Nazis with the basis for the major themes of their ideology: the contrast between good and evil, pure and impure, order and chaos, salvation and destruction."

One might think that the horrors of Nazi Germany would have caused a crash in the market for blondness, but quite the opposite occurred. Pinups of blond movie stars decorated the barracks and foxholes of American GIs, and after the war the market went wildly bullish. Not merely were there Marilyn Monroe and Diana Dors and Jayne Mansfield and Julie Christie, there were also ad campaigns in the 1950s for a Clairol hair-coloring product that added phrase after phrase to the language: "Does she or doesn't she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure." "Is it true blondes have more fun?" And then "one of the most famous lines in advertising history: 'If I've only one life, let me live it as a blonde.' "

Pitman, much to her credit, declines to assign more moral or thematic weight to all of this than it can bear. The obsession with blondness may well have deeper and darker meanings than we realize, but it's refreshing in these days of scholarly overkill to encounter a writer who is content to present the evidence and let it speak for itself. As one who was born a blond and enjoyed the benefits therefrom before becoming merely dirty brown at around the age of 6 or 7, I for one remain unconvinced that blonds have more fun and am entirely content to live out the rest of my one life with the few shreds of brown that I still possess.