Hair matters. Insignificant as it may seem, our crowning glory has played a major part in our understanding of cultural practices throughout history, and art has served to be the visual documentation of manes of every era. What can a mop of hair ever convey, you may wonder—a lot, actually!
Art history is replete with unimaginable hairstyles. Can you imagine walking around with horns sticking out of your head? Well, that was one of the styles from the mediaeval times, which can be seen in many paintings, the most famous being the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck. The hair was wrapped around the ears to resemble horns, with wires and paddings aiding its creation.
Hairdos that looked like uninhabited skyscrapers dumped on one’s scalp were all the rage, thanks to the last queen of France, Marie Antoinette, who made it popular. Called The Pouf, many versions appeared with some of them almost two feet high, making sleeping a difficult task and travelling by carriage almost impossible. Yet, many women used this to make political statements by stuffing their poufs with appropriate objects. During the Elizabethan times, women even plucked their hairlines to get high foreheads in a desire to look like Queen Elizabeth I—a painful process indeed!
And about hair colours, the Romans used bird droppings and wheat to bleach their hair blonde while red hair was given to women in art to denote a fallen woman. In fact, Mary Magdalene was always painted with red hair, even though it was unheard of in the region she hailed from.
So why would women go to all this trouble, inflicting pain on themselves and spending long hours creating these fancy styles? Perhaps it was a way of announcing their affluence in society—a declaration that one had the time and the maids to indulge in such luxuries. There surely has never been a peasant girl with the pouf in any painting!
And what about the men? Were they content with looking plain? Definitely not, if one were to
go by what art tells us. The wigs didn’t spare the male population. The powdered wig emerged in the mid-17th Century in an effort to hide the king’s premature balding and soon, no gentleman was seen without it. Hair powders for the wigs were taxed and people tried to make do with flour until there was a shortage of flour. Ultimately, it took the fifth Duke of Bedford to throw away his wig as a protest and what resulted was the Bedford Crop of natural hair parted on the side with hair wax. One could call it a historical Hair moment!
Though men sought liberation, they still dominated women by claiming their wife’s hair as their possession. The man reserved all rights to see his wife with her hair let loose. A painting of Queen Victoria called the secret portrait wasn’t shown to the public until recently only because her hair was unbound.
Hair really matters. History is proof. Wonder what future historians would make of the bird’s-nest-minus-eggs hair trends and the multi-hued tresses of today? Only time will tell.