Beneath the Barnet: The Cultural Significance of Hair

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hair At the weekend my friend shared some photographs she’d found of us from the late 90s.  Our jean waistbands were higher and our make-up shimmery, but it was the hair that provided the most laughter. Long before straighteners swept the market, styles, cuts and colours that we thought looked amazing now seem comic. There was a lot of volume going on.

Hair, like other aspects of personal appearance is subject to changing fashions. Trends come and go, covering heads up and down the land before receding again (pun very much intended!). Thirty years ago, even twenty, curly perms were popular; now they’re a comedy staple along with their contemporaneous shell suits. Top hairstylists are a crucial component of this system, as the recent ‘Hair By Sam McKnight’ exhibition at Somerset House showed. The first exhibition of its kind, this wide-ranging tour of the acclaimed stylist’s career highlighted the creativity and ingenuity behind high fashion hair-dos.

Yet though we change our hair, the shifts are much slower, steadier. There’s no equivalent of ‘fast fashion’. This is partly because of natural factors, such as rate of hair growth and the risks involved in dramatic colour change. No-one  wants to fork out for an expensive rescue job!

But probably the most important factor that slows hairstyle trends is the association between hair and personal identity. Whereas we can try clothes on, discard them, dress up and down; our hair is part of our bodies. It can feel as integral to our sense of self as our eye colour or height.  Although hair, unlike other physical attributes, can be easily modified,  we’re still attached to specific styles, thinking of our peroxide blonde beehive or long flowing ponytail as a fundamental part of who we are.

Equally we associate others with their hair. Just try to imagine Anna Wintour with anything other than that bob, or Boris Johnson with a mousey side-parting. What about Samson or Rapunzel?  Before photography was able to capture our accurate likeness for posterity, people used hair as a memento of the important people in their life, for instance treasuring the first ringlet from a baby’s head or wearing a mourning necklace containing a curl from a deceased relative.

If hair can be a signifier of personal identity, it can also function as a statement of group identity or belonging, as every youth culture seems to prove. The Teddy Boys who prompted a moral panic in the 1950s may have long abandoned their dapper suits, but sometimes in the streets of Britain, you can spot the odd older gent still rocking his slicked back locks. Likewise the occasional skinhead.

On a broader scale, choosing to cover or wear your hair in a particular manner can demonstrate religious affiliation, with the head scarf and turban intrinsically linked to Islam and Sikhism respectively. In the 1960s, the radical political potential of hair became apparent too. Many African Americans began to eschew widely adopted styling practices that controlled their hair in favour of more natural styles such as the Afro – and in doing so signalled their support of the Black Power and Civil Rights Movements.

As all these examples indicate, hair is enormously symbolic. It is also part of a complex and paradoxical web of meanings – and that’s without even considering the even more complicated terrain of body hair. On the salon floor shorn hair may be a waste product, whereas in some parts of the world it represents a sacred offering. There are the economic aspects too. For hairdressers, hair is their livelihood; equally so for those involved in the creation, trade and styling of wigs and hairpieces, as Emma Tarlo discusses in her fascinating new book Entanglement: The Secret Life of Hair, which explores “the intimate and international life of human hair”.

The loss or removal of hair is just as powerful as its presence. For many women undergoing chemotherapy, losing their hair affects their self-esteem and self-identity. Newsreader and breast cancer patient Rachel Bland has recently spoken out about pioneering the use of a cold cap during treatment, believed to help significantly reduce this side effect.  As she stated in a recent interview for her employer, BBC 5 Live, the impact of hair loss is direct and clearly visible in a way that other aspects of the disease and treatment, including the prospect of death, are not.

Hair removal has also been used as a deliberate tool to undermine individual identity and enforce uniformity. US army recruits routinely get a crew cut as part of the sublimation of individuality during initial training. During the Holocaust, the heads and bodies of all concentration camp inmates were shaved in order to dehumanise individuals. After the Second World War and other conflicts, women believed to have colluded with the enemy often had their heads shaved too. This last example indicates that hair removal is particularly seen as a punishment for women, reflecting the gendered associations of hair. Short is typically ascribed to men, long for women. Inversions of this convention have sparked fear and outrage, from the Flappers with their bobs and crops of the 20s to The Beatles with their mop-tops in the 60s!

Although this gender binary is no longer as strong as it once was, it continues to linger.  When I looked back at the 90s photographs that my friend had unearthed, I remembered how much my decision to get a buzz cut at that time was motivated by my desire to show the world I was a radical feminist. Even today, when the Duchess of Cambridge’s long, lightly-tonged locks seems to epitomise the respectable femininity of middle England, my short hair sometimes feels like a political statement. A refusal of a certain status in favour of another.

I have flirted occasionally with longer hair over the years but I always end up returning to a crop. It isn’t just about a social identity. I feel lost without it. Different, somehow. Not myself. And it just isn’t me. Even my mum didn’t recognise me in a recent photo where one side was long enough to be tucked behind my ear. I guess, in a way, when we’re ready to radically change our hair, we’re looking to change ourselves.

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