You can tell a lot about a society by the way the women and men in it wear their hair. Far beyond mere fashion trends, hairstyles often convey political messages and are a very visible expression of what is happening in society as a whole. From Marie Antoinette's outrageous wigs to the spiked Mohawks of the 1970s punks, hair is an effective way to make a statement about who you are and what you represent. This is a look at the long history of hair.
Hairstyles of Ancient Peoples
Thanks to ancient works of art and coinage, we know about the history of hairstyles dating back to antiquity. In Ancient Egypt, hair was commonly worn short by men and women due to the extreme heat of the region. However, for ceremonial occasions, nobles, both male and female, wore heavy black wigs over their clipped hairdos.
The most famous hairstyle of the Egyptians is surely that of Cleopatra. The politically savvy queen used her hair to convey specific messages, whether it was the traditional Egyptian “melon” style she wore at home to de-emphazise her Greek roots. When traveling outside of Egypt, however, Cleopatra wore the hairstyle of a Greek queen, with her hair sectioned into curls and arranged in a bun at the back of the next. By far her best known look was the ceremonial black wig with long braids adorned with gold ornaments and her signature cobra headdress.
The ancient Greeks favored long hair, usually pulled back into a chignon. What made their hairdos special was the embellishments: gold powder, fresh flowers, and jeweled tiaras were worn for special occasions. Henna, a natural reddish dye which has been used for thousands of years, was often used by the ancient Greeks. When the Roman Empire rose, blonde hair became favored, either dyed or in the form of wigs made from the hair of slaves. The Romans emulated the Greek fashion for powdering the hair with gold dust. More elaborate hairstyles came into vogue, and hairdressing became very popular. Upper-class Roman women often wore their hair in curls piled on top of the head over a wire framework.
In the Americas, the native tribes had their own favored hairstyles. The Plains tribes of North America wore the long, traditional braids, which are an instantly recognizable Native American style. Men and women both wore the long braids, and they were often decorated with feathers. Another famous Native American hairstyle is the shaved head with a strip of hair down the middle for which the Mohawk tribe was known. The Mohawk haircut was not worn all the time, but was cut by warriors headed into battle.
Hopi maidens wore their hair in whorls on either side of their head which were inspired by squash blossoms (one has to wonder if this was the inspiration for Princess Leia's pair of side buns in Star Wars). Traditional Native American hairstyles were as varied as the tribes, so there is no one defining style which was consistently worn from coast to coast.
High Hairlines And Red Wigs: Renaissance And Elizabethan Beauty
The European Renaissance was a time in which beauty was revered in all its forms. A high forehead was considered to be a particularly beautiful feature, so ladies routinely plucked back or shaved their hairlines to create the illusion of higher foreheads (who knew that a receding hairline could be a desirable feature?). Hair was always long, though often pulled back, and it was not about the haircuts, but rather the hairstyles. Elaborate hair coverings were often worn, and upper class ladies adorned their tresses with pearls, jewels, ribbons, and sometimes veils. As the Elizabethan era dawned, red wigs became highly fashionable for women wishing to emulate the reddish hair of the queen.
Did Marie Antoinette's Hairdos Contribute to the French Revolution?
Some of the most remarkable hairstyles were those found in the 18th century royal courts, particularly that of Marie Antoinette. Nobles and royals wore elaborate wigs of highly decorative curls which were piled sky high. Wigs and hair were coated with a white powder over a sticky mucilage to help the powder to adhere. Men of the day wore white-powdered wigs of long curls much like the ladies did. The gentlemen sometimes pulled their curls back with a simple black bow, while the ladies adorned their ringlets as intricately as possible. Feathers, ribbons, and garlands were among the popular decorations for ladies.
Over time, the “bigger is better” motto became gospel, and the women of the royal court competed with each other to see whose hairdresser could create the most big, lavish, and outlandish coiffure. The hair was crafted over tall cage frames or horsehair pads for to create shape and increase height, and the finished creations were starched and powdered.
Due to the immensely time-consuming process of creating an elaborate court hairdo, the women went weeks between washing and styling their locks, which became the perfect place for a family of lice to take up residence. So prevalent was the lice problem that long-handled silver claws were designed for the ladies of Versailles to use to scratch their itchy heads under their coiffures!
The immense court hairdos of Versailles were a matter of great pride for the hairdressers as well as the wealthy women who wore them. Some stylists even gave their creations names like coiffeur de la Liberté. Once the tower of curls was molded over a frame, powdered, scented, and possibly dyed pink, blue, or violet, there was one final step remaining to achieve hair immortality. The most expensive and impressive hairdos were topped with scenes, such as gardens, windmills, or even birdcages with birds inside! Marie Antoinette was renowned for using her hair decorations to convey her mood or to mark an event occurring in public life at the time, such as wearing a ship on her head to celebrate a maritime adventure.
Of course, these costly adornments of the idle rich at Versailles were one of the very things that turned public sentiment against the nobility in France. At a time when peasants could scarcely afford a loaf of bread for their dinner table, it was shocking to see the Queen and her followers use vast amounts of flour to powder their hair. It would be a stretch to say that Marie Antoinette's elaborate hairdos led to the French Revolution, but they sure did not help!
