A brief history of women’s hair, and the hairbands that set you free.
Is there a hair tie around your wrist? If you’re a long-haired person like me, I’ll bet there is — unless it’s already in your hair. Right now I’ve got a messy bun on the top of my head, absent-mindedly assembled for the sole purposes of getting my hair out of my face. I started the day with my hair down, and when I’m going out for drinks later I’ll take it down again — before I’ll probably put it back up when I get home tonight.
Loose hair looks great — so casual, so carefree. But it’s not very practical, so we’ve enlisted a little helper that’s always on hand: the elastic hair tie. I thought about this the other night in a Vietnamese restaurant, about to dig into some steaming hot pho. As the waiter put the bowl down in front of me, it was almost instinctual: I reached for the hair tie sitting on my left wrist. As I was putting my long hair into a ponytail, I caught the eye of a woman sitting a few tables over — she was doing the exact same thing! We smiled at each other, in the acknowledgement that yes, it’s not the classiest move, but needs must! You’ve got to get that hair out of the way so you can focus on the task at hand.
That elastic band around your wrist is such a hard worker, repeatedly being called upon for whatever the mood requires. But women weren’t always so casual about their hair. Looking back over hair history in the Western world, this haphazard approach to hair is unprecedented. Hair has always carried a strong social message, but there’s never been fewer rules for what women’s hair should look like.
“The casual fashion of this up-and-down hair is a [unique] trend of our generation,” says Kurt Stenn, a leading hair expert with decades of experience from Yale Medical School and Johnson & Johnson. At its most extreme, hair represents humanity: Joan of Arc, Anne Boleyn and Marie Antoinette were all shaved before being executed. Beyond that, hair signals who we are: “Through history, hairdos reflected different [standings] in society. The very little hair on the Egyptian pharaoh and more hair on the slave; lots of hair on the big wigs of Louis in the Renaissance,” says Stenn. “Even today, you can look at people and [infer how] they’re of a certain socio-economic level.”
Today we may think of hair primarily as a signifier of individuality, but historically it’s been heavily linked to societal class, religious belonging, and sexuality. “Take Queen Victoria: she wore her hair up, very tightly, in court, but at home she would allegedly let her long hair down,” says Stenn, whose book ‘Hair: A Human History’, was published by Pegasus in 2016. So while we may not be aware of it, our modern relaxed attitude about hair is not devoid of meaning: “Having the hair up in a casual way means it can [easily] come down.”
For women, long hair has been the standard for throughout the majority of history — this is consistent across most cultures. One explanation for why this is could be that long hair signals health: you need to eat well to grow a thick mane. But Stenn admits there’s little hard data on the nuanced social meaning of hair — how do you measure whether blondes have more fun? “But history and literature suggests long hair is [perceived as] sexy,” says Stenn. He points to Rapunzel: it’s her long hair that enables the prince to climb up to her tower.
Modern women are unlikely to dangle a braid out the window to attract suitors, but they may take their hair down before a date. Most of the long-haired people I spoke to agreed that loose locks are the best look, suggesting this idea is deeply rooted; to “let your hair down” means being free and enjoying yourself. But everyone I spoke to agreed that loose hair is too impractical when you want to get things done. Examples of moments requiring an updo include work, eating, sex, exercise, and looking after children — essentially, anything other than sitting still with a drink in your hand.
Rosie Spinks (27), a journalist from Los Angeles based in London, says it’s rare to have her hair down all day long. “I’ll put it up when I eat, or at the end of the day when I’m tired, or I’ll put half of it up when I’m working so it’s not in my face.” Karima Adi (36), a publishing executive in London, puts her hair up at the gym, before adding what was a common refrain: “I also tend to wear my hair up when it needs washing!” While Gemma Dietrich (33), a singer in Norwich, loves “long, unkempt, sun-bleached hair that doesn’t give a shit”, she prefers to work with her hair up: “I feel like I can concentrate more?” Hels Martin (32), an editor in Bristol, adores a wave: “But we all love to chuck it up. It’s like putting on sweatpants and taking off your bra!”
Historically, long-haired ladies have usually maintained their locks according to far more formal rules. In Ancient Egypt, hair would be kept long and straight, often in braids. Elaborate knots and decorated updos were common in classical Greece and Rome, before the Dark Ages brought with it an edict for women to cover their heads. In the Romantic period, loose curls were the ideal for nobility, while in the Baroque era it was all about height — to the point where women (assuming they had money to hire help) used wireframes to construct towering dos.
Hairstyles started to become less strict in the Victorian era, which brought about a fashion of buns surrounded by braids and curls. In the 1890s, women would emulate the Gibson Girl: a puffy pompadour rolled across a horsehair pillow. The cloud-like result carried an appealing social message: this was the look of independence and self-assuredness. When more women entered the workforce after World War I, necessity encouraged shorter hair. Further inspiration came from the French singer Josephine Baker who had a neat bob, a practical cut which was less likely to get tangled into machinery or catch fire.
Religious leaders have taken great interest in ladies’ coiffure through the ages, declaring hairstyles morally improper or even a threat to the salvation of the soul. Stenn writes in his book about Manasseh Cutler, a Yale-trained pastor in 18th century New England, who claimed the new fashion of girls piling long hair on top of their heads reminded him of “the monstrous devil”, and declared it cursed. 130 years later, at the peak of the bob, the short style was the one to be declared unholy: it was too seductive, preachers decried, and hence indicative of a person of lax morals.
But judgment ever stopped women experimenting with their hair. In the 1940s, Veronica Lake’s loose locks swung the trend back to long, before Audrey Hepburn again brought back short and chic in the 1950s. That’s when the modern hair tie came along, after the Hook Brown Company of Massachusetts secured a patent for an “elastic loop fastener” initially intended for footwear and raincoats – it didn’t take long before women realised how much easier it was to use an elastic tie compared to hairpins and ribbons. Farrah Fawcett then set the bar for the ultimate free-flowing style in the 1970s, before the 1980s brought us the working girl’s crop along with the power suit.
Ever since, hair fashions have remained more flexible. Putting your hair up and taking it down again multiple times a the day isn’t actually that practical: if your hair gets in the way, shouldn’t you just put it up in the morning and be done with it? But we just love that feeling of loose, carefree hair far too much. That hair tie on the wrist represents the freedom to have a few moments like that as we go about our day. Then, a swift transition to the quick and easy updo, thrown together with practised hands as you’re about to get to work, hit the gym, or tuck into a steaming hot bowl of soup. For Rosie, that’s the true look of hair freedom: “My topknot! Those are the days when I give zero fucks.” As women choose their hairstyles for themselves rather than to please their families, a priest, or a date, the hair tie on your wrist carries a little message: I can let my hair flow, or I can tighten it up to get things done, but the choice is mine.