Standards of beauty have varied enormously according to time and place. Yet as long as people have ordered their social relations, hairdressing has had a role in the struggle for status and reproduction. “Humans,” writes Robin Bryer, “are unique in two aspects of their behavior: wearing clothes and having their hair cut voluntarily” (p. 9). Hairdressing is part of the human condition.
One presumes that the first hairdos were long, scraggly, and filthy. Even given the general squalor atop primitive heads, however, it is likely that some hair was considered more attractive and admirable than others. What is certain is that wherever primitive society congealed into civilization, it produced a culture of hairdressing.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the early Egyptians wore their natural hair in tight braids. That changed with the discovery of the art of wig making. Hair was then cut short or shaved. Young boys retained their queues, but adults who could afford them wore wigs, especially for special occasions. Specialists made up elaborate headdresses filled with jewels and expensive accessories and splashed with oils and perfumes. The Mesopotamian civilizations preferred heavy beards and long hair, often frizzed or waved. At Knossos, Cretan women wore elaborate coiffures, with golden hairpins, and lots of makeup. As always, different codes distinguished elites—kings, nobles, priests—from commoners.
In Fashions in Hair: The First Five Thousand Years, the author Richard Corson quotes a seventeenth-century source describing a teenage noblewoman attempting to turn her hair blonde. After exposing it to the hot sun for hours and anointing it with a coloring substance that seemed to produce the effect, she was afflicted with a near-daily nosebleed and being desirous to stop the Blood by the pressing of her Nostrils, not farr from her right Eye toward her Temple, through a pore, as it were by a hole made with a needles point, the Blood burst out abundantly, and … shee was diseased by the obstruction of her courses (p. 173).
The ancient Greeks invented the beauty salon, where women had their cheeks blanched with white lead and their naturally blonde hair artistically dressed. Sometimes it was dyed red or blue. Spartan brides cropped their hair; Athenians wore veils over their dressed hair. They cut it as a sign of mourning. Beginning in the fifth century B.C.E., Greek men began to wear their hair short. It was Alexander the Great who insisted that his soldiers shave their beards in order to deprive their foes of a handle during combat.
Typically, the Romans at first copied the Greeks and then developed more elaborate hairstyles to match the imperial ethic. Men often wore their hair short, in what came to be called the “Titus,” after the Emperor. Attended to by the barbers who worked at the marketplaces and public baths, or by their slaves (who were shaved bald), both men and women curled their hair and dyed it red. They applied costly oils and pomatums or wore expensive wigs. The most extravagant powdered their hair with gold dust. In the East, Byzantine hairstyles blended Greco-Roman culture with oriental. Men wore moderately short hair, mustaches, and beards. Feminine coiffures incorporated pearls and precious metals, which were also used for ecclesiastical costumes. Sometimes the fashion was for bare heads, sometimes for ribbons or ornamented turbans. Turbans became standard in Moorish culture—although the Islamic injunction against “graven images,” like that of the Jewish religion, means that documentation of Islamic hairstyles remains sparse before the Christian Middle Ages.
The paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites have provided a certain image of Arthurian damsels and knights. A small amount of evidence suggests that the period between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Normans in England favored flowing locks and facial hair for men. But, in fact, very little documentation about hairstyles during the Dark Ages survives.
The revival of European culture in the Middle Ages also brought back something like international fashion, of which coiffures were a part. Hairstyles differed between northern and southern Europe. And if the return of fashion meant anything, it was that coiffures popular at one moment became démodées in the next—although the fashionable “moment” in the Middle Ages could be rather long by later standards. The bobbed styles for men of the twelfth century were still around in the fifteenth, when smart Venetian gentlemen were also sporting yellow silk wigs. Depending on the time and place, women wore long braids or huge, horned headdresses. Or they packed their hair into a variety of bonnets and bags, often adorned with jewels and expensive knickknacks. The expanding middle class ordinarily adopted “quieter” versions of these noble styles. Poorer women wore their hair long and enclosed. Their men folk cut theirs short or shoulder length, while beards and mustaches came and went.
By the Renaissance, whatever the particular arrangement, hairstyles had become one of those idioms of international art that allowed fashion to circulate across the continent. Variety and inventiveness were the rules. Hair was frizzed, or not. Some women plucked or shaved their foreheads—thus becoming “highbrow,” in the manner of Elizabeth I, who was also reputed to own a hundred perukes. Blonde was the hair color of choice, and women bleached their hair by sitting in the sun and using saffron or medicated sulphur. Blonde wigs became the vogue in France and Italy, and nobles—Marguerite de Valois, most notably—would engage blonde maids in order to command their hair for wigs. Mary, Queen of Scots possessed many beautiful curled wigs and adorned her head with lace. Other ladies used pads and wire frames to give their coiffures volume.
