Hairstyles are rich with meaning and inextricably bound to a larger political economy that has profoundly shaped the cultural landscape as well the beauty industry. A multitude of industries and institutions are devoted exclusively to hairstyle processes, products, and accessories. Hairstyles have made peoples’ careers, cost them their jobs, and, at times, even threatened their lives. Entire generations and subcultures have been defined in terms of their hair, creating a folklore devoted to the implications of hair. Length, shape, color, and texture challenge, distort, and reassert stages of the lifecycle as well as notions of gender, race, and respectability.
Since ancient times, people have been arranging hair for practical, decorative, and deeply symbolic purposes. Some hair was kept long and fastened in a band or cropped short to allow ease of movement and unobstructed vision, while more elaborate styles often held certain significance and status. In ancient Egypt, both men and women cut their hair very short or shaved their heads to stay cool, and the nobles wore heavy wigs in ceremonial and public appearances. In Asia, the heads of men were shaved, leaving a line to which horsehair was sometimes added in braids, signifying submission. Several ancient cultures shaved the heads of slaves. In Africa, men and women developed complex styles using natural substances to stiffen and color the hair, which were time consuming and lasted for several weeks. Cultures in Africa, China, and the Americas developed certain styles for young women that signified that they were unmarried or pregnant. In some cultures, wild, unkempt styles came to signify insanity.
Religions continue to inform the meaning of hair. Jewish religious law contains specific guidelines for personal appearance and the manner in which hair should be worn. Men are to keep their heads covered with a yarmulke or skullcap.
In addition, they are forbidden to shave with a razor and, as a result, many wear beards. Jewish Orthodox men wear their hair short with long side locks. Jewish law also requires Orthodox married women to keep their hair covered for modesty and many wear wigs on top of their hair. Muslim women and men often believe in concealing hair in public with turbans and veils. Dreadlocks are divided into individual sections and treated with one of several methods (backcombing, braiding, hand rolling, or allowing hair to naturally separate into individual “locks” on its own). They can vary in width, compactness, and length, resulting in different types of styles. Popular with men and women regardless of religion or culture, they are most readily identified with followers of the Rastafarian movement, which traces its earliest references to the Bible.
Style And Social Movements
Many hairstyles of the 20th century reflect the ebb and flow of social and cultural change. In the 1920s, when women bobbed their hair en masse, it captured the rebellious spirit of a new generation of women, who asserted a right to an array of male prerogatives that ranged from cycling to smoking. The bob, a short cut just below the earlobe with layers up the back, was first attributed to a popular vaudeville dancer, Irene Castle. Variations evolved that included layered hair around the face, a blunt cut line at the back of the hair, and curls, whether around the face, all over, or in finger waves. Because the bob was a drastic departure from very long styles worn previously, its rise in popularity during the Roaring Twenties coincided with women gaining the right to vote and cropped skirt lengths. A longer version of the bob, called a pageboy, was popular among women in the 1950s, and is commonly associated with Uma Thurman’s character in the 1994 film Pulp Fiction. Variations of the bob were seen in the 1960s with the work of celebrity hairdresser Vidal Sassoon and the style of actresses Nancy Kwan, Mia Farrow, and British model Twiggy.
For men, however, short hair has long been standard. The crew cut is generally a man’s hairstyle and is closely and evenly cropped all over. Crew cuts and barbershops were part of coming-of-age social rituals for generations of American men. The short style came from an aerodynamic haircut worn by members of the Yale rowing crew in the early 1900s. The hair is cut in graduated lengths with the longest hair at the hairline and the shortest at the crown. The hair on the sides and back of the head is usually tapered. The clean style was adopted by the United States Armed Forces during World War II and later became a popular style for civilian men of the 1950s. Variations of the style are the buzz cut (evenly short all over) and the flattop (crown to hairline is cut to resemble a flat plane). In contrast, generations of male rebels that included zoot-suiters, hipsters, rock and rollers, Hippies, and bikers have made long hair a symbol of male defiance.
Poodle Cuts and Bouffants
Some of the most iconic hairstyles of the century emerged in the 1950s and ’60s when cold war containment produced both acquiescence and rebellion that defined the looks of an era. Most of the hairstyles demanded perms, hairspray, elaborate backcombing techniques in which hair is teased to stand off the head, and above all else the hands of a skillful hairdresser. The poodle cut is short and uniformly curled, named after the then popular breed of dogs, whose coat was tightly curled and carefully clipped. A famous wearer of the poodle was Lucille Ball, whose closely cropped red curls inspired many imitators. By the early 1960s, Jackie Kennedy’s bouffant was the height of glamour and involved the hair being set in rollers, dried, backcombed (and then the surface hairs brushed smooth and held in place with hairspray to create big hair. Women often had standing appointments at beauty shops so they could have their bouffant style redone every week. Between appointments, they would cover their new do with a scarf to protect it and while they may have had it touched it up daily, it was not washed until they went back to the salon the following week. Last but not least, the beehive, which reached the height of its popularity in the mid 1960s, is a version of the bouffant and requires the same setting and teasing process, but features a complex arranging of the hair on top of the head in a large dome shape, resembling a beehive. Because of its gravity-defying structure, it required generous amounts of teasing and hair spray, and some women even used hairpieces to add height and volume to their beehives.
