Tall, dark and handsome ?
December 9, 2007 2:49 PM   Subscribe

The phrase, "tall, dark and handsome"... what does "dark" refer to? And in what order should they be ranked from a woman's point of view, "handsome, tall and dark"?
posted by america5 to Human Relations (41 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
i always thought dark meant dark hair, eyes, and 5-o-clock shadow.
in my personal books,
tall comes first (6 foot or more, please),
dark comes second (i'm a sucker for dark eyes and hair),
handsome comes last (i like handsome, but i'd gladly sub for "interesting").
posted by twistofrhyme at 2:51 PM on December 9, 2007

Well, if you're basing your information on the band Heart, as you should, the tall, dark, and handsome (stranger) is exactly the mysterious man that everyone wants.

That being said, I read into (with the aide of Heart) "dark" as wearing a cape and perhaps sporting a fanciful mustache.
posted by banannafish at 2:57 PM on December 9, 2007 [3 favorites]

The Oxford English Dictionary Online has the first citation of the phrase in 1906, but it seems to have become a cliché by the time the 1958 citation rolls around, perhaps (and this is me guessing from the note in the defintion) from its use in the 1933 film She Done Him Wrong - here's the relevant part of the entry for tall:
II.6.(b) In proverbial phr. tall, dark, and handsome, denoting a type of attractive man (see also quot. 1965).

1906 R. E. KNOWLES Undertow xi. 135 He was tall -- and dark -- and handsome. 1940 Chatelaine Dec. 55/3 One Squadron Leader tells of filling an ‘order’ for ‘three tall, dark and handsomes to go dancing’. 1958 M. STEWART Nine Coaches Waiting vii. 93 Tall, dark and handsome -- the romantic cliché repeated itself in my head. 1965 T. WOLFE Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1966) ix. 178 It was Cary Grant that Mae West was talking about when she launched the phrase ‘tall, dark and handsome’ in ‘She Done Him Wrong’ (1933). 1978 ‘H. CARMICHAEL’ Life Cycle v. 64 If she felt like leaning on his shoulder it was certainly not because he was tall, dark and handsome.
posted by mdonley at 3:01 PM on December 9, 2007

Here's an everything2 page with more info.
posted by mdonley at 3:03 PM on December 9, 2007

I always figured the "dark" referred to mysterious.
posted by you're a kitty! at 3:08 PM on December 9, 2007

"dark" is the opposite of "fair".
posted by bruce at 3:20 PM on December 9, 2007

What bruce said.
posted by Miko at 3:46 PM on December 9, 2007

"tall" and "dark" and, especially "handsome" are all relative terms. "handsome" especially so and also pretty much canceling out the other two.
posted by mkim at 4:00 PM on December 9, 2007

by which I mean "tall" and or "dark" may or may not figure into your version of "handsome" - or both - I'll shut up now.
posted by mkim at 4:02 PM on December 9, 2007

I was under the impression that it was a mostly-british isles sort of phrase - someone 'dark' was someone with some or all of the following:

- Dark hair
- Dark eyes
- Tanned/olive skin.

I married a tall, dark, handsome guy by this definition. Well, I think he's handsome, anyway :)

... and I tend to prefer guys who are at least tall - dark and handsome are less required, but are nice optional extras.
posted by ysabet at 4:09 PM on December 9, 2007

I would have pointed to something like mdonley did: the phrase originated somewhere (in literature, etc.) as one person's preference (tall, dark complexion, handsome) and it just became a cliche along the way. You might not personally like them dark (or tall), but it's just something we say, like we say, "every Tom, Dick and Harry," even if you don't know anybody by those names.

And the order, again, is subjective. :) To me, as mkim said, handsome cancels out the other two. If I like 'em short and fair, if I see a short and fair guy I'm probably going to find him handsome (that is, attractive). Of course it's possible that he still has an ugly face, but often when you have a type, you like that type anyway. So I can just say, "handsome," and save myself some syllables. But I'd more likely say "attractive" or use some other word entirely. Unless I was feeling theatrical and went with the whole, "tall, dark and handsome" shebang, which I have been known to do!
posted by iguanapolitico at 4:12 PM on December 9, 2007

mayhaps the order corresponds to the order one susses out these attributes from a distance?
posted by panamax at 4:13 PM on December 9, 2007

Dark, always seemed to suggest someone from a Mediterranean (or tropical) region. That is, dark hair and eyes and olive (darker) skin.

Basically, I thought it was an illusion to someone like Don Juan or Casanova. Who, being Spanish and Italian, would be considered dark from a eurocentric perspective.

