Tresses Through Time

11th December 2015

As women the length and breadth of the country fight for a seasonal hair appointment, Kathy Walton investigates how the right style makes you feel you’ve made the cut…

Ask any woman about the key relationships in her life and chances are she will say, in order of importance: her cat, her best friend and her husband. Give her two more minutes and she will almost certainly add ‘oh, and my hairdresser’, except that she’ll probably put him or her in at the top of her list. What is it about our fascination with hair that means that most women would get up 15 minutes earlier than face the world with an unkempt coiffure?

For many of us, our hairdresser is both friend and confidante, with the power to make us feel a million dollars. Of course, if the subtle shade of auburn we hoped for turns out to be carrot-red or we emerge from under the dryer looking like a psychotic poodle, we may feel like calling for our stylist’s own head, but generally, the hairdressing salon is our oasis of calm. It gives us an opportunity to catch up on celebrity magazines and temporary relief from the tedium of everyday life. Even more decisively, according to the late French couturier Coco Chanel (famous for her iconic bob), “a woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life.”

A new colour, a wavier perm or an edgy asymmetric cut will – we believe – make us prettier, happier and more confident. If a new hair-do helps us make a favourable impression at a job interview, it might even make us richer. Certainly, research shows that during times of recession and job losses, the hairdressing industry booms as people rush to their nearest salon in the hope of re-inventing themselves.

Hair grooming has been around since we started searching one another’s heads for nits. Cut (pun intended) to the present day, when the estimated annual global spend at women’s salons is a hair-raising half a trillion dollars. With the number of stylists forecast to increase by 16% by 2020, hairdressing is one of the shiniest industries to be in. It is recession-proof, it offers its practitioners (almost) unlimited creative freedom and, perhaps best of all, it helps people feel better about themselves.

When Hollywood diva Joan Crawford declared that, next to talent, “the most important thing a woman can have is her hairdresser,” she wasn’t just referring to her appearance. There’s something about the intimacy of the relationship between hairdresser and customer that encourages the sharing of confidences, rather like the exchanges between psychiatrist and patient or between priest and parishioner.

Hardly surprising that early barbers doubled as doctors and holy men. In some ancient African tribes, where spirits were believed to pass through the hair and scalp into the body, the barber was also the shaman who could cure your illnesses, banish evil spells and even perform your wedding ceremony. Similarly, in medieval Europe, a barber was the go-to man for all sorts of cosmetic treatments for both sexes, including tooth removal and minor surgery. Hence the origins of the barber’s pole; if your arms were being bandaged after blood-letting, you needed to keep them still, so the barber would provide you with a long pole to hold on to. Soon, barber-surgeons advertised their trade by displaying the pole outside their shop, with red and white stripes respectively representing medical procedures and bandages.

The first recorded barber’s salon in Europe was in a Greek colony on Sicily in 296 BC. Soon barbers’ shops were sprouting all over ancient Greece and Rome and you could say the first metrosexual had arrived. Women had their hair done at home, while their menfolk patronised the local barber, when home on leave after all that conquering. Civilians were allowed to keep their beards, but soldiers were ordered to have them shaved or waxed and – ‘something for the weekend, sir?’ – they often treated themselves to a manicure or pedicure at the same time.

In ancient Rome, the more complex and outrageous a woman’s hair, the more of a catch she was deemed to be – presumably because the time required for ringlets and braids was a luxury available only to the idle rich with live-in hairdressers: the ancient world’s answer to the Kardashian sisters. If you think that the wacky styles favoured by the likes of Lady Gaga are a modern thing, think again. Just as the singer Dolly Parton has no idea how long it takes to do her hair (“I don’t know, I’m never there”) wealthy women in ancient civilisations got their maids to make extravagant hair pieces, often embellished with jewels, ribbons and flowers.

And because even then, blondes had more fun, many Greek and Roman women started experimenting with lighteners that sadly, often proved toxic. Not that such dangers bother the philosophical fair-haired Dolly today. “I’m not offended by all the dumb-blonde jokes,” she once said, “because I know I’m not dumb. I also know I’m not blonde.”

Whatever your natural colour, maintaining elegant hair is hard work. The most devoted famous of stylists was surely Marie Antoinette’s coiffeur, who, in time-honoured hairdressing tradition, was known only by his first name, Léonard. His creations defied nature, gravity and sometimes belief, incorporating fruit, vegetables and live birds into up-dos that often required a ladder to fix them. Once he even worked a scale model of a three-masted naval frigate into his most famous client’s hair. And in what must be the hairdressing profession’s proudest moment, the ever-loyal Léonard stayed with the doomed Queen until her untimely end. Even in prison, he fashioned what was left of her hair into a modest ‘enfant’ (child) style as she prepared to meet the guillotine. She was obviously worth it.

Fellow Frenchman and hairstylist to the stars Laurent Philippon recently claimed that “you could rewrite the history of human society with the story of hair.” In Hair: Fashion and Fantasy (published in 2013) he wrote of its power to “reflect our personality, attract attention or simply seize the mood of the moment.” Developments in hairstyles certainly do reflect the times and as such can be highly political. Diana, Princess of Wales, once contrived to reduce the State Opening of Parliament into a media circus by sporting a new hair-do. The first humiliation an invading power would subject female slaves to was the shaving of their hair; and in the 1940s, any French woman caught sleeping with a German soldier would have her hair publicly shorn as punishment for betraying her country. In both cases, the message was unequivocal: a woman with no hair is a woman with no identity.

In the 1700s and 1800s ‘big’ hair was seen as symbolic of a king’s power and as recently as the 1960s, hair was worn long and loose by both men and women as a sign of rebellion against the strait-laced 1950s. Yet no Prime Minister today would get away with even shoulder-length hair. And just as Jeremy Corbyn’s facial hair makes as many column inches as his political views, Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton once admitted : “If I want to knock a [rival’s] story off the front page, I just change my hairstyle.”

Time will tell whether Ms Clinton’s hair helps her get ahead. What is certain is that she won’t make it to the White House unless her hair looks good on voting day. She might also be advised to take seriously the views of her stylist. For, as the late American comedian George Burns, once said, “too bad the people who know how to run the country are busy driving taxi cabs and cutting hair.”  

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