How Doris Day and Miss Clairol Helped Jews Join the Mainstream

Assimilation Colored Our American Experience

Color Her American: In the mid-1950s, formerly dark-haired American Jewish women seized the opportunity to look like Doris Day.
Getty Images
Color Her American: In the mid-1950s, formerly dark-haired American Jewish women seized the opportunity to look like Doris Day.

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published March 10, 2014, issue of March 14, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

A few months ago, I happened across a reference to the late 19th century notion that the Jews suffered disproportionately from colorblindness. This malady, it was argued at the time, explained a lot about them, most especially their putative penchant for things bold and flashy or what we today would most likely call “bling.”

Whether true or false, popular belief in the etiology of taste set me thinking about the ways in which color is as much a symbolic property as a physical one, a form of delineation that is simultaneously cultural and material.

Attributing colorblindness to the Jews was but one of many instances throughout Jewish history in which color was deployed by the powers that be to distinguish the Jews from everyone else. Rendering them visually as well as theologically a people apart, the forcible wearing of reds and yellows also stamped the Jews as an alien other.

In striking contrast to the Old World, where the relationship between the Jews and color was one of estrangement, the relationship between the Jews and color in the New World assumed a different and decidedly more beneficent hue. In this part of the world, color spoke of possibility.

Consider, for instance, the popularity of “Color Me Beautiful,” a how-to manual on looking one’s best. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, virtually every Jewish woman I knew owned a copy — and for good reason. It took the guesswork out of getting dressed. All you needed to know was whether you were an “Autumn,” a “Winter,” a “Spring,” or a “Summer,” a category of being that came with its very own portable, color chart.

A newfangled spin on the calorie counters of yesteryear, the chart fit handily into your handbag where, when the occasion warranted, it could be easily retrieved and put to good use. Reassuring as well as accessible, the “Color Me Beautiful” color code reduced the possibility of a fashion faux pas: If you stayed well within the lines and stuck to the color palette associated with your type, success was assured.

The judicious use of color didn’t just make things right. It also made them better — and blonder. Hair coloring had been around for ages, but the practice had been associated with the demimonde, not with the girl next door. The introduction of a product known as Miss Clairol changed that association: Coloring one’s hair became as respectable as the wearing of lipstick. When this no-muss, no-fuss hair dye took the American marketplace by storm in the mid-1950s, formerly dark-haired American Jewish women seized the opportunity to look like Doris Day.

Egging them on was one of their number, the Brooklyn-born Shirley Polykoff. The daughter of immigrants from Ukraine, she was a junior copywriter at Foote, Cone & Belding when it landed the Clairol account and assigned it to her. Having lightened her locks for years, she was no stranger to the power of transformation and used that knowledge to good advantage by coming up with the slogan “Does she… or doesn’t she?” According to Malcolm Gladwell in “True Colors,” a droll and lively piece on Polykoff and other Jewish women in the advertising business, Polykoff’s winning slogan was actually midwifed by her Yiddish-speaking mother-in-law. Upon meeting Polykoff for the first time, she inquired of her son whether or not his prospective bride “painted” her hair. “Shirley Polykoff was humiliated,” Gladwell writes. “In her mind she could hear her future mother-in-law: Fahrbt zi der huer? Oder farhbt zi nisht? Does she color her hair? Or doesn’t she?”

Many advertising jingles and slogans undoubtedly grew out of the soil of domestic relations, but none had quite as powerful an impact as this one, which took the physical sting and the emotional shame out of coloring one’s hair. Later still, as Clairol continued to introduce new hair coloring products into the market, Polykoff kept pace, encouraging American women to believe that “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a blonde!”

According to Polykoff’s daughter, whose astute observations appear in Gladwell’s piece, her mother wasn’t attempting to escape her Jewish background so much as improve her life. “She wasn’t trying to pass,” related Alix Nelson Frick. “But she believed in the dream… Her idea was that you should be whatever you want to be, including being a blonde.”

In the New World, where consumer goods were enmeshed in the gears of Americanization, the process of personal transformation verged on being “nice ’n easy.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Selma. Nearly 50 years ago it was violent Selma, impossibly racist Selma, site of Bloody Sunday, when peaceful civil rights marchers made their first attempt to cross the Pettus Street Bridge on the way to the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama." http://jd.fo/r50mf With the 50th anniversary approaching next spring, a new coalition is bringing together blacks, Jews and others for progressive change.
  • Kosovo's centuries-old Jewish community is down to a few dozen. In a nation where the population is 90% Muslim, they are proud their past — and wonder why Israel won't recognize their state. http://jd.fo/h4wK0
  • Israelis are taking up the #IceBucketChallenge — with hummus.
  • In WWI, Jews fought for Britain. So why were they treated as outsiders?
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.