Tall, dark and handsome is a phrase used for over a century, mainly to describe swoon worthy leading men. It’s a phrase that those who are tall don’t mind at all, especially if it is used to describe you.
First, what exactly does it mean? Tall and handsome are both straight forward adjectives. However, there is debate what the term “dark” refers to. Some say it is describing the color of hair. Others say it is a description of complexion or skin color. Still others insist that the term dark has nothing to do with looks at all, but is describing a person who has a mysterious air about them. It seems depending on the usage of this phrase it can be one if not all three descriptions concerning the word “dark.”
The earliest use of this phrase (that we could find) is from a paper titled “The Story of Hester Malpas” (Link: https://books.google.com/books?id=yEAaAQAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&vq=tall,+dark&hl=en#v=onepage&q=tall%20dark%20and%20handsome&f=false) by L.E.L. It was published in The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal in 1833. It appears that this phrase was used to describe both men and women up to the early 20th century, when it switched to mainly describing men.
The popularity of this phrase spiked after the release of the movie “Tall, Dark and Handsome” (link: http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/92295/Tall-Dark-and-Handsome/) which was released in 1941.
Even before 1833, the idea of a tall, dark and handsome love interest has been expressed throughout literature. For example, in Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice (1813), she implies the leading man, Mr. Darcy, was tall, dark and handsome, though she doesn’t exactly use that description. The only description given of Mr. Darcy features are “…he soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features and noble mien.”
However, if dark is referring to mysterious, then Mr. Darcy would fit the description and in most adaptations, he is shown to have dark hair. Considering Pride and Prejudice is a foundational novel that many romances, both movies and books, take some direction from, it is no wonder that a majority of leading men have been cast in this description for over a century.