Contemporary illustrations of the early sixteenth century depict Englishmen with long hair and clean chins. Beards were more popular on the Continent. By the end of the century, English courtiers had cut their hair and adopted stylish beards with precious names such as the “swallowtail” and the “spade.”
The portraits of the great Flemish painter Sir Anthony Van Dyke capture the Cavalier style that reached its height in the 1630s and 1640s, with men sporting long hair and neat, pointed beards under wide-brimmed hats. Hair became politicized briefly, during the English Civil War, when the more austere Protestant Roundheads battled the more elegantly coiffed forces of the English king, Charles I. The Pilgrims of the Colony of New Plymouth condemned long hair for men as prideful.
The Puritan position on hair must have softened, for later portraits of Cromwell depict him with longer hair, although not nearly as long as the styles coming out of the French court and brought back to England with the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. This was the great age of periwigs for men. Indeed, the French court imported so much blonde hair that Louis XlV’s finance minister Colbert tried to ban wig making in France so as to stem the outflow of French gold.
The most popular women’s styles of the period were the “hurluberlu”—unevenly cut and crimped, with two long curls over the shoulders—worn by Louis’s favorite, Madame de Maintenon, and the “Fontange”—with its high curls secured by ribbon and bow—invented by the king’s new mistress, the Duchess de Fontange. The fashions of Versailles traveled to all the other courts of Europe, and from there to the modish classes of every country.
In the eighteenth century, women’s hair became the principal focus of art and conspicuous consumption. The massive headdresses of the middle decades serve as both the symbol of the Old Regime and the classic image of excess in fashion. It was in the 1770s that coiffures reached their most exaggerated form. Wendy Cooper describes “a certain Madame de Lauzun,” whose “enormously high headdress,” stuffed with the usual assortment of trash, was topped with “modeled ducks swimming in a stormy sea, scenes of hunting and shooting, a mill with a miller’s wife flirting with a priest, and a miller leading an ass by its halter” (p. 95). Coiffures grew so immense that doorways had to be enlarged, and in two instances ladies were killed when their headdresses were set on fire by chandeliers. Men of weight and fashion in the Enlightenment wore modest, powdered wigs, although George III made enemies of English wig makers when he took to powdering his own natural hair.
The powdered look disappeared altogether in England when the Younger Pitt imposed a one-guinea tax on hair powder. Events in France had an even more revolutionary effect on hairstyles, as the fall of Louis XVI swept aside the fashion habits of the Old Regime. An era that admired the civic virtues of classical antiquity found men and women wearing their hair à la Titus. Those with a sharper sense of political irony adopted the mode à la victime, with their hair pulled up off the neck in imitation of those about to be guillotined. In the aftermath of the Terror, women wore their hair long and loose over diaphanous dresses. No one in Revolutionary France wanted to look like an aristocrat.
Billie Jones Kana describes her disappointing first trip to a beauty shop to have a “perm” in 1928: As I recall, I couldn’t have cared less about curls, but went along and was tortured beyond my wildest imagination … first our hair was washed and cut, then we waited and waited. There were women everywhere in different stages of getting beautified. Everyone was waiting. My hair was wound up on spiral rods so tight that I thought I would never blink again [and] after the machine that looked like a milking machine was attached to the rods, I couldn’t move. [Then] it began to steam and tears rolled down my cheeks…. Someone got a blower and cooled my head here and there, but my scalp was scalded (Willet, pp. 92-93).
In the nineteenth century, men’s hairstyles tended to the short and simple. Common in one decade, facial hair vanished in the next, only to return thereafter. In mid-century Naples, the government so objected to mustaches that it instructed police to shave them off offenders. While men’s hair became increasingly tame and standardized, women’s coiffures retained their complexity, if not their old proportions. The early part of the century saw a vogue for concatenations of natural hair adorned with feathers, rich combs, and other items. Other moments featured puffs of curls or ringlets. Powder reappeared briefly on the hair of fashionable dames under the Second Empire. Chignons vanished in the 1870s; jeweled pins became popular in the 1880s. In general, the pace of fashion quickened, and intricate coiffures made ladies more dependent than ever on their hairdressers, even though the daily work of brushing and arranging a lady’s hair fell to her lady’s maid.
