A history of hair: dos and don’ts
February 7, 2011 Leave a comment
Aside from a brief fin-de-siècle phase involving a Toni & Guy colourist and some enthusiastic shades of red I’m a fairly low-maintenance hair girl. My default hairstyle is shoulder-length with what my mum calls ‘blonde-y bits’. I rarely bother with blow-dries, I don’t use straighteners or curling tongs, and ponytails feel like a bit of a headache. Compared with, say, Cheryl Cole’s levels of hair maintenance, I’m something of a tramp.
It’s all relative, though. As a new book, Hairstyles: Ancient to Present by Charlotte Fiell, reveals, what women through the ages have done to and for a good head of hair is astonishing. Even Cole, devoted as she is to her colour changes and fabulous up-dos and volumising extensions or wefts that give her hair such blessed abundance (a stylist recently informed me that ‘everyone you see on TV’ has supplementary hair fixed in to pad out her own), comes across a bit slummy compared with the Parisian women of the 1770s.
Talk about high maintenance. The top style of 1772 was ‘the full headdress’ or ‘opera box’, a do that measured four feet from the chin to top of the head (Marge Simpson, eat your heart out). In the first ever hair magazine, published in the city in the same year, an astonishing 3,744 different hairstyles were listed, ‘some of which necessitated the hairdresser having to climb a small ladder…’
‘Our hairstyles reflect our self-image as individuals set against the prevailing culture of our times,’ writes Fiell. Her book brims with visual and anecdotal illustrations of this: flappers styling their new-found political and social freedom into the shape of the short, flat bob, which ‘swept aside centuries of carefully constructed hairpieces, festoons of ribbons and elaborate pinning’; the hippies and their long, unkempt locks in contrast to the rock-hard sets of the mainstream. Hairstyles can be powerful symbols, and even now they have the potential to shock – think of the reaction when Britney Spears, the golden mermaid-haired girl of the new millennium, took a razor to her head.
In some ways the history of women’s hairstyles can be read as a history of dissatisfaction. Curlier, straighter, longer, shorter, darker, lighter – the desire to turn it into something other is insistent and goes way back. The ancient Egyptians shaved off their natural hair to don the blunt-fringed wigs we so strongly associate with them. Wigs and wig boxes from Egyptian tombs can be found in the British Museum. Women who couldn’t afford real hair made do with woollen versions, poor things…