As, to the order of importance, I would imagine that each woman would have her own opinion. I doubt it could be generalized.
posted by oddman at 4:18 PM on December 9, 2007

To me, dark seemed more of an adjective describing the personality. Like, a man who has secrets.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 4:23 PM on December 9, 2007

See here, the fourth definition on the first entry. I've always read it as dark haired, probably dark eyed, with relatively swarthy skin. You see this word used a lot in older books, especially British ones. For instance, a character might be described as the "dark" sister, as opposed to her fair sister. Usually with girls, it seems to have a somewhat negative connotation but I don't think that's invariable by any means. For guys I think it's generally used postively- and I have to agree :).
posted by MadamM at 4:27 PM on December 9, 2007

It refers to hair color, as stated. The term dark is used in many older works of literature to simply describe a person with brown or black hair.
posted by cmgonzalez at 4:32 PM on December 9, 2007

As for handsome meaning attractive, I wonder if it doesn't refer to a particular sort of attractive: not cute, not dashing, not beautiful, but handsome.
posted by dame at 4:42 PM on December 9, 2007

Per dame's comment, 'handsome' has only recently come to most often mean 'attractive.' Earlier meanings also included these:

(superl.) Evincing a becoming generosity or nobleness of character; liberal; generous.
(superl.) Dexterous; skillful; handy; ready; convenient; -- applied to things as persons.
(superl.) Suitable or fit in action; marked with propriety and ease; graceful; becoming; appropriate; as, a handsome style, etc.
(superl.) Ample; moderately large.

In the world of ships and boats today, 'handsomely' is still heard in commands, meaning 'carefully, with attention.' So in lowering a boat, you might say "lower away, handsomely."

So handsome might or might not mean 'physically attractive,' depending on the origin and age of the phrase. It could mean 'noble,' 'skillful,' or 'graceful.'
posted by Miko at 4:49 PM on December 9, 2007

I always assumed "dark" was the opposite of "pale". Which is to say that it implied time spent doing outdoorsy things like sports or crouching in trenches shooting at strangers.
posted by tkolar at 5:32 PM on December 9, 2007

Dark is the opposite of fair. The contrast of dark hair and eyes is considered striking in comparison to rosy-cheeked blue-eyed blonds. Plays into all sort of romantic stereotypes about mysterious men vs. earnest do-gooders.
posted by desuetude at 5:44 PM on December 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

The phrase, "tall, dark and handsome"... what does "dark" refer to?

Think Ridge, in The Bold & The Beautiful.

And in what order should they be ranked from a woman's point of view, "handsome, tall and dark"?

Chatfilter! There is no specific answer to this question.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:01 PM on December 9, 2007

And in what order should they be ranked from a woman's point of view, "handsome, tall and dark"?

This is not real. Some like the tall, some like the dark, some like the handsome. Best to just be yourself.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:17 PM on December 9, 2007

I'm so curious as to why you ask this question! Did someone call you tall dark and handsome?

Dark to me means mysterious, and along with that, wildly romantic and somewhat pained at the thought of love lost (mine of course, which I could quickly ammend resulting in lifelong devotion and eternally melded souls...)

Dark, most definitely comes first. Mysterious, tragic, lonely and vulnerable men are my weakness. I barely see the other two when it's really dark...
posted by MiffyCLB at 7:20 PM on December 9, 2007

Miffy obviously knows what's what.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:32 PM on December 9, 2007

Counterpoint: I have a coworker who claims to like them "tall, dark, and handsome," and by "dark" she means that she likes black men. I've never heard anyone else use the expression that way, but she must have gotten it from somewhere. Is she the only one who does this?

Question 2 is kind of silly, but I'm going to go with tall, then handsome, then dark. Dark (whether it refers to hair, skin, or just general mysteriousness), is sort of a neutral thing for me.
posted by naoko at 7:53 PM on December 9, 2007

I've always taken it to mean have well defined features (dark eyebrows, distinct eyes) as opposed to the sort of washed-out milkiness that "fair maidens" have where they're practically albino rats with blue eyes.

I have a thing for strong (defined) eyebrows (which my husband believes makes me insane), so I'd have to fess up to dark, handsome and then tall.

[Although working knowledge of cult films, some IT savvy, love of arcades and gaming and tolerance of my obsession with cartoons likely come somewhere between the handsome and tall in my checklist.]
posted by Gucky at 8:59 PM on December 9, 2007

Listen to bruce.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:18 PM on December 9, 2007

Shot in the "dark" here, but could it be a reference to heathcliffe in "wuthering heights"? As the original tall, dark, handsome character in literature? mysterious, possible gypsy character with murderous thoughts and love that destroys him? the original "sawyer" from "lost".

i hated the book by the way. There were too many catherines in it.
posted by galactain at 2:11 AM on December 10, 2007

As the original tall, dark, handsome character in literature?

You forgot Othello.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:16 AM on December 10, 2007

For me, the "dark" of that phrase will always be brooding, mysterious and secretive - three things that a Bryonic hero should be. I've just seen the new BBC version of "Jayne Eyre" and Mr Rochester is a pretty typical example. You could also add tormented, stormy and possibly anguished. You could probably have a blonde Rochester, but the cliche about blondes and fun might make it a tall order.

I'm not at all surprised to find Mae West using the phrase - she loved bad men - and I doubt she's the only one that finds them fascinating.

As far as ranking them - tall is the main one for me (I married a man who is about 6'6") and I have peculiar ideas about what constitutes "handsome" so that would certainly go last. I say the phrase stands by itself!
posted by ninazer0 at 2:27 AM on December 10, 2007

ah yeah, uburoivas you might be right. I'd still argue that "tall, dark, and handsome" and in particular the "dark" part is more about brooding, malevolant, angry, passion. rather than "black". Heathcliffe is "dark".

