Women’s Hair: A History

Inspired by my own experiences of hair loss, this blog seeks to explore the history of women’s hair. It will examine the following questions: Why is a woman’s hair so important to her? Why do I associate long hair with femininity? Why is shaving your head seen as daring?

Women's Hair History Feature Image

Table of Contents

My Hair History

My hair is thinning. It’s always been fine, and I’ve never had a lot of it. It bothers me, but why do I care so much? Every day I notice my hair-loss. I can see my peachy coloured scalp in the bathroom mirror. My hairdresser has advised against colouring my hair. It would only emphasise the thinning. It made me want to cry.

women's hair history, a photo of me showing my thinning hair
Photo of me where I can see my hair loss

My hair loss knocked my self-confidence. I seemed to be shedding both hair and self-esteem. But I was not alone in feeling like this. I soon discovered Alopecia UK and found many women struggling to come to terms with hair loss and thinning. This got me thinking. Why is a lack of hair so hard to come to terms with? Why do we care so much about hair?

To find the answers, I looked back to the past. What can women’s hair history tell us about today’s attitudes towards female head hair?

Women's Hair History: Hair is Everything

Joanna Bourke, Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College in “A History of Hair” argues that:

“Part of the reason that hair is so central to personhood is because it sends out signals to oneself and others about gender, class, status, age, generation, marital status, religion, group membership, familial ties, and politics. It is personal, but it is also a highly visible cultural artefact.”

Bourke, Joanna (2019). “A History of Hair.” Gresham College Lectures. October, 2019, https://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/history-of-hair

As BBC Three’s Fleabag puts it: “Hair is everything”. No wonder I am mourning my loss.

The messages that a woman’s hair can convey are quick to spring to mind. For example, the radical shortness of the 1920’s and 30’s bob was a feminist statement. It was a rebellion against a narrow definition of a woman’s role, and an important part of women’s hair history. As Bourke so eloquently puts it:

“Women, in particular, often used hair-styles to send messages to their amours. The desire for increased sexual freedoms of women who “bobbed” their hair in the 1920s is one example. During the 1968 protests against the Miss American pageant, feminists not only threw bras and girdles into the Freedom Trash Can, but wigs, hair-curlers, and false eyelashes as well. “

Bourke, Joanna (2019). “A History of Hair.” Gresham College Lectures. October, 2019, https://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/history-of-hair

The Short Cut

The Marcel Wave bob, an important moment in women's hair history
Edna Fearon (Liverpool, UK) models the Marcel Wave, circa 1930. Source: Wikipedia CC BY 3.0,

The cute 1960’s pixie cut can be read in the same vein. In fact, hair length has even be used as a statement on sexual orientation. Some lesbians consider getting their first short haircut a right of passage. For some, it is part of their ‘coming out’ experience.

Short cuts have been used as a physical demonstration of a woman’s refusal to conform to a male view on feminine beauty. Furthermore, short hair is a rejection of a constricted view on a woman’s place within society.

Treatment, style and length are by no means the only way in which hair conveys messages.

In Western culture, femininity has often been viewed as weaker, emotional, less intelligent, fragile and inferior. Cutting ones hair short is a rejection of this definition. For example, professional women are often depicted in pop culture as wearing their hair up. Short (more masculine) hair signifying in this instance, a greater intellect or professionalism. These women aren’t here for male gratification. They have a job to do. Their short hair eludes qualities that are opposite to outdated but prevalent views on the feminine.

women in business suits wearing pony tails

Words like fierce, brave, daring, courageous are all used to describe a woman shaving her head. Women cut off their hair, donating it to charitable wig makers. They may even request sponsorship for shaving their head. Proceeds might be donated to female cancer charities. Hair shearing, in this example, is an act of camaraderie. Above all, the removal of our head hair is viewed as shocking. Indeed, it’s removal is such an extreme act that it has been used to punish and to degrade. Jews in concentration camps. Slaves. Prisoners. Of course, these examples are not just confined to women’s hair history.

The Long Look

In contrast to short hair, when we see long hair we think of luxuriousness, femininity, sensuality. Free flowing locks may even signal sexual availability or loose morals. Wild, untamed, hair might signify an unrestricted, untamed and dangerous woman. Think femme fatals and Greek sirens. Eve, Mary Magdaline and the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites. Heck, think Cersi Lannister (Game of Thrones), Disney’s Elsa (Frozen) and Sandy (Grease).

