This article was first published in the April 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
Dirty is good
The 12th-century monk who wrote the book called An Apology for Beards argues that the “marvellous mystery” of matted, greasy hair indicates “interior cleanness” and “divine virtue”. The flagellant strain in Christianity found virtue in suffering, and thought it praiseworthy to have a horrible itchy head.
Who do you think you are?
Medieval knights were constantly criticised for their frequently changing hairstyles (just like their modern equivalents in football’s Premiership). Part of their problem, argues medieval dress historian Margaret Scott, was the concept of the ‘great chain of being’ governing everyone’s place in society. It descended from God to his angels, to the king, then notable people – like dukes and yeomen – right down to peasants.
No one was supposed to step out of place, so changes of hairstyle could be dangerously confusing. If young knights grew theirs too long, they were lambasted for looking like women. If they cut it short, that was bad too, because they could be mistaken for tonsured monks.
A hairy diplomatic incident
Kings and queens had particularly ‘political’ hair. You can even trace the ebb and flow of England’s relationship with France in the hairstyles of Henry VIII and his court. In his youth, he had a long pageboy. But later Henry formed an alliance with France, and when the French king, Francis I, injured his head, Henry shaved his own. At the highest point of their friendship, Henry and Francis pledged to refrain from shaving until they met again.
Henry’s wife Catherine of Aragon, though, would have preferred an alliance with Spain instead. She complained about her husband’s tickly face, and persuaded him to de-whisker. Only Francis’s mother was able to avert a looming diplomatic incident as Henry’s planned meeting with Francis I drew near. She cleverly declared that it didn’t matter because the love the two kings bore each other was “in the hearts, not the beards”.
Like the medieval hairy hermits, the strict 17th-century Puritan William Prynne thought that personal grooming was dangerously close to sinful vanity. He denounced the 1630s fashion for long, curling hair as “unlawful, effeminate, vainglorious, evil, odious, immodest, indecent, lascivious, wanton, dissolute, whorish, ungodly, horrid, strange, outlandish, impudent, pernicious, offensive, ridiculous, foolish, childish and unchristian”.
…And the Roundhead crop
Radical politics have frequently been accompanied by short hair, from the parliamentarians of the 17th century, to the skinheads to be found on both extremes of left and right in the 1970s. The contrasting hairstyles of the Roundheads and the Cavaliers are parodied in the satirical caricature, shown above, from around 1640. An allegory for the impending Civil War, it shows a dogfight in which even the canine participants have the same hairstyles as their masters.
The rise of the wig
Charles II returned from his exile in France in 1660 with a fondness for false hair. His subjects aped their master: the most popular wigs had long black curls mirroring the king’s own natural hair.
Samuel Pepys toyed with the idea of shaving his head and becoming a wig-wearer for some time before eventually succumbing on the grounds that he hated washing his hair. But wig-wearing would soon become the essential sign of a gentleman. Wigs were among the numerous new consumer products intended to improve upon nature and to allow those with money to express their taste.
Big hair reaches its zenith
When the Georgian James Boswell accidentally lost his wig, he rushed 25 miles to replace it rather than face the ridicule of being seen bareheaded. He and his contemporaries could choose from an ever-expanding range of bigger and bigger wigs, with names like the Comet, Cauliflower, Royal Bird, Staircase, She-Dragon, Rose, Snail Back and Spinnage Seed.
Even if you wore your natural hair, “those who had to preserve a genteel appearance spent an hour each day under the hands of the hair-dresser”, wrote Charles Knight of the 19th century, at the tail end of the age of big hair. The look was a dramatic indication that one was in the privileged position of having no business more pressing than preening.
Smooth, simple and safe
The decline of the wig went hand-in-hand with the decline of absolutism. Along with shoes in which it is impossible to walk and dresses in which it is impossible to sit, hair requiring hours of preparation is reserved for the aristocrat of limitless wealth. After many such people lost their lives at the Guillotine in the French revolution, those who survived lost their nerve.
Don Herzog, a historian of Georgian dissent, notes that the people in charge of France after 1789 left off “their curls, toupees, and queues” to “go about with cropped locks like English farmers without any powder”. Many unemployed French hairdressers came seeking work in a nervous and jumpy Britain. Here, their whispering of possible revolutionary sedition into their clients’ ears worried any conservative commentators. “It is dangerous to put one’s throat in the mercy of a man armed with a razor,” wrote one journalist. In these perilous times, he advised, it was best at the barber’s to “never talk about politics”.
As a result, hairdressers came in for much criticism, and smooth, simple hair became the norm. In 1795 a frightened government sounded the death knell for big, puffed-up, white-powdered hair by introducing a tax on powder.
The bob liberates women
Once again, in the 1920s, a desire for liberation was accompanied by a desire for short hair. But now it was the turn of the nation’s women, who’d done men’s work during the war and who wished to be rewarded for it with the vote. There were also class and generational differences at play. Nancy Astor found it hard to accept the new hair despite being the first female MP to take her seat. She initially refused a maid permission to sport a bob. “If you adopt this intransigent attitude,” her butler warned her, “you will shortly be lucky to get housemaids with any hair at all.”
End of Eden
The expansion and contraction of Britain’s first empire (which ended with the American revolution) was accompanied by the rise and fall of the wig, and the expansion and contraction of her second was accompanied by the golden age of the moustache. Did the Victorian civil servant sent to govern a remote part of Africa sprout facial hair to disguise any wobbles of his upper lip?
The historian Piers Brendon notes that the decline of the empire was accompanied by the decline of the moustache, and identifies the nadir for both. Anthony Eden in the midst of the Suez crisis of 1956 had to have his rather meagre moustache touched up so that it would be more visible in what turned out to be a rather unpersuasive TV broadcast. In the ultimate act of emasculation, his facial hair was painted in with his wife’s mascara.
Lucy Worsley is chief curator of the Historic Royal Palaces. Her books include Cavalier: A Tale of Chivalry, Passion and Great Houses (Faber and Faber, 2008).