The Victorian age was marked by a return to more restrained living, and this was evident in the hairstyles of the day. Women kept their hair long, but never wore it loose in public. A lady wore her “crowning glory” curled into long ringlets which were secured at the nape of the neck. Short bangs were popular, and hair was always neat, often smoothed down with oils.
Victorian beauty trends promoted a natural and hygenic look, with a retreat from the decadence that had spiraled out of control in the previous century. Discreet hair ornaments such as ivory combs or black bows were often worn, and a low bun was sometimes covered by a snood, or decorative hairnet. The gentlemen of the day kept their hair relatively short. Macassar oil was used to smooth their hair, and most men wore sideburns, beards, and/or mustaches.
Movie Stars Influenced Hair Fashion for Flappers and Beyond
If there was ever any doubt about the strong political statement a person can make with their hair, one only need look to the flappers of the 1920s. In a bold message of rebellion and independence, the young women of the Jazz Age cut their long tresses short into bobs or softly waved styles. Bobbing one's hair was a mark of defiance against the older generation.
The flappers were the first generation to be heavily influenced by movie stars. Film stars Louise Brooks and Clara Bow were key to popularizing flapper fashions and hairstyles. The cloche hat, pulled low over the brow, was a trendy 1920s accessory, in part because the tightly fitted style could only be worn over a close cropped bob hairdo. The dashing men who escorted the free-spirited flappers to speakeasies and dance halls kept their hair short as well, typically parted down the center and slicked back with brilliantine.
The war years of the 1940s were an interesting time in hair fashion. Women continued to be influenced by the stars of the silver screen, such as glamorous idols Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, and Veronica Lake. Despite the hardships caused by World War II, the women on the homefront aspired to be as glamorous as their Hollywood idols, at least some of the time. Women wore their long hair flowing down over their shoulders in softly cascading waves. Plastic hair rollers and setting lotion were the key aids to achieving the desired look. The elegant hairstyles were accented with glamorous red lipstick and matching red painted fingernails. Beauty companies even portrayed looking attractive as part of a woman's patriotic duty!
Many women worked in factories and at other jobs outside the home while the men were at war, and for work, more practical hairdos were favored. Hair was rolled neatly around the nape of the neck, and was sometimes covered by a scarf tied over the head (a la Rosie the Riveter) or a snood, which allowed the woman to maintain a feminine look while also being an easy way to secure hair safely out the way, especially for factory work. At the end of World War II, hairstyles took on a patriotic theme, with “Victory Rolls” being a top trend. The style consisted of large sections of hair which were rolled and pinned in place, and the name, which was taken from fighter pilot maneuvers, was in celebration of the Allies' victory.
1950s: Domestic GoddessesaAnd Greasers Clash
The ideal of the 1950s was the “domestic goddess,” who managed to keep a beautiful home while always looking perfectly groomed and ladylike. The prototype of the perfect 1950s housewife can be summed up in two words: Donna Reed. The leading character of the 1950s television show was famous for performing all of her household chores while meticulously attired in a dress, pearls, and high heels.
The stylish hairdos of the era were medium-length waves that were teased, sculpted, and hairsprayed into a helmet (this was not the era of “touchable” hair, but then, the proper ladies of the 1950s were supposed to be above being touched anyway!). It became common for women to have a standing weekly appointment at the beauty shop to have their hair shampooed and set.
On the opposite side of things were the young “rebel-without-a-cause” types, in the mode of James Dean. The “D.A.” hairstyle (the initials stand for “duck's a**”) was created by combing hair straight back, splitting it down the center back with a comb, and greasing the whole thing abundantly with Brylcreem to maintain the characteristic form that resembled the rear view of a duck.
The generous amounts of hair product used to make a D.A. led to the name “greasers” for the young men who chose to rebel through their hair. Associated originally with working class youth gangs (and later co-opted by middle class rebels), the D.A. was not the haircut that would gain parental approval when a teen came to pick up a high school girl for a date! Some fun movies that explore the clash of greaser vs. mainstream cultures of the 1950s are Grease and Cry Baby .
Hair Was Such a Hot Topic in the 1960s That It Became a Broadway Show
The 1960s brought about huge social upheaval, and that could be plainly seen in the way people wore their hair over the course of the decade. The early '60s were culturally the tail end of the 1950s, and coiffed and teased hairdos were still in vogue. By the late '50s and early '60s, the bouffants had grown into massive beehives, which were parodied in the John Waters film Hairspray, set in 1962 Baltimore.
By the way, if you have the urge to see a beehive hairdo in person in modern day America, one only need visit the annual “Honfest” held in Baltimore every summer. The times, as they say, were a' changing, and as the idealized image of the 1950s domestic goddess began to recede, more practical hairstyles came into vogue.
