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.

The 1970s

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.






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