Lacquered puffiness, usually on top of the head but sometimes also on the sides, to increase the hair’s height and volume characterizes the bouffant hairstyle. The hairstyle’s name comes from the French verb bouffer, meaning to puff out or to swell. An urban legend, known to folklorists as “The Fatal Hairdo” or “The Spider in the Beehive,” alleges that black widows, cockroaches, or other small creatures are likely to nest inside the darkness and warmth of the lacquered bouffant, feeding off the blood of their hosts, especially when the hair is uncombed or unwashed for extended periods of time. None of these legends have any basis in fact and can be traced to English tales from the 13th century in which spiders inhabit the elaborate hairdos of excessively vain women.
Although the bouffant can be traced to late 18th century France, it achieved its greatest popularity in the United States from the late 1950s to the mid 1960s. Its rise was aided in large part by two consumer innovations of the time: the plastic hair roller, which was used for winding and curling the hair (usually overnight) before teasing or backcombing it to increase volume, and the aerosol can of lacquer hairspray, which was applied liberally to create a rigid shell that held the bouffant in place. During the 1960s, the bouffant could be seen on the heads of first ladies Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and Pat Ryan Nixon, film and television actresses Audrey Hepburn and Mary Tyler Moore, singing groups such as the Supremes and the Shangri-Las, and many other influential models of fashionable style.
Not all appreciated the new style. Newsweek reported in 1962 that the bouffant’s popularity among teenagers was troubling to parents, who thought their daughters were wasting too much time rolling and combing their hair; to teachers, who observed a correlation between low grades and high hair; and to hairdressers, who cautioned that the scalp underneath a lacquered shell was not able to breathe properly. An exaggerated version of the bouffant, known as the beehive or B-52 (because of its resemblance to the bulbous nose cone of this particular aircraft), was popular around the same time—and has subsequently been spoofed in various forms of popular culture, such as the film and Broadway musical Hairspray, Marge Simpson’s hair in The Simpsons, and the New Wave rock band the B-52s.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, more natural hairstyles that did not require rollers, teasing combs, and hairspray had become increasingly popular, causing the bouffant to fall out of fashion. The women’s liberation movement, along with carefree and often more gender-neutral fashions, fit the workaday lives of a younger generation of wage-earning women who seemed less interested in and/ or less likely to be able to afford the time and cost associated with weekly trips to a beauty shop or salon so familiar to an older generation. However, thanks to certain celebrities in the 2000s, such as Jennifer Lopez, Gisele Bündchen, and even Sarah Palin, the bouffant may be making a comeback along with the emulation and condemnation that has long been associated with such exaggerated feminine style.