As long as the Danube… - hairstyle-historical curiosities

The human head of hair is an inevitable part of cultural history. During history, men usually formed their hair and facial hair according to fashion, followed the actual ruler – and sometimes wore a certain hairstyle because of revolt or constraint. In case of women, mainly in folk cultures, hairstyles always meant something: age, marital status – besides the fashion and revolt. Wearing and presenting hair are immortal symbols of life-force, health, and it also signifies power and is a tool of self-expression.

Bierbauer Margit (1944) - Városi Képtár-Deák Gyűjtemény, CC BY-NC-ND

As of the ancient times, hair has always had an important role. It is proven by the fact that the hairstyle of the Egyptian ruler Cleopatra is still popular and remained in public knowledge for more than two thousand years. Combs, headbands, razors were also used then and hair-dying was fashionable. Mainly vegetable infusions, red, blue or black pigments including saffron, henna, tan-ball or indigo were applied as colouring materials. There were also some toxicants among cosmetics, like lead sulphide. Interestingly, the wavy – ancient Sumerian style – hair-do conquered fashion in the 1920s and the so-called marcel-waves were similar to that.

Usually the imperators dictated fashion. Alexander the Great is a salient example for that. He spread the tradition of short hair and shaven face among his male subjects, so that the enemy could not cling to the fluttering fur during battles – according to myths. Louis XIV of France was also the fashion dictator of his period; for example in wearing wigs – he could replace his fine youthful head of hair with them. The natural process of balding affects the majority of men, and most of them suffer from losing their hair, which is due to an inherited hormonal effect. They often associate it with losing youth, thus they try covering up reality with different practices, like combing hair to the front. Julius Caesar was a famous representative of this hairstyle.

Fonott kontyos lány (1870 körül) - Városi Képtár-Deák Gyűjtemény, CC BY-NC-ND

Female balding means a bigger problem: it may be the sign of illnesses. Cutting it short was a tool of humiliation, but as of the 19th and 20th centuries, it became a sign of women’s self-dependence – a good example was Júlia Szendrey. Sometimes people reduced the surface of the hair purposely: the broad forehead was fashionable during the Renaissance, so women shaved or tore out the hair above their foreheads. In contrast with them, the women of the ancient Greece covered their foreheads by lifting their buns and sliding them forward, which was called ‘Lampadios bun’. In modern age, people thought that thick hair was beautiful, thus they often lifted their hair, piled it up and enriched it with hairpieces. The latter was typical in the rococo style and was elevated onto artistic levels, with its fashion icon Marie Antoinette. Nowadays, it is an interesting phenomenon when women have their hair cut short as an effect of a lifestyle change, consciously or unconsciously – leaving the old behind and renewing symbolically.

The healthy hair makes its owner attractive. In the western culture of the 21st century, men find long-haired women more beautiful – and they prefer blondes. This stereotype is based on some reality, but the fact is that the fashion of hair colours is different in time and space. The brown hair colour is the most common in Europe, the USA, Australia and New Guinea. The first humans had black hair and though it might seem strange for Europeans, black is still the most frequent hair colour in the world. 70 percent of the world population have black hair – black means very dark brown colour among Europid people. Blond is the rarest: only 2 percent of the world population. It occurs mostly within the Northern and Eastern European population. Rumours say that the last person with natural blond hair will be born in Finland in two hundred years. Red hair is also rare, similarly to the blond, but it is common within the Scottish population: 13 percent of them have red hair.

Gyöngyös konty - Balatoni Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

In the Hungarian rural culture, hairstyles had as important symbolic roles as costumes. On one hand, it was the tool or hex and love magic. People thought that as the hair was part of a person, the actions they did with one’s hair would influence its owner. On the other hand, the hairstyle of girls and women indicated their age, their family status and even was the sign of leaving the traditional costumes and hairstyle of the region. Girls had to go without hats or caps, with one or two ropes of hair tied by a ribbon. Only girls were allowed to wear the so-called ‘párta’ (corolla). A bride used to decorate her hair with a wreath on her wedding day: in the old times it was made from real flowers, and later from artificial wax flowers. When the wedding lasted for several days, the new wife had a bun after her wedding-night. At shorter weddings, the new wife’s hair was put in a bun after midnight. A woman wore the bun barrette that she had received from her bride-groom at the nuptials in her whole life and she was also buried with it. Married women wore bonnets after their weddings.

There was a turning-point in the universal history of hairstyles during the 1930s. Due to the spreading of films, film stars – mainly Hollywood divas – became idols: Marlene Dietrich in the ‘30s, Ava Gardner in the ‘40s, Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn in the ‘50s. Trends started speeding up and a different head of hair became fashionable in every decade. The favourite of the 1960s, the bob haircut created by Vidal Sassoon is still commonly known as the Sassoon style. Its revolutionism arose from its simplicity: it was practical and short, so it did not require any procedure to form. It was the hair-do of working women. The most famous ideals with bobs were Twiggy and Mia Farrow.

Kun Edit, Zala szépe (1993) - Balatoni Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

The 1970s brought back again the fashion of long hair, like the Charlie’s angels style. At the same time, long hair was one of the most important common features of the beatniks, the members of the hippie movement that grew to worldwide scale that time. They expressed their separation and revolt with it. That might have been the last movement when the hairstyle meant a social cohesive force. Later, the punk crista and dreadlocks were often worn both for self-expression and for fashion: for indicating a sub-culture where the person belonged to or just for causing sensation. In the 1980s, curls conquered the hair fashion. The thirty-something generation may have faint memories of their mothers’ permed hair-do. The so-called Bundesliga style can also be an unforgettable memory about our fathers. This was the time when men started copying the hair-creations of football players. After the eclecticism of the ‘90s – side-tails, crimped locks, plaits, Rachel style, neon hairbands and buckles – nowadays, we have arrived at the time of liberty of individual taste, when the possibilities of forms and colours are limitless.


Translated by Zita Aknai

Source: KönyvTÁRlat, ethnographer Zsuzsanna Tátrai’s lecture in the National Széchényi Library, with the title ‘Our hair, neck and its windings’.


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