The Root of the Lecture
In the lecture “The Roots of Modern Hair: Signs, Symbols, and Discourse” given by Dene and Andrew, we discussed what hair is, how we culturally connect values and ideals to the presentation of hair, and how hair can be a defining feature of cultural and social life.
Hair is both a symbol of status and a part of our outfits; it is both natural and abnormal, coveted and discarded. In fact, apart from all of this, hair, and the body itself, is entirely linguistic. This means that its name and essence is decided purely by what we define.
This definition changes through every time and every culture; for example, in Africa, hair was an important part of tribal rankings, while in Europe, elaborate wigs and updos signified wealth and modesty in women.
All of this is an extension of applied semiotics, which examines the complex relationship of denotation, connotation, and semiotic principles in society and culture.
To Hairdo or to Hairdon’t?
One of the most fascinating aspects of this lecture for me was the relationship between gender roles, class roles, and hair.
Now to start with class roles. Hair has always been a defining factor in society. I mean, think about it. If you saw someone with ragged or dirty hair, that person would automatically seem of a lesser social standing than someone whose hair was exquisitely designed and maintained.
The same is true of the medieval times and even of ancient civilizations worldwide: those with ragged hair were almost always peasants or lower ranked individuals, and those with styled hair were always nobility or middle class. The wealthy, of course, could afford to maintain their hair and bodies.
This bleeds into the symbolism of a barber shop as the intersection between the class standing and the gender division. Firstly, an important point to note is that barber shops used to also provide surgical services. This is quite striking, especially given our modern context of the term, but it just goes to show how hair and bodily welfare fit together in a strange and misshapen jigsaw.
Now onto class and gender. Especially in the 1800s, male beards were considered a great symbol of patriarchy and strength, and many of these beards were upkept constantly, even designed. Just take a look at this one from Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph.
Crazy, isn’t it? Beards like this would have taken a significant amount of upkeep, and were almost certainly performed by private barbers. The casual neighbourhood barbershop, however, was a great social space for men to gossip and meet, as it was both a place to socialise with individuals, like oneself, who could afford the shop, but also a space off-limits to women.
Now this is where the gender comes in. Women have historically been categorised and even held hostage by the state of their hair.
Especially in the European medieval ages up to the 18/1900s, tied-up hair was a symbol of marriage, modesty, and proper commitment, while loose hair was typical of virgin maidens and prostitutes. In that way, hair could assign a symbolism and a connotation to a woman, and subject her to extreme scrutiny.
This is also extremely evident in Georgian era wigs, both in the UK and France. These extreme wigs were most often pale white, which, along with white face paint and concealing clothing, made up the highest standard of class and nobility at the time.
As standards of attractiveness change, so do women’s looks and, very notably, their hairstyles. This video showing the change in female looks from Korea and the Middle East over 100 years very clearly show this difference.
Women conform to cultural and societal standards; just as bound hair signified modesty and marriage in older eras, now head coverings, hats, traditional garb, and modern, Americanised looks were considered proper and beautiful. Essentially, the tie between all of these is the danger of being different. In some cases, a different hairstyle may just mean a few dirty or strange looks, but in others, it could mean being beaten or prosecuted, as in countries where women are required by law to wear garments covering their hair.
In modern times, many are blurring the line between these gender roles. Most strikingly, Conchita Wurst, a drag queen contestant who sang for Austria in the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest.
Conchita chose to keep the symbol of masculinity, the beard, while adopting the very feminine long, styled hair. With this, she chooses to create a persona which shocks the previously discussed norms. However, not only performers choose to take this route.
A very dear friend of mine himself chose to defy all cultural norms and just to let his hair grow. It’s now longer than mine, and it works for him. He is not a performer in the traditional sense, but the show is still on; hair itself is a performance, and the look does not go without comments. However, he is not the only one; from the mid-1900s to the modern day, longer hair in men has been desirable and even “cool”, as in the famous Beatles cut or the surfer dude look. This would have been downright unthinkable in an era where long hair in men was considered blasphemous because of connotations of excessive styling and vanity.
So hair, in and of itself, changes. It is a fluid substance, cut and left to grow in different areas, and shaped to have meaning within society.