Wigs no longer played the dominant role in coiffure, as they had in the past. Still, the century admired long, luxurious hair, and since most women did not possess hair of sufficient quality or quantity, they made generous use of false hair. In fact, the taste for postiches (bits of false hair) drove the international market in hair to new heights. By the turn of the twentieth century, the United States was importing more than half a million tons of hair per year—a $3 million business. Most of this stuff came from European peasant women in the poorer rural areas, who used their long tresses as a sort of cash crop.
The wheel of hair fashion took its next dramatic turn in the mid-1880s, when Marcel Grateau, a hitherto unknown hairdresser in Paris, perfected a technique for giving hair soft, beautiful, durable waves and thereby launched the modern era of hairdressing. Replacing the nests of postiches and fancy bijoux, the “marcel” wave radically simplified ladies’ hairstyles. Many of the most celebrated coiffeurs hated the “marcel” for precisely this reason, but women loved it. An insatiable popular demand soon forced its opponents to capitulate, and the “marcel” wave became the basis of a fashionable coiffure for the next twenty-five years—although, to be sure, enterprising hairdressers found ways to dress “marceled” hair with the traditional assortment of feathers, flowers, and pricey doodads. The “négligé” styles of the Belle Epoque, often colored with henna or dusted with white or gray powder, featured ribbons, enameled combs, and big chignons.
When the dean of French coiffeurs, Emile Long, complained about the cheap waves he saw on the midinettes (working girls) on the streets of Paris, he was pointing to the fact that the stunning success of “marceling” depended on a fundamental change in the social contours of fashion. It coincided with the early stages of a big expansion in the market for fashionable things in Western society.
In effect, three developments combined to create the modern beauty salon and the culture associated with it. First, rising wages gave women more disposable income, while greater autonomy freed them to spend it as they pleased. Second, a loosening of social constraints made it more acceptable for women to move in public spaces, that is, to take their toilettes out of the boudoir and into the hairdressing salon. Third, a critical series of technological developments expanded the services available in the salon.
New sensibilities about hygiene, combined with water heaters and hair dryers, encouraged women to have their hair shampooed. Non-toxic dyes helped dissolve old taboos about hair coloring. Most critically, the invention of the permanent-wave machine enabled women to alter their hair dramatically, while it brought hairdressers a huge new source of revenue. For a few hours hooked up to this contraption, a woman would pay anywhere from ten to fifty times the cost of an ordinary haircut. These new consumer habits were nourished by the growing number of magazines aimed at middle- and working-class women, and especially by the movie stars who were coming to dominate popular ideas of beauty and fashion.
All of this paved the way for the “bob,” which proved to be a seminal moment both for coiffure and for Western society more generally. From the lacquered “garçonne” of Josephine Baker to the more fluid “Eton crop,” the bob had many incarnations. Some of them had appeared on some stylish young heads before World War I, especially in the United States. But the vogue took off only in the 1920s, when it became part of the aesthetic turnabout associated with “flappers.” As the “androgynous” clothes of Coco Chanel surpassed the curvaceous styles of the great Edwardian couturiers, so the bob became the badge of the so-called Modern Woman.
No other hairstyle in history provoked so much comment and controversy. Cultural conservatives hated it for its challenge to inherited gender verities. Stories abound of outraged men locking up, even murdering, their newly shorn wives and daughters. On the other side, women endorsed it by the millions. Observers generally saw the short hairstyles and women’s spontaneous taste for them as evidence of a significant “emancipation” of women. It is true that the bob provided some relief from the arduous regimes of Edwardian coiffures. At the same time—permed, dyed, in need of frequent retouching, and often requiring a postiche for evening wear—it was hardly carefree or cheap.
At the end of the day, however, the bob was more fashion than political statement, and by the close of the Roaring Twenties, women had begun to tire of it. The hairstyles of the 1930s, created by such international stars as Antoine and Guillaume, were longer and more “feminine,” although there was no return to the massive, superfluous hairdos of the pre-bob era. The Platinum Blonde, curvy and sexy, defined the new “New Woman” of the depression decade. Men in the period between the wars continued to favor short, neat haircuts, accompanied sometimes by a thin moustache (never by a beard) in the manner of Rudolph Valentino or Clark Gable.