Painting La Bella Dame Merci, showing a woman with long hair

In John William Waterhouse’s La Belle Dame sans Merci (1893) this femme fatal is literally wrapping her hair around the knights neck. Source: Art Renewal Center, Public Domain, Wikipedia

Treatment, style and length are by no means the only way in which hair conveys messages. Colours too, have a wide range of different cultural significance within women’s hair history. Sensible brunettes, sultry dark-hair, bombshell blondes (we have more fun), fiery redheads. Much has been written about red-hair and our peculiar fascination with this colour.

Marilyn Monroe an icon in women's hair history

Marilyn Monroe, in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Trailer screenshot [Public domain]

Women's Hair History: Late 19th Century to 1960's

Given all the different messages, signals and cultural readings that can be conveyed by hair, it is no wonder (whatever our ethnicity) that we value it so highly. Hair is an integral part of our identity, and our views on aesthetics.

This is as true for us as it was for our ancestors. Accidentally losing our hair is a traumatic experience. It’s worthy of sympathy and sometimes even compensation.

On 18 December 1936, page 7 of the Daily Herald records that 16-year old, Alice Sharp successfully sued a printing company for £1,000. Her hair had caught in a machine. The result was that her scalp was “torn off from near the forehead almost to the back of the head”. Poor Alice was left with very little hair and needed to “wear a wig in public”. The defence “suggested that a suitable wig could be made for £7 7s”. However, the prosecution argued that Alice’s “hair was as important to her as to any woman of rank”. Alice’s chances at matrimony were considered by the Judge. Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock was quoted in court:

“Fair tresses man’s imperial race insnare,
And beauty draws us with a single hair”

Finally, Alice was awarded £1,000. The equivalent to around £50.6K today. The large sum reflected her reduced chances of a good marriage.

Advert for women's hair products
Women's hair ad

Even as late as 1936, women like Alice relied upon matrimony for financial stability. A woman’s chances of getting married were improved by being found attractive by men. A £1,000 pay out clearly shows that Alice’s contemporaries viewed a female bald head as unattractive.

Women's Hair History: Bald Women & Genetics

Surprisingly for a nation obsessed with hair, balding was not really understood until fairly recently.

Disease, genetics, hat-wearing and mental stimulation were all blamed for hair loss.

In the late 1880s at least some scholars felt that evolution could explain the disparity in numbers between male and female baldness. On the 15 December 1884, The Scotsman gave an account of an Edinburgh Health Lecture provided by Dr. D. J. Cunningham. The Dr is a Professor of Anatomy and Chirurgery [an archaic term for Surgery] at the University of Dublin. He reasons that there were less hairless women because of, “conjugal selection.” He explains:

“Bald women had an undoubted difficulty in procuring husbands, and therefore their defect was less frequently transmitted than in the case of the bald men, to whom the ladies did not seem to object…and who by a curious coincidence rarely transmitted a deficiency in hair-growth to their daughters” (p.6).

Almost a decade later, the Dundee Evening Telegraph records comments made by ‘scientific lady’ Miss. E. F. Andrews:

Newspaper article 1893 on bald women

I am guessing that Miss Andrews had a lovely head of hair. Please don’t think less of me if I secretly hope it all fell out! Happily her opinions weren’t shared by everyone. Benjamin Godfrey, of the Royal College of Physicians of London disagreed. He only blamed women for the inheritance of such niceties as extra fingers:

“Women never hand down hairless tendencies, though they do bodily deformities such as excess of fingers, &c. This hereditary tendency is one of the mysteries of life.” Godfrey, Benjamin (1872). ” 

 

Diseases of hair: a popular treaties upon the affections of the hair system, with advice upon the preservation and management of hair”. J & A Churchill. London: page 44. Retrieved from Internet Archive.

Hats & Mental Stimulaton

By equating hair with sexual desirability, hair loss becomes something to be feared. Consequently, women refusing to conform to the prevailing moral norms could be threatened with the loss of their hair.

The Evening Despatch of Birmingham reports on 9 April 1914 that “if women persist in wearing the present type of headgear they may look forward to possessing heads almost entirely devoid of hair” (p.7). The article, entitled “Female Baldness: Epidemic Forecasted Through Wearing Type of Hats” continues:

“Hats which cover the head and prevent ventilation, the nervous strain experienced by women who earn their own living, the use of badly-made hair frames which exclude air, and the use of cheap Oriental hair are all cited as reasons which cause baldness” (p.7).

Hats are an important part of women's hair history, as illustrated in this fashion plate from 1909
The Nottingham Evening Post of 13 July 1914 goes as far as linking female suffrage with baldness and facial hair:
Nottingham Evening Post. 13 Jul 1914, page 4

Even cutting your hair might lead to disaster. In the newspapers of the 1920s there is a flourish of sensationalised news stories concerning the suicide of young girls, all of whom deeply regretted their bobbed haircuts. Apparently, feeling ridiculed and ugly the girls committed suicide. The Pall Mall Gazette of 18 August 1922 refers to two cases that week (‘Bobbed Hair Suicides’, page 5). The Oxfordshire Weekly News had mentioned on 2nd August 1922, page 8, a ‘bobbed hair suicide’:

Newspaper article

I even found a case in the 18th August 1928 edition of the Wiltshire Times and Trowbridge Advertiser, linking hair cutting to matrimonial breakdown. In this example, a wife bobbed her hair. Equally of importance, the wife feels the need to explain this act. It was not one of rebellion, but a practical consideration. She had arthritic hands. Nevertheless, the cut was contrary to her husband’s wishes and consequently he abandoned her. Sadly, the headline in the Wiltshire Times was not ‘Controlling Husband Leaves Wife blaming a Haircut!”, the writer instead opting for, “Wife Who Lost Her Hair and Husband” (p7).

Attitudes towards hair cutting and hair loss were slow to change. On 1st October 1966, the Liverpool Echo reported that the pill (another form of female emancipation) and “agitation of the mind” caused female baldness (p7).

Liverpool Echo. 1 Oct 1966; Page 7

Women’s hair history is intricately linked to the history of female emancipation. From the vote to contraception.

Women's Hair Histoy & Me

Intimately tied to ideas of beauty, femininity and sexuality – hair must have been incredibly important to our female ancestors. Their ‘crowing glory’ was viewed as essential in securing a husband and therefore, financial stability. The threat of loosing your hair was used to keep women’s ambitions in check. Simultaneously women have been using their hair to reveal clues about their identity and cuts or styling as an act of rebellion. No wonder then that hair loss is difficult to come to terms with. 

Researching for this blog post has helped me to be kinder to myself! It is OK to be upset about loosing your hair. I forgive myself for sometimes feeling self-conscious about it. I now understand why I felt, on a completely subconscious level, that hair was, “everything”. However, I now realise that I was looking at my hair through a very narrow definition of beauty. And, just like my bobbed 1920s ancestors, I don’t have to conform to it. Additional bonus, I like hats anyway!

A Note on Diversity

I’m conscious that all of the above examples are European, and white. The history of hair is important to many different cultures and ethnic groups. For instance, black hair has an incredibly rich and diverse history. It is a history covering the fight for freedom and equality. It is complex, fascinating and at times emotionally challenging. From tribal customs, to slavery, emancipation, segregation, the effects of narrow white definitions of beauty, and beyond. I can in no way even begin to do this subject justice. I think to try here would be tokenism. However, I have included some suggestions amongst the further reading section. If anyone has any further suggestions on useful reading matter (for any ethnicity) then please contact me and I will happily add it below.

Bourke, Joanna (2019). “A History of Hair.” Gresham College Lectures. October, 2019, https://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/history-of-hair

 

Graham, Antoinette G (2010) “Sign of the Sign of the Librarian in the Cinema of Horror: An Exploration of Filmic Function”. The Florida State University College of Communication and Information. Retrieved from https://diginole.lib.fsu.edu/islandora/object/fsu:182266/datastream/PDF/view

 

Godfrey, Benjamin (1872). “Diseases of hair: a popular treaties upon the affections of the hair system, with advice upon the preservation and management of hair”. J & A Churchill. London: page 44. Retrieved from Internet Archive.

 

Jahangir, Rumeana (2015). “How does black hair reflect black history?” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-merseyside-31438273

 

Konishi, Shino (2008) “Tied in rolled knots and powdered with ochre’: Aboriginal hair and eighteenth-century cross-cultural encounters. Australian National University, Borderlands e-journal. Volume 7, Number 2. Retrieved from: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.474.2281&rep=rep1&type=pdf

 

Lenihan, Jessica (2014) “‘Shades Of Meaning’: The Significance of Hair Colour in Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) and Rossetti’s Lady Lilith (1866–68, altered 1872–73). Retrieved from https://open.conted.ox.ac.uk/sites/open.conted.ox.ac.uk/files/resources/Create%20Document/VIDES%202014%20section%20018%20Jessica%20Lenihan.pdf

 

Pierpont, Claudia Roth. “A Raised Voice: How Nina Simone turned the movement into music”. The New Yorker, Issue August 11 & 18, 2014. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/11/raised-voice

 

Rosenthal, Angela. “Raising Hair.” Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 38, no. 1, 2004, pp. 1–16. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30053625.

 

White, Shane, and Graham White. “Slave Hair and African American Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 61, no. 1, 1995, pp. 45–76. JSTORwww.jstor.org/stable/2211360.

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