To be sure, there have been some styles that emerged with the baby boom generation that required just a quick bush. Ponytails went hand-in-hand with saddle shoes and poodle skirts and invoked youthful simplicity with flirtation. The informal style consists simply of gathering long hair together in a fastener, such that it resembles a horse’s tail that can be placed at the nape of the neck, higher toward the crown on the head, or on either side of the head. The style of two evenly spaced ponytails is called pigtails and brings to mind the Brady Bunch’s littlest blonde, Cindy, as well as a litany of tennis stars. Both versions remain popular and are often a work-out must, but even on adult women, ponytails and pigtails invoke a sense of girlish play and innocence.
By the 1970s, the natural look seemed a departure from a generation of women who still frequented old-fashioned beauty shops for a weekly wash and set. Nevertheless the latest looks still required a host of products and at least an occasional appointment with a hairstylist. Although singer Cher’s waist-length hair was the envy of many girls swearing off haircuts altogether, it would not be long before Farah Fawcett’s California tan, sun-streaked feathered layers and unforgettable pin-up smile made the Farah with highlights and wings one of the most asked-for styles of the late 1970s. Striking a different aesthetic, another American sweetheart, Olympic skating champion Dorothy Hamill’s short and sassy brunette wedge also filled the pages of many yearbooks. Seventies styles, like earlier trends, never completely disappear. The Shag, for example, involved cutting many layers that impart volume in the crown and become wispy around the face and neck, was first introduced in the 1970s and is associated with actress Florence Henderson, but in the 1990s, thanks to television star Jennifer Aniston, the look was updated and known simply as the Rachel after her character on the hit show Friends.
One of the most controversial styles from the late 1960s and ’70s was the Afro. Playing with hair texture has long been cast as tampering with racial identity and politics. Like flappers who embraced boyish style, white women who frizzed their hair were often caught in racial metaphors that suggested that their character and hair were a bit wild. Straightening hair, however, also invoked social comment. At times, the style was condemned as a form of self-denial. African American women and men have long debated the meaning of processing or pressing hair straight that often goes beyond simplistic notions of assimilation. Much of these debates, however, came to a head in the late 1960s as the Afro became increasingly popular. For men and women with very tight natural curls or straight hair, an Afro style can be achieved by braiding the hair and then separating it using a tool called a pick. The pick is a narrow comb with long and widely spaced teeth. The style rose in popularity as part of the Black Freedom movement in the late 1960s, and the hairstyle symbolized a shift from the demands of the civil rights era to the rise of Black Power. By the late 1960s, Barbara Streisand emulated the look with a bubble perm and by the 1970s, Afro wigs could be bought and sold like any other fashion accessory.
Hair And Pop Culture Since The Late 20th Century
When it came to big hair, the 1980s inspired some of the most audacious styles. MTV had a profound influence on youth culture. Many styles that were popular, for example, in the streets of London made their way to Middle America thanks to music videos. The late 1970s punk movement was defined by its in-your-face music and style. Mohawks and other vertical hairdos were held with mousse and gel and were often dyed outrageous colors or bleached blonde to give bands ranging from The Sex Pistols to A Flock of Seagulls their signature look. At the same time, homegrown hair bands like Bon Jovi and Poison touted perms and highlights along with good-old American rock ’n’ roll. There were also rockabilly conks worn by The Stray Cats that emulated Elvis’s earlier borrowing from black culture, and the king of pop Michael Jackson along with soulful Lionel Richie who inspired a generation of Jheri curls. The fashion trends of the 1980s seemed suddenly subdued with rise of Kurt Cobain and the popularity of the unwashed, unkempt look of grunge. In addition, rapper Tupac Shakur made a shaved head the epitome of the new cool. B-boy cuts involved razoring and shaving techniques that touted corporate logos and designs, giving a whole new meaning to shorn hair. Post-punk music and youth cultures continue to invoke everything from Goth and its romanticizing of the macabre, jet-black hair, makeup, and clothes to more androgynous fringe bangs of emo’s (coming from the word emotional) ethos that embraces self-mutilation (cutting), depression, and at times suicide— trends that reinvigorate age-old concerns over the youth of today. More mainstream is the influence of metrosexuality that came of age with fashion icon and English footballer David Beckham, whose spiky fin cut paved the way for a range of men’s hair fashion that have often been decidedly short but stylish, demanding products and skills that seem a far cry from the old-fashioned barbershop. Today, hairstyles, whether from the soccer pitch or music videos, continue to reveal connections between commerce and culture as well as politics and style.