"And the, wildness of the moors, which I think... is mirrored in the wildness of Heathcliff's character...".

I could be wrong though because i've not read "othello" and I don't really know the character. Plus, i'm not really sure I want to spend the rest of my day musing on hot males from classic literature. so this will be my last word on the subject. ;-)
posted by galactain at 3:11 AM on December 10, 2007

The phrase is, as mentioned, a reference to hair colour and working outside but it's interesting to note that if you had a man and a women with exactly the same racial background (pretty hard to find nowadays of course) then the woman would have lighter skin than the man.
posted by gatchaman at 3:45 AM on December 10, 2007

Othello also has shitloads of brooding, malevolant, angry, passion.

I've never thought of it as referring to an outside/suntanned complexion, and it seems unlikely that that would have been considered attractive back when the phrase originated (to me, in my ignorance). I always fitted it to my own preferences - irish dark (dark hair and eyes, fair skin), with the 'dark (serious) personality/dark (mysterious) background' as an added nuance.

My ranking: tall is last because I'm short, handsome vaguely before but intertwined with darkness.
posted by jacalata at 4:54 AM on December 10, 2007

I always figured that "dark" meant tanned skin. Which is actually still "Fair" to me given that I'm South Asian with really dark skin.

I had a lot of crushes on tall, deathly pale people. They always were my type. My current boyfriend is taller than me but considered "short", and lighter than me (obviously, he's a White Australian) but tends to fall on the "mid-dark" end of the scale because he has a sliiiiiiiiiiiiight Med tan to his skin, even though I think he's as pale as a ghost. His (very dark) hair and eyes might have to do with it.
posted by divabat at 6:57 AM on December 10, 2007

Also agreeing that "dark" meaning dark-skinned/tan would (unfortunately) not be considered a stereotypically attractive attribute, broadly speaking, in the early 20th century US/UK.

But part of the success of a nice, made-for-cliché catchphrase is vagueness. "Tall, dark and handsome" rolls off the tongue easily and invokes a certain je ne sais quoi without being too terribly specific of a description. It's endured as a cliché because it's so adaptable -- taking the "dark" to mean "Black" or "tanned/outdoorsy" or "Mediterranean/Latin" is perfectly within the spirit of the phrase, since it really means "fella who makes the ladies go Rrowr"

(I wouldn't go with Othello as the original tall, dark and handsome. Murderous is a little too dark to qualify as a romantic/sexy ideal.)
posted by desuetude at 11:04 AM on December 10, 2007

the "dark" basically refers to the hair, the other side of "gentlemen prefer blondes" - light hair is feminine, dark hair is masculine. Fair haired men are boyish & sporty, but dark haired men are handsome & serious.
posted by mdn at 11:12 AM on December 10, 2007

(not that that's actually true, just that that's how it's subconsciously culturally understood)
posted by mdn at 11:13 AM on December 10, 2007

The embodiment of tall, dark, and handsome. Have mercy!
posted by scody at 11:21 AM on December 10, 2007

Also agreeing that "dark" meaning dark-skinned/tan would (unfortunately) not be considered a stereotypically attractive attribute, broadly speaking, in the early 20th century US/UK.

Agreed. Attributes considered attractive have historically been class signifiers. For example, plumpness - if not outright obesity - is considered attractive throughout the developing world, because any old beggar can be skinny (and usually is) but it takes money to fatten up a wife.

Similarly, my understanding is that tanned skin only ever became sexy in the 60s-70s, as a signifier of having plenty of leisure time - resort living with the international jet set; that sort of association. Prior to that, a tan was a signifier of being some kind of outdoors manual labourer. Heavy tans also died out again in the 80s, as they shifted again to represent the antithesis of the hardworking, white collar yuppie lifestyle.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:08 PM on December 10, 2007

tanned skin only ever became sexy in the 60s-70s

But dark complections and olive skin became very popular in the late nineteen-teens and early 20s, when movie stars with big, glistening dark eyes and Arab features were popular for a while.

Still, I agree that in 1906 and earlier, the descriptor 'dark' just meant a brunet white guy, probably with brown eyes. Another data point supporting the fact that brunet guys were called 'dark' is the Scottish tradition of celebrating Hogmanay, the New Year, by inviting someone to be the 'first foot' to step over your threshold after the stroke of midnight. The person to be chosen was supposed to be male, tall and "dark," and in Scotland, that didn't mean non-white. It's a centuries-old tradition.
posted by Miko at 9:01 PM on December 10, 2007

scody, I'm going to have to disagree with you.

Dark == not a blonde, not a redhead. To my mind, it was almost always the "dark" characters that were by design the most compelling and attractive in 19th century lit class (think Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, or the aforementioned Heathcliff) -- maybe it's because of this literary framework that "tall, dark, and handsome" has become such a widely adopted trope.
posted by missmobtown at 11:07 AM on December 12, 2007

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