Blonde: Lemmi, Jean, Shirley and others

By Marge Monko


Blonde: Lemmi, Jean, Shirley and others

By Marge Monko

Cover of the magazine Maret, 1939

A friend of mine once mentioned that she can immediately spot Estonian women in random European airports by their bleached hair. A few years ago, at a friend's birthday party, I met a German theatre director, a man who had been in Estonia for two weeks and was wondering why so many women here bleach their hair. At first, these comments left me somewhat confused – after all, these were very subjective observations. But they did stick with me, as I, too, have had blonde highlights in my hair for a considerable period of my life. The fear of the potato peel shade – as the natural dark blonde/light brown shade is disparagingly called in Estonia – is really notable. It is considered a thoroughly unremarkable shade that makes a person look plain and bland. So, women go to salons regularly to colour their hair for a more dynamic and youthful look. The hair stylists I asked about this admitted that bleaching and various techniques, such as ombre, balayage, air touch etc. make up a large part of their daily work.Interview with master hair stylist and educator Kaja Seppel, 7 December 2020

In 2020, curators Kadi Polli and Linda Kaljundi commissioned a new artwork from me for the new permanent exposition at Kumu Art Museum that would comment on the new ideal of female beauty that emerged in Estonia in the 1930s. To an extent, I was aware of how women were represented in Estonia in the 1930s and 1940s, during the so-called silent era, a period of nationalist-conservative dictatorship. A few years prior, I had worked with the collections of the Võru MuseumExhibition Laugh Until You Cry, Võru Museum, 2018. Project Artists in Collections, curated by Maarin Ektermann and Mary Talvistu. while preparing for an exhibition and had combed through numerous newspapers and magazines from the 1920s and 1930s. The central question I had in creating the work for Kumu could be formulated as follows: Why do Estonian women prefer blonde? I was interested in the role and relationship between the local genotype, national ideology and canons of gender representation in shaping the blonde beauty ideal. As is often the case with myth making, the development of beauty canons is not always a clearly observable and linear process. Here, of course, the male gaze and the pleasure of looking plays a role, as described both by Laura Mulvay and John Berger.

Beautiful hair – the pride of women!Slogan for Veronika Blondol Shampoo in the magazine Maret, June 1937

The term "hair industry" came into use in Estonia in the 1920s and in the following decade hair salons began offering bleaching alongside services such as finger waves and permanent waves. Looking at the portrait photographs of socialites and actresses of the time, such as Betty Kuuskemaa or Signe (Sisy) Pinna, we can see that the women with already rather fair hair became platinum blonde in the 1930s. When it comes to this trend, the influence of Hollywood cannot be underestimated. One of the most famous film divas of the time, Jean Harlow was often mentioned in connection with her platinum blonde look.

Jean Harlow on the cover of Film ja Elu, 1937
Signe Pinna ca 1935-36. Photo by J & P Parikas. Estonian Theatre and Music Museum

While in the 1920s, Estonian newspapers were covering rather cosmopolitan subject matter – fashion and entertainment news from Paris and Hollywood, as well as the role of women in politics – in the 1930s, an increasing number of articles, concerning the decreasing population and the weakening of marriage as an institution were published. After the bloodless coup of 1934 in EstoniaThe State Elder Konstantin Päts had the leaders of the oppositional Vaps Movement arrested and declared a state of emergency in the country. He suspended the work of the parliament as well as political parties and associations., a so-called life reform began, which included the Estonianisation of German-sounding names, the popularisation of home decoration, prioritising national symbols etc. In magazines, alongside images of new fashion illustrations, photographs of women in national dress were also published. Art historian Katrin Kivimaa has written about the asymmetrical gender representation visible in the history of many nation states. In the visual arts, images of women mostly carry symbolic value, while images of men tend to depict specific people highlighted for their contribution to society or culture. "Art historically and in the visual sphere, women in national dress have functioned as one of the most romantic symbols of being Estonian, which, in turn, has shaped the understanding of the "true Estonian woman", whose role, on the one hand, is decorative and on the other, traditional," Kivimaa points out.Kivimaa, K. 2009. Rahvuslik ja modernne naiselikkus eesti kunstis 1850-2000. Tartu: Tartu ülikooli kirjastus, 32 When I was looking for examples of the blonde woman we often encounter in visual culture (posters, magazine covers and advertisements) more specifically in art, I came across pastels by the well-known Estonian artist Ants Laikmaa (1866–1942) – Linnamäe Lemmi (1937) and Portrait of a Girl (1940) – both created in the late 1930s and depicting young women with blonde hair and blue eyes in national dress.

Ants Laikmaa. Linnamäe Lemmi, 1937. Pastel. Art Museum of Estonia copy
Ants Laikmaa. Portrait of a Girl, 1940. Pastel. Art Museum of Estonia copy

In the collections of the Art Museum of Estonia, there is at least one portrait from each decade by Laikmaa since he started his artistic practice at the beginning of the 20th century, depicting a woman or a girl in national dress against a dark background. He often portrayed women from Vigala, his birthplace, but also those from other parishes in the western part of Estonia. In summer 1928, just before the Estonian Song FestivalThe Estonian Song Festival is one of the largest choral events in the world with the tradition going back to the the period of national awakening in the 19th century. Laikmaa published an article in the newspaper Päewaleht, where he called for national dress to be worn true to tradition and not to mix patterns and cuts from different parishes. He also mentions that he is not someone who believes that national dress would ever be worn again daily ("fashion is too powerful a ruler for the masses to free themselves"Laipman, A. 26 June 1928. Laulupidu tegelased rahwariidesse!. Päewaleht, 4.) but also finds that at least during holidays traditions should be preserved. The power of fashion is clearly visible in both Linnamäe Lemmi and Portrait of a Girl. There, the ideal Estonian woman meets global beauty trends – looking at the hair of both of these women in national dress, we see it is most likely bleached.

Systems of visual calibration

Marge Monko. Blonde (detail), 2021. Photo by Marge Monko

This process led me to create a wall installation combining photography and various print elements, as this seemed the most appropriate way to communicate the complex net of references around the issue. The central position in the installation is given to a colourful twin portrait depicting a young woman in profile (similar to Linnamäe Lemmi) and three-quarter profile (Portrait of a Girl). A similar portrayal was used in the 19th century in anthropological photographs but also in photographs made within the court system. In the history of Estonian photography, the best known examples are probably the ethnographic portraits of Estonian peasants taken by Charles Borchardt that received a silver medal at the 1867 Pan-Russian ethnography competition of the Association of Natural Scientists of the Moscow Imperial University.

Just like Laikmaa before me, I wanted to create a portrait of a contemporary young woman as well. I aimed for the model to be around the same age as Lemmi in Laikmaa's portrait and with hair that had not been coloured. On the one hand, this was meant as a reference to the potato peel shade I mentioned earlier, but on the other, it also allowed me to juxtapose her natural hair colour to the hair colour sample chart the model is holding in the photograph. With the help of an agency, I found Merilin Perli, a professional model, whose profile is amazingly similar to Linnamäe Lemmi's. As the curators were open minded, we were able to integrate Laikmaa's pastel and my wall installation so that the portraits of women from very different eras could be viewed side by side. In the three-quarter portrait, the Kodak colour control patches and grey scale have been placed next to the model's face. Formally, this photograph was inspired by the so-called Shirley Card, used to test exposure and colours both in film and television.Normally, the still with a white woman posing with the test chart of skin tones used to calibrate photographic material appeared at the start of a roll of film. The Shirley Card was allegedly named after one of the first models. The history of photography, film and television is closely linked to the preference for light skin tones – until the 1980s, photographic and film materials were calibrated for light skin tones, which meant that it was much more complicated to properly expose for darker skin tones. The vinyl sticker depicts a colour wheel, instructions for the balayage technique and the Munsell colour system, used to determine the colour of soil, all referring to various systems for measuring and calibration that have had a notable impact on image-making, and therefore shaping national and gender identities. The system developed by the art educator and painter Alfred H. Munsell at the beginning of the 20th century is also used to describe soil in Estonia as well as used to classify hair tones. The stylised versions of soil tones and the traditional Vigala girdle in the vinyl refer to the 1930s ideas of a back-to-the-land lifestyle contributing to reproducing the national body and that of racial purity that emerged in Nazi Germany and were commonly known as Blut und Boden (blood and soil). These ideas gained popularity in Estonia in the late 1930s too – farmers were thought to represent the Estonian genetic composition particularly well.

Shirley 1960, 1024x1024, Courtesy of Hermann Zschiegner

Male gaze and white gaze

In the Western visual culture, where men have traditionally been artists and women have been those they depict, most images are created for men's viewing pleasure. For example, film theorist Laura Mulvey uses psychoanalytical theories to look at depictions of women in mainstream cinema, including Alfred Hitchcock's films, featuring platinum blonde women: "The power to subject another person to the will sadistically or to the gaze voyeuristically is turned on to the women as the object of both."Mulvey. L. 1975. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen 16/3. In recent years, the Black Lives Matter movement has given rise to the critique of the so-called white gaze and colonial and racist ways of seeing. Daniel C. Blight in the book The Image of WhitenessBlight, D.C. 2019. The Image of Whiteness. Contemporary Photography and Racialization. SPBH Editions. writes that despite the widespread idea that we are who we are from birth, identities actually develop over a long time. Often identities are shaped by cultural processes, where inequality and oppression also play a role.

The myth of the blonde blue-eyed Estonian woman can be seen as an expression of the myth of whiteness, yet genetics have probably also contributed. Many less pigmented Northern Europeans, including Estonians, have extremely light hair in their childhood. However, like the hair stylist Kaja Seppel told me in an interview, as the cycle of hair growth is 5–7 years, people's hair pigment changes significantly over the course of a person's life – some people's hair gets darker, some develop curls etc. The self-image they develop in childhood and the desire to hold on to it might be one of the contributing factors why women in Estonia keep bleaching their hair for the rest of their life. Like all beauty ideals, the archetype of the blonde Estonian woman persists through the finer forms of visual representation that often go unacknowledged.

Marge Monko. Blonde, 2021. Vinyl adhesive 411 x 220 cm, 2 pigment prints mounted on dibond 70 × 85 cm each. Installation view Landscapes of Identity Estonian Art 1700–1945. Photo by Marge Monko

Marge Monko is a visual artist who lives and works in Tallinn. Her lens-based and installation works are inspired by historical images and the theories of psychoanalysis, feminism, and visual culture. She works as a professor in the Department of Photography at the Estonian Academy of Arts.