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This report is taken from PN Review 241, Volume 44 Number 5, May - June 2018.

on Sylvia Plath Natasha Stallard
One Life: Sylvia Plath

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery,
Washington D.C., 30 June 2017 – 20 May 2018


In spring 1954, Sylvia Plath dyed her hair from brunette to bleach blonde. Plath had recently returned to her studies at Smith College from her months at McLean Psychiatric Hospital. Marilyn Monroe had starred in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes the year before and blonde bombshells were in style. As a blonde, Plath went to New York to see some friends, art and plays, attended Harvard Summer School, wrote her first short story and had a poem published in Harper’s. Then she dyed her hair back to brown.

To go blonde is always a symbolic gesture. A recent tweet by Jasmine Sha-Ree Sanders received 157k likes: ‘I’ve learned that abruptly going from brunette to blonde (or vice versa!) is a white woman stress signal, kinda like when squid quickly change their colors, it’s a sign of distress!’ As well as a distress signal, bleach blonde hair can be a sign of emancipation, rebellion or an expression of boredom. It depends on the woman.

Plath’s biographers tend to fixate on her brief stint as a blonde. The recent exhibition on Plath’s life at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC, takes this fixation even further. The curators of the show, titled One Life: Sylvia Plath, aim to give the general public an alternative side to Plath’s gloomy persona – the happy, sunny blonde to her serious, suicidal brunette.

‘When she ...

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