The war years, rich in misery, were poor in new hair fashions. Haute coiffure survived mostly in Hollywood, where, for example, Veronica Lake became famous for the silky blonde hair that fell across half her face in the “badgirl” style that alarmed some moralists. More commonly, millions of women involved in the war effort tucked their short, simple hairdos under military caps or hard hats. If the war brought the world one distinctive hairstyle, however, it would have to be the shaved heads belonging to camp survivors and “horizontal” collaborators.
The consumer revolution, born out of the ashes of war, once again transformed hairdressing. Stylistically, the postwar years promoted the so-called petite tête, the compact hairdos that fit so well with Christian Dior’s fashion revolution, the New Look. Long styles made a partial comeback in the 1950s, led by the “artichoke” cut that Jacques Dessange created for the nubile Brigitte Bardot. The clear trend, however, was toward more compact coiffures. In the United States, ponytails became the classic expression of 1950s adolescence.
In the end, the 1950s may be less important for stylistic innovation than for the changes in the structures of consumption that occurred. While disposable incomes rose steadily, a growing mass media of movies, television, women’s magazines, and broadcast images of beauty and stimulated the demand for fashionable commodities. More and more women indulged themselves in a weekly visit to the beauty parlor. In the United States, this became one of the defining rituals of middle-class femininity and an important communal event. At the same time, new hair care products—”cold” perms, do-it-yourself hair coloring, and setting—allowed women to exercise much of their expanding beauty regimen at home.
Men continued to provide a much poorer field for art and profit. Their haircuts became, if anything, plainer in the 1950s. Yet change was in the air. Rebellious teenagers began to turn away from crew cuts and flattops by wearing the “duck ass” cut associated with the likes of James Dean, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Halliday. In France, George Hardy achieved a small breakthrough in 1956 when he introduced the razor cut. Beards and mustaches turned up on the chins and lips of “beatniks” and other nonconformist types.
“Anti-fashion” hair spread over the next few decades, following the prominence of rock stars and hippies. Blacks in America and Europe put aside the hair-relaxing agents they associated with self-loathing and began to sport voluminous Afros. In the 1970s, “Mohicans,” dreadlocks, and the sinister skinhead became the protest hairstyles of choice. Throughout, sales of personal grooming products for men increased, and the men who visited the new “unisex” hair salons paid more than the proverbial “two bits.” But hairdressing remained an overwhelmingly female preoccupation.
The “beehive,” made possible by the invention of lacquered hairspray and the copious use of false hair, carried the 1950s ideal of femininity into the sixties. However, that raucous decade really belonged to the geometrical cuts that Vidal Sassoon created to fit the latest styles of Mary Quant, creator of the miniskirt. Haute coiffure survived, as the profession’s contemporary stars coiffed movie stars, society dames, and runway models. But the rule for the last quarter of the twentieth century was variety and innovation. Hairstyles were long or short, flowing or spiked, natural or tinted, straight or permed.
The diversity of coiffures also reflected a critical change in the trajectory of fashion. In the days of Marie Antoinette or Marcel, a small, privileged elite made the laws that ruled taste. In the twentieth century, the masses gained a larger and larger say in the success of this vogue or that. By the end, masses of women were not merely endorsing (or not) the choices made by a select group of the fashionable. “The street” produced its own styles, which then permeated the formal structures of fashion.
The ceaseless evolution of hairstyles has produced a lot of speculation, both casual and academic, on their etiology and meaning. Numerous speculations have linked coiffures, not coincidentally but organically, to their historical moment. The many observers who attributed the popularity of the bob to women’s emancipation provide the most pointed example of this. Others have gone further and tried to find the deeper meaning of forms. The French critic Roland Barthes offered an entire science, semiotics, dedicated to deconstructing those forms.
Hairstyles can unquestionably supply important clues about the societies that produce them. Once again, the bob is the perfect illustration. Permed, tinted, created in commercial establishments with electricity and hot running water, and consumed by millions of women spending considerable sums of money, it has a lot to say about Western civilization in the 1920s. Sometimes the meaning of coiffures is not hidden at all, but openly proclaimed, as it might be in a punk band, a neo-Nazi rally, a hippies’ commune, or a lesbian rights parade.
Yet, in many ways, those who assert the free-flowing nature of fashionable “signifiers” have the stronger argument. After all, “liberated” women of the 1960s often sported long, straight hair, while the sainted defender of a medieval French king, Joan of Arc, wore a bob. It seems fair to say that in a historical world where Charles II and Cher look alike from behind, the forms of fashion obey an elusive logic of their own.
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