Shorter styles with a little backcombing and soft bangs were the style favored by women in the '60s. On the youth front, however, radical changes were coming. A British hairdresser named Vidal Sassoon revolutionized the way women wore their hair. He liberated them from sleeping with rollers, spending hours under hooded hair dryers, and struggling with false hair to create elaborate 'dos.
In 1963, Vidal Sassoon's 5 point bob became a huge hit, as it was one of the first popular hairstyles in decades that was all about the cut itself, saving women countless hours of arranging and taming their locks. The freedom of Vidal Sassoon's architectural haircuts reflected the changing role of women in society. As more women ventured out of the home into the public sphere, they needed attractive fuss-free beauty. The modern cut also paired perfectly with the mini-dresses that came into vogue in the '60s.
There was another huge hair movement in the 1960s, which was the totally untamed hair of the hippies. By the late '60s, countless young women and men let their hair grow long and free. Facial hair became popular for the male hippies, who purposely eschewed the clean cut buttoned up style of their fathers. A flower in the hair to symbolize “flower power” was all the adornment required for the female hippies. The hair, especially on the men, was a bold symbol of youth counter-culture and a deliberate slap in the face to the “establishment” in the Vietnam era.
The long, natural hippie hairstyles were such as powerful symbol of the entire flower child lifestyle that there was even a hit musical on the subject; Hair opened off-Broadway in 1967, followed by a successful run on Broadway which spanned four years and 1750 performances.
Afros Made a Political Statement in the '60s and '70s
Hair continued to play a major cultural role in the 1970s. The Afro hairstyles sported by African-Americans from the late '60s into the '70s were a political statement, and a refusal to tame the natural texture of their hair into hairstyles popularized by the white establishment. The Afro represented black pride and a rejection of the idea of trying to integrate into white society. As the unisex style became more widely worn by people across all walks of life and races, it lost much of its initial edgy appeal as a political statement.
The other confrontational hairstyles of the 1970s were those sported by the punks in the latter half of the decade. Their mohawks, brightly dyed locks, and spiked hair were a visual manifestation of the young people's feeling disgust for mainstream society and social norms. The punk hairstyles were designed to shock, just like the lyrics of their songs, and indeed they did.
In popular culture on television, the dominant hairstyles were the loose, sexy styles of icons like the Charlie's Angels. The hit TV show promoted a healthy “All-American” vibe that was also popularized by other media, such as the types of models featured in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. The “Farrah” was long, with free flowing curls, layers, feathered bangs, and highlights to give that beachy look.
Mullets, Mall Hair, and the "Rachel"
“Bigger is better” was the motto of the 1980s and that applied to the hairdos. Bang balls teased as high as humanly possible were all the rage. Perms, crimping, and gallons of Aqua-Net hairspray completed the vision of '80s mall culture. Another cringe-worthy style which first reared its terrifying head in the 1980s was the mullet; you know: business in the front, party in the back! This was a haircut primarily (but not entirely) worn by men, and it went by many names, including the Kentucky waterfall, Canadian hockey hair, and the Tennessee top hat. Popularized by headbangers who loved heavy metal, the mullet can still be found in certain enclaves across America, and many websites have sprung up dedicated to posting pictures of the worst examples of mullets.
The 1990s saw hair deflate and return to more reasonable proportions. One of the biggest hair trends of the decade was inspired not by a political movement, but by a television show. Countless women went to their hairdressers requesting the “Rachel”, that layered, highlighted style made famous by Jennifer Aniston on the hit show Friends. Immensely popular until it hit a tipping point of being overdone, the “Rachel” was one of the most famous television haircuts ever.
For men, a trend that began in the '90s and continues to this day was a massive increase in the promotion of hair and beauty products geared specifically towards men. No longer a tiny piece of the beauty industry pie, grooming products just for guys are a fast growing retail category.
Hair Fashion Echoes Society
Who knows what the future of hairstyles will bring? Hair lengths, cuts, and colors are largely influenced by celebrities, but since the turn of the 21st century, trends have been more transient and varied than in decades past. It might be said that individualism is the current trend, as there have been no single hairdos as dominating as those in fairly recent history like the bang balls of the 1980s or the “Rachel” of the '90s.
When it comes to hair fashion, the only thing we know that we can count on is that trends and styles will constantly come and go, changing along with the world around us.
More Reading on How Fashion Is Political
- The Roaring 20s: Jazz, Flappers, and the Charleston
At the end of World War I, society experienced a dramatic shift. Shaking off the misery and shell-shock, young people broke with traditional values and embraced all things modern.
mysisters on December 05, 2017:
Really wild hairstyles. I liked the flapper girl Bob.
Harry Baldwin from New England (various locations) on May 13, 2014:
Some wild haircuts! I've never however been a mullet fan.
mysisters on February 10, 2011:
Great Hub. Some of these hairstyles are pretty wild. One hairstyle that is very in right now is the bouffant hairstyle. Not as high as the one pictured in your article.
Priscilla Chan from Normal, Illinois on July 07, 2010:
Oh dear, Sebastian! Only if we can have hair like this! Wish I have more hair, losing it everyday.