How hair became a form of protest
A year ago, a torrent of photos and videos of women chopping their hair off was posted online to protest the death of Mahsa Amini. The 22-year-old died following alleged torture by Iran’s ‘morality police’ for incorrectly wearing her hijab, sparking worldwide protests and controversial debates over women’s right to bodily autonomy.
It is a decree for women’s hair to be covered by a hijab in Iran. For many, hair is a symbol of beauty. In the wake of Amini’s death, it became a powerful symbol of the Iranian women’s resistance movement, with women around the world filming themselves cutting off their locks in solidarity.
Across time and cultures, hair has always been a very important topic in the politics of beauty, power and activism. The exhibition Des Cheveux et des Poils (translated from French as “Hair & Hairs”), explored these topics through the evolution of hairstyles and grooming in Western countries. Featuring more than 600 objects and art works from the 15th century to today, the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris exposed the social conventions imposed on women throughout history.
The taming of hair – and women
In Ancient Roman and Greek cultures, hair was associated with animality and wilderness: it had to be constantly tamed to separate the beast from the woman (or man). As a result, it was seen as appropriate for a woman to spend time on her hair to create a flattering appearance. Numerous depictions of Roman women combing their hair in tomb reliefs show how much hairdressing was seen as part of the female domain.
During Medieval times, a veil was imposed on women in Europe as a symbol of their morality. Shaped by Christian values, virtuous, honourable women (especially married women) had to cover their hair to conform to norms established by followers of the Bible. Saint Paul stated that women must keep their hair long, and cover it to pray. Created for man, she must wear on her head a “mark of authority”- which followers interpreted as a veil. Women would, according to their social status, wear a simple veil, a bonnet or a canonical headdress with a veil attached to the top. By the end of the 15th century, they progressively replaced them with velvet hairpieces.
Over the following centuries hair was gradually uncovered, and hairstyles became more and more a function of fashion. Queen Elizabeth of England was a style-icon with her red hair and pin curls throughout the mid-1500s. Extravagant, high hairdos called poufs were made popular in the 18th century in France by Queen Marie-Antoinette. However, hair styling remained an intimate act until the end of the 19th century: portraits of women with their hair down were strictly reserved for private spaces.
Sexy, smart or feisty?
Although the use of artificial hair colour can be traced to Ancient times, it’s in the 20th century that it became predominant in the beauty industry.
In 1907, French chemist Eugène Schueller created the first synthetic hair dye, which he called “Auréole.” This marked the beginning of the modern hair dye industry, with Schueller eventually founding the company that would become L’Oréal. These early synthetic dyes were primarily permanent, but as the demand for hair colour grew, so too did the need for a variety of dye types and techniques.
Beauty companies started playing on the grey hair stigma, promoting the idea that ageing visibly was unwelcome. A L’Oréal ad from the 1920s depicts a sad-looking young woman sitting at a ball with no one inviting her to dance because her grey hairs make her look too old to have fun – what the ad calls the “cruel injustice of grey hair”.
Dyeing hair became a way for people to define themselves – and most importantly, how other people would perceive them as hair colours were associated with different stereotypes, and most still live on today.
The invention of hair dye introduced the ‘fake blonde’, with pop culture making blonde women glamorous and sexy. In 1925, Anita Loos popularised this idea in her novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Film stars like Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, and Brigitte Bardot helped establish these “blonde bombshell” stereotypes. The slogan of the successful 1961 advertising campaign for Clairol hair-dye was: “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a blonde!”
But if blondes have been stereotyped as more desirable, they have also been perceived as less intelligent than brunettes. In Western culture, women with brown hair are smart, sophisticated and sensible – according to the Allure magazine, 76 percent of American women think the first female president will have brown hair. In popular culture, dark-haired women are mysterious, rebellious and exotic. Esmeralda, the fictional character in Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, is always depicted with dark hair. Loos even wrote a sequel entitled But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes.
Women (and men) with red hair have been discriminated against for thousands years. First associated with witchcraft and the devil, redheads were seen as dangerous and violent. The stereotypes slowly changed to make them feisty and exciting, inspiring many artists, such as French painter Jean-Jacques Henner and illustrator Toulouse Lautrec. Fashion designer Sonia Rykiel made red her signature hair colour. And yet, redheads are still facing bullying and abuse, which has repeatedly come to the fore in the UK, USA and Canada.
Embracing hair as a form of protest
After World War I, a masculine “a la garçonne” hairstyle showed a desire for rebellion and independence, and became popular with stars like Brigitte Bardot, Edith Piaf and Josephine Baker. The bob haircut became a symbol of defiance against gender norms: women with bobbed hair were perceived as “trying to act as men” by going against feminine beauty standards. In 1920, The New York Times published an article about young women with disapproving parents who went so far as to get their doctors to diagnose them with falling hair and receive a “prescription” for the short haircut.
Hair got progressively longer over the next two decades, first notched and wavy hair in the 1930s, then shoulder-length and curly in the 1940s. In the 1950s, the arrival of setting sprays and styling irons enabled even more self-expression: while some women were inspired by Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe who flaunted a glamorous style, others preferred a more rebellious spin. Pixie-like, short haircuts were seen as subversive and became a symbol of women’s empowerment, popularised in the 1960s by Twiggy and Mia Farrow, while other women favoured bouffant “beehive” styles.
In the 1970s hippies started wearing their hair long while rejecting war, religion, morals and social rules. At the same time, the US saw the rise of the afro, which became a symbol of black identity and rebellion against white beauty standards. The activist Angela Davis popularised natural black hair as a tool to fight for racial equality. Today, Black women’s hair is still stereotyped and stigmatised. In 2022, Michelle Obama said that she decided to straighten her hair during Barack Obama’s presidency because Americans “weren’t ready” for her natural hair.
In the 1980s, some women had large hair-dos, puffed-up styles, permanent waves, and softer cuts, while punks spearheaded the anti-establishment aesthetic. The most popular among punk women was the Chelsea hawk – a spiked mohawk with a fringe.
Dishevelled, grunge hairstyles took off in the 1990s to show a disdain of conformity and fashion. Generation X rejected the idea of human value being defined by money and property, and reacted to the opulence of the 80s with messy, unstyled flowing locks on both men and women.
Since the beginning of the 2000s, cutting and shaving hair has become a tool for protest and advocacy. In 2014, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood shaved off her hair to draw awareness to climate change. A year later, actress Rose McGowan cut hers, explaining in her memoir Brave that she no longer wanted to look like a “fantasy f**k toy”. She declared in 2020 that she since feels more powerful, after years of being told that she should have longer hair to seem desirable and get more work as an actress.
For Ivory Coast’s artist Laetitia Ky, her hair is a platform for activism. She uses it to create sculptures that advocate for African identity, gender equality, and body positivity, as well as comment on human rights issues like American anti-abortion laws.
The history of hair is a fascinating testament to the resilience and creativity of women in their pursuit of social change. From the natural afro hairstyles that symbolise African pride and resistance to the long hair of the counterculture movement and today’s short styles used as a form of protest, hair has transcended its physicality to become a canvas for political expression and personal identity.
Featured image: photo taken at the Des Cheveux et Des Poils exhibition, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Photo: EPA/Sedat Suna