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29 march 2019

Years ago, I used to write essays for magazines about the most banal things I could think of: laundromats, diner breakfasts, supermarket shopping, bottled water. At one point I took a big folder of notes for an essay on hair. No particular thesis, you understand: just hair, in as many aspects as I could imagine. What's more banal, to a mammal? We are, as Thornton Wilder called us, "viviparous, hairy and diaphragmatic." You can't escape hair; it's the human condition.

And so, Susan Vincent's Hair is in some ways a book I wish I would have written – not that I could come near matching her blend of historical expertise and engaging prose, or that I could have assembled such compelling illustrations. Given the given-ness of hair, much of Vincent's text is about whether or not to remove it. Opinions on that question have varied by culture and historical period.

Though she ranges across history, Vincent's focus is really on one culture, England. Much as Michelle Perrot's Bedroom turned out to be about French (even specifically Parisian) bedrooms, Vincent's book turns out to concern English heads (and bodies) of hair, many of them sported in London. We get a pretty thorough survey of changing attitudes toward hair from early-modern to present-day England.

The making of the modern United Kingdom was signalled by cultural battle-lines drawn in terms of hair. The famous contention between Cavalier and Roundhead in the English 17th century was about a great many things, but they seemed to condense in the opponents' starkly different approach to hair. Though like many symbolic distinctions, the one between longhaired royalist and crewcut Parliamentarian was often purely verbal. Vincent quotes a partisan song from the late 18th century that crystallizes the received vision of 17th-century English revolutionaries:

Your Hampdens, your Miltons, your Sydneys were crops (184)
i.e. wore their hair cut short. But wait, I thought, John Milton was your basic longhair. So too were Hampden and Sydney, Vincent adds. Many "Roundheads" wore late-Beatles-length hair, because they were from the Cavalier social class and they didn't fancy looking like skinheads. But the "Roundhead" moniker was too good to pass up, either as a term of abuse or as an appropriated symbol of revolutionary pride.

Cavaliers and Roundheads alike may have gone in for shoulder-length hair, moustaches, and beards, but by the later 17th century and into the 18th, men were clean-shaven, and both sexes (among the middle and upper classes, anyway) tended to crop their heads and wear wigs – wigs frequently fashioned from the shorn hair of the lower orders, a major Augustan commodity. Vincent is very good on the fashions that ensued: the "Beard Movement" of the Victorian era, the moustaches of the First World War, a lingering "bohemian" taste for beards into the mid-20th century, and then the aforementioned Beatles-inspired craze for longer (and facial) hair c1970, which in turn has passed. The inertial trend of men's hair does seem to be towards the short.

As men's hair waxed and waned, so did women's. Gender coding has almost always stipulated that men's hair be a little shorter, but early 20th-century bobbed hairstyles for women put pressure on men to clip very close indeed. The Hair phenomenon involved both sexes. Women who wore their hair bobbed or at least amassed on top of their heads in compact 'dos suddenly also wanted hair "long as God can grow it."

Though Vincent only mentions Hair once, incidentally to bracket a quote from Keith Carradine, who was in the Broadway cast. She covers hippie innovations in detail without really citing the iconic musical, again largely because her focus is not on the United States. I lived through the Hair era, though, and could not help taking a personal hair inventory as I read along.

As a child, I was given crewcuts, often by my mother wielding clippers as I stood in the shower stall of our basement apartment. The style was short even by mid-1960s standards, and kids at school used to call me "Baldenado." By the end of highschool, I was much more in tune with the times, sporting shoulder-length mid-1970s hair, a moustache, and eventually a full beard which I wore for the next 40 years. My hair varied a lot over the years, though, from unruly to ponytail to brushed straight back and short as my hairline receded. I am not nearly bald at age 60, but I am back to crewcuts which, given the perfect whiteness of my remaining hair, make me look bald; and for the last few years I've also been clean-shaven. I grew a beard at 16 to look older and I shaved it off at 56 to look younger. Ah, vanity.

Still, since about the Ford Administration, I have felt completely empowered to keep my hair at whatever length or style I prefer. I have almost never encountered scorn of the kind that Vincent documents throughout Western history – so infrequently, in fact, that I can dismiss objectors as fairly lunatic. Perhaps we have reached a laissez-fair hair dispensation. At least for men: "any hair beneath a woman's eyelashes" (155) remains "problematic," notes Vincent. And more and more depilation seems to be incumbent on women all the time, even of hair that few people will ever see. If I were ever inclined to thank God for being born a man, I would cite the lack of pressure to shave, tweeze, or wax anywhere below the collar line of my shirt.

Vincent, Susan J. Hair: An illustrated history. London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2018.