I’ve only bleached my hair once. The year was 2010 and the look, of course, was ombré. I was a beauty assistant, on a $30,000 salary, when I heard whispers of a new hair trend that faded from natural roots to light ends. By all beauty editor accounts, it was going to be the Next Big Thing—something we actually said in women’s magazine offices back then. Normally, I held out on asking my editor for favors, saving them for when I needed an emergency bottle of fake tan or, at times, $20 to tide me over until payday—but I needed ombré hair with a level of desperation I’d never experienced, so I begged her to call in a favor from a hair colorist friend. When she told me I was in, I posted a status to Facebook in third person (remember, this was 2010): “Gyan Yankovich can’t wait for balayage tomorrow!” It only got two likes, but I didn’t need the external validation—I knew my freshly painted blonde ends would provide me with all the support I needed.
Before the appointment, I’d always been too cautious to lighten my naturally dark hair and too broke to commit to anything that would require touch-ups, but the ombré trend solved all of that. It was cost-effective, somewhat polished, and above all, looked cool. It was the era of Alexa Chung-effortless style and she was one of ombré’s earliest adopters, pairing blonde ends with her signature cat-eye that I (obviously) also tried to replicate. Alexa was the perfect poster girl for a style that said, I don’t give a shit about how I look, but I look good doing it.
I was far from the first person to have ombré hair, as much as I would have liked to be. The 2010s saw a motley crew of celebrities from Sarah Jessica Parker to J.Lo to Jared Leto to Rachel Bilson to Miley Cyrus become the faces (heads?) of ombré. Some celebrities—like Ciara—remained ombré-curious for the entire decade. Other celebrities’ ombré hair bookmarked the most important moments of their 2010s: Kim Kardashian got ombré shortly after giving birth to North West; Lily Aldrige had ombré at her wedding to Caleb Followill; Beyoncé had an ombré bob at the 2014 Grammys when she and Jay-Z opened the show with “Drunk in Love”. And if you only watch one video today, let it be this one of Jessica Alba getting ombré, posted to Instagram in 2014, edited on Flipagram to Missy Elliot’s “Work It.”
Alongside the celebrities and beauty editors praying at the altar of ombré were the models. Two-toned hair slowly became the signature look of the annual Victoria’s Secret show during a time when the glossy extensions, feathery lashes, and airbrushed skin backstage were the pinnacle of conventional beauty ideals. Joan Smalls, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, and Gisele Bündchen took ombré from the runway to the streets, to magazine pages, to Pinterest boards titled things like “hair goals” and “ombré inspo.” Every time a public figure was photographed with ombré hair in the 2010s, someone, somewhere, took that photo to a hair colorist and said, “I want that.” It was a hair movement of the most sweeping proportions.
According to Google Trends, our collective interest in ombré peaked in March 2013, but the cultural effects of the trend continued. In 2016, Pantone announced its first ever ombré color of the year: rose quartz and serenity, a pastel pink that faded into blue. On the Pantone website, the team explains that their decision to go with ombré was made for “a generation that has less concern about being typecast or judged and an open exchange of digital information that has opened our eyes to different approaches to color usage.” Hair no longer needed to be just one color, and neither did our walls, nails, napkins, and wedding cakes. The trend infiltrated every aspect of our lives. Today, on Instagram, there are currently more than 15-million posts tagged #ombre.
What is it about ombré? And why did it endure while other 2010s hair trends—the Rihanna-inspired undercuts, the top knots, the pastel mermaid waves—quickly expired? In an era defined by both no-makeup makeup and Instagram face, the motivation behind our beauty choices hasn’t always been obvious. But when I consider some of the prevailing trends—microblading, lip fillers, fake freckles, and Botox, which all work hard to present a look that’s natural while actually engendering the opposite—an answer emerges. The 2010s saw the favoring of skincare routines over foundation, lash extensions over layers of mascara, “natural” over manufactured (and over actual natural). And ombré fits right in. It looks like you skipped a salon appointment, even if you didn’t. It replicates a sun-kissed fade, even if you never left the house. It implies that you don’t care, even if you do, which makes it the perfect mascot for our relationship with beauty in the 2010s: We may be grappling with our obsession with how we look, but we still want to look good while doing it.
Photos via Getty Images.
Graphics by Lorenza Centi.