The new woman, who debuted after the Great War had a prewar predecessor. Irene Castle (1893-1969) and American ballroom dancer who performed with her husband Vernon, found that long hair was hot and heavy and incompatible to the athleticism of dancing. In 1915, she cut her hair short and her gesture of practicality and comfort became famous. Her haircut, called the Castle bob, caused a cultural earthquake. In addition to the short hair, Castle wore a “Castle Band” to hold her hair in place. This band was also called the “headache” band was was upgraded to a crown like evening attire in the 1920s. To become a New Woman, the first step was to sacrifice her crowning glory–a woman’s hair had to be shorn. Even after the War, cutting one’s hair, if one were female, was a very significant step towards self-actualization, and the women who took this route to emancipation were making a statement that went beyond style. She was breaking with the past and saying to the entire world, “I am modern.” Faced with social disapproval, these new women were also participating in an early form of the “personal is political,” by disregarding social norms as to what women should and should not do, according to the arcane rules of the day. After the war, women simply cut off their crowning glory, shocking those who assumed that gender depended upon short hair for men and long hair for women. New products and new businesses sprang up to serve her heeds, needs that had not existed before, dedicated to constructing a new person who had a new way of living. 

Before the Great War, the hair of women may have been trimmed when it reached an inconvenient length and then the mass of the remaining hair was arranged on the top of the head. In their book on vintage hairstyles, Emma Sundh and Sarah Wing described the