From the dawn of humankind, hair has been central to the human experience. The lack of it—among other things—is what separated us from the animals and led us to hunting in packs, domestication, agriculture, fire, everything which enabled us to live, thrive, and survive to become the dominant creature on Earth. Throughout history and lore, both ancient and modern, hair plays a vital role in the ascent of wo/man/kind.
Hair is as important now as it ever was in our daily lives, influencing the people we meet, the opportunities we get, the wealth we can accumulate. And to better understand the role of our hair in our modern lives, we must take a look through history and lore to get a better overall idea of how crucial hair has always been to the human culture and everybody in it.
Hebrew women’s hair, long and luxurious, was considered the source of their beauty. Those women took great care of their hair, decorating it, curling it, and even strewing gold dust on it for highlights. Often their hair was kept veiled in public. It was a great shame to cut a woman’s hair, unless it was for reason of deep mourning.
In contrast, Ancient Egypt favored short hairstyles, often cut at the shoulder or even clean-shaven. Young men wore only the fabled “sidelock of youth” until manhood, when they could grow their hair out to whatever length they desired. But the heat of the desert conditions made shorter hair more practical and comfortable.
In another ancient empire, Greece, women wore their wavy hair much longer due to the more temperate climate. But they generally kept it piled in a bun, or chignon, mere ringlets dangling over the sides of their faces. This is the famous Grecian updo that is still popular with women today. Headbands and ornaments were favored by the Greeks for purely social reasons, as a display of wealth or luxury.
It isn’t surprising that Rome would have a different take from Greece on the issue of hair. The Ancient Roman women generally wore their hair down rather than up, and preferred simple headbands or buns to the Greek’s use of flowers or even metal ornaments. The Roman emperor Augustus Caesar brought more complex hairstyles into fashion, and hair became a Roman status symbol and item of sexual allure as it is today. Men’s style shifted from long hair and beards to the short hair and clean-shaven look we often think of as the Caesar cut for that very reason.
The Romans believed that hair was indicative of good breeding, genetics, even intelligence, in what they called studio capillum, Latin for the study of hair. Today the science continues as capiology.
Moving to more modern times, the roaring ‘20s brought a backlash to the strict Victorian fashions, with the flapper’s popular bobbed haircut and a return to mascara and blush which had been relegated to the theatrical communities. As entertainers evolved from shunned banes of society to celebrated media stars, fashion stepped into the forefront of American culture and has really never stepped aside. The short hair was also indicative of the suffragette and temperance movements which put women’s equality into the forefront of social interaction.
In the 1940s starlets continued to set the trends, with Bette Davis’ curls, Betty Grable’s ringlets and topknot, Veronica Lake’s one-eyed stare from behind a cascading lock of blonde hair. In fact, from the rise of the silver screen onward, media starlets would set the hair trends, from Mia Farrow’s pixie cut to Farrah Fawcett’s feathered disco hairdo, women looked to the big screen and the little for cues to their next hot look.
In the 1950s, conservative styles came back and women’s hair was often kept up, under pill box hats or veils. Girls often wore ponytails.
Overt sexuality in hairstyle wouldn’t come back until the 1960s. The Beatles created a sensation with their mop-top hairstyles, considered outrageously long at the time and adopted by men and women alike. Later in popular hair fashion. Men wore their hair long for the first time in decades, and their wild facial hair caused a stir among their conservative elders.
The 1970s continued the trend, with spaghetti straight hair popular for women earlier in the decade but soon giving way to blow-dried feathered hair and coloring rising to the fore. The 1980s only pushed the hair trends further, with traditional blonde and black coloring replaced with neon blues and pinks and greens, cuts evolving from naturalistic to deliberately outrageous and striking, favoring asymmetrical designs, sharp angles, shaved sides and heaving wedges of hair jutting out over the face. Men and women of the time both favored these styles, culminating in perhaps the most androgynous era of hair fashion.
The 1990s lacked in any significant style at all, hair or otherwise, reacting to the cosmetic 1980s with a lean toward scruffy flannel shirts and unkept, often uncut hair.
For African/American women, hair has a special cultural significance. The once-popular afro became a cultural stigma for women of that community, and the struggle to achieve the so-called good hair began. The industry has popularized straighteners, bleaches, all manner of toxic treatments, implants, extensions, and more, and generates hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Comedian and producer Charles Rock narrated his own documentary on the subject, Good Hair, widely available on Netflix at the time of its release. Even Beyonce, popular with just about everybody, sang about Becky With the Good Hair.
In the last twenty years we’ve seen the rise and fall of the so-called Rachel haircut—a choppy shag—the return of the Caesar for men (called the Clooney in modern lingo) and a variety of hipster throwbacks to ancient times in the form of the aforementioned man-bun and beards both sculpted and shaggy. For women it’s been an open field, at least from the neck up. Many millennials have adopted the Cher Hair look, wearing it straight down or piling it on top of the head in a “messy bun.” Otherwise, hair styles have more or less disappeared from popularity.
But that’s just the facts! Let’s take a look at the fiction.
Hair has always held a mythic, almost magical place in fiction, lore, and alternative (or Biblical) history.
In the Old Testament, Israelite Samson gives his heart to a Philistine woman, Delilah, who discovers that the key to his amazing strength is in his long hair. Once cut, he becomes powerless and humiliated until his suicidal redemption. Even today, men with long hair are sometimes said to suffer from a Samson complex (the compulsion to reenact betrayal and rage, even unto suicide).
In fairy lore, the imprisoned beauty Rapunzel herself holds the key to her own rescue, her flowing locks of hair, which provide a ladder for her lovelorn knight errant. The story was retold to popular acclaim by the Disney company in 2010 as Tangled, as well as a sequel and cable series spinoff, proving that the mythology of the power of hair lives and thrives in the modern era as it did in ancient times.
Hair has been central to seminal cultural masterpieces like the stage musical Hair, the sexual satire Shampoo, and the popular Barber Shop films.
But the story of hair transcends history and fiction and enters the realm of the incredible. It’s easy to believe that hair might indicate wealth or power in certain cultures, but remember that among the five basic elements of business, the most mercurial is mystery. And hair is as embroiled in mystery as any other facet of the human experience.
During the Vietnam war, for example, Native Americans were enlisted due to their innate tracking skills. But once a military buzz-cut removed their lifelong locks, their tracking senses mysteriously escaped them in virtually every instance. Scientists deduced that hair can act like a kind of antennae, and that makes some sense when you think about the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end, a reaction to some stimulus, just the way an antennae might react.
But hair can act as a transmitter as well as a receiver. Kirlian photography has revealed a definitive energy field around living hair, and much less so around the same hair after it is cut. It proves that hair generates energy as well as merely being sensitive to it.
And we all know how hair can retain and transmit static electricity.
In short, one has to wonder if there’s any facet of the human experience, be it history or religion, fact or fiction, science or superstition, where hair doesn’t play at least some vital part. What is certain is that hair will go on being a central part of our culture, our fashion, our sense of identity, our notion of who we are and what place we hold in the natural world and in the civilized world we created and in which we struggle to live, thrive, and survive.