BBC History Magazine, April 2011
The Politics of Hair
Britons have long tried to make statements about themselves through the hair on their heads. From the 'Henry VIII pageboy' to the Twenties bob via Cavalier curls, Lucy Worsley reveals how coiffures have reflected social changes over the past 800 years...
1. Dirty is good.
The twelfth-century monk who wrote the book called An Apology for Beards argues that the ‘marvelous mystery’ of matted, greasy hair indicates ‘interior cleanness’ and ‘divine virtue’. The flagellant strain in Christianity found virtue in suffering, and it was praiseworthy to have a horrible itchy head.
2. Who do you think you are?
Medieval knights were constantly criticized for their frequently changing hairstyles (just like their modern equivalents in the Premiership). Part of their problem, argues medieval dress historian Margaret Scott, was the concept of the ‘great chain of being’ governing everyone’s place in medieval society. It descended from God to his angels, to the king then notable people like dukes, yeomen, and right down to peasants. No one was supposed to step out of place, so changes of hairstyle could be dangerously confusing. If young knights grew theirs too long, they were criticized for looking like women. If they cut it short, that was bad too, because they could be mistaken for tonsured monks.
3. A hairy diplomatic incident.
Kings and queens had particularly ‘political’ hair. You can even
trace the ebb and flow of England’s relationship with France in the hairstyles of Henry VIII and his court. Here, in his youth, he has a long pageboy. But later Henry formed an alliance with France, and when the French king Francis I injured his head, Henry shaved his own in sympathy. At the highest point of their friendship, Henry and Francis pledged to refrain from shaving until they met again. Henry’s wife Catherine of Aragon, though, would have preferred an alliance with Spain instead. She complained about her husband’s tickly face, and persuaded him to de-whisker. Only Francis’s mother was able to avert a looming diplomatic incident as Henry’s planned meeting with Francis I drew near. She cleverly declared that it didn’t matter because the love the two kings bore each other was ‘in the hearts, not the beards’.
4. Cavalier curls …
Like the medieval hairy hermits, the strict seventeenth-century Puritan William Prynne thought that personal grooming was
dangerously close to sinful vanity. He denounced the 1630s fashion for long, curling hair as ‘unlawful, effeminate, vainglorious, evil, odious, immodest, indecent, lascivious, wanton, dissolute, whorish, ungodly, horrid, strange, outlandish, impudent, pernicious, offensive, ridiculous, foolish, childish’ and ‘unchristian’.
5. … and the Roundhead crop.
Radical politics have frequently been accompanied by short hair, from the Parliamentarians of the seventeenth century, to the skinheads to be found on both extremes of left and right in the 1970s. The contrasting hairstyles of the Roundheads and the Cavaliers are parodied in this satirical caricature of around 1640. An allegory for the impending Civil War, it shows a dogfight in which even the canine participants have the same hairstyles as their masters.
6. The rise of the wig.
The eighteenth century, age of the Whigs, was also an age of wigs. Charles II returned from his exile in France in 1660 with a fondness for false hair. His subjects aped their master: the most popular wigs had long black curls mirroring the king’s own natural hair. Samuel Pepys toyed with the idea of shaving his head and becoming a wig-wearer for some time before eventually succumbing on the grounds that he hated washing his hair. But wig-wearing would soon become the essential sign of a gentleman. Wigs were among the numerous new consumer products intended to improve upon nature and to allow those with money to express their taste.
7. Big hair reaches its zenith.
When the Georgian James Boswell accidentally lost his wig, he rushed 25 miles to replace it rather than face the ridicule of being seen bareheaded. He and his contemporaries could choose from an ever-expanding range of bigger and bigger wigs, with names like the Comet, Cauliflower, Royal Bird, Staircase, She-Dragon, Rose, Snail Back and Spinnage Seed.
Even if you wore your natural hair, ‘those who had to preserve a genteel appearance spent an hour each day under the hands of the hair-dresser’, wrote Charles Knight about the 1800s, at the tail end of the age of big hair. The look was a dramatic indication that one was in the privileged position of having no business more pressing than preening.
8. Smooth, simple and safe.
The decline of the wig went hand-in-hand with the decline of absolutism. Along with shoes in which it is impossible to walk and dresses in which it is impossible to sit, hair requiring hours of preparation is reserved for the aristocrat of limitless wealth. After many such people lost their lives at the Guillotine in the French Revolution, those surviving lost their nerve.
Don Herzog, a historian of Georgian dissent, notes that the people in charge of France after 1789 left off ‘their curls, toupees, and queues’ to ‘go about with cropped locks like English farmers without any powder’. Many unemployed French hairdressers came seeking work in a nervous and jumpy Britain. Here, their whispering of possible revolutionary sedition into their clients’ ears worried any conservative commentators. ‘It is dangerous to put one’s throat in the mercy of a man armed with a razor’, wrote one journalist. In these perilous times, he advised, it was best at the barber’s to ‘never talk about politics’.
As a result, hairdressers came in for much criticism, and smooth, simple hair became the norm. In 1795 a frightened government sounded the death-knell for big, puffed-up, white-powdered hair by introducing a tax on powder.
9. The bob liberates women.
Once again, in the 1920s, a desire for liberation was accompanied by a desire for short hair. But now it was the turn of the nation’s women, who’d done men’s work during the war and who wished to be rewarded for it with the vote. There were also class and generational differences at play. Nancy Astor found it hard to accept the new hair despite being the first female MP. She initially refused permission to a maid asking permission to bob. ‘If you adopt this intransigent attitude’, her butler warned her, ‘you will shortly by lucky to get housemaids with any hair at all’.
10. End of Eden
The expansion and contraction of Britain’s first empire was accompanied by the rise and fall of the wig, and the expansion and contraction of her second was accompanied by the golden age of the moustache. Did the young Victorian civil servant sent to govern a remote part of Africa sprout facial hair to disguise any possible wobble of his upper lip? The historian Piers Brendon notes that the decline of the Empire was accompanied by the decline of the moustache, and identifies the crisis moment for both. Anthony Eden in the midst of the Suez crisis of 1956 had to have his rather meager moustache touched up so that it would be more visible in what turned out to be a rather unpersuasive TV broadcast. In the ultimate act of emasculation, his facial hair was painted in with his wife’s mascara.
Read more in Lucy Worsley’s new book, If Walls Could Talk, An Intimate History of the Home, published by Faber & Faber on 1 April.
Margaret Scott, Medieval Dress and Fashion, British Library, 2003.
Piers Brendon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, Cape, 2007
Don Herzog, Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders, Princeton, 1998
Richard Corson, Fashions in Hair, Peter Owen, 1980
© 2013 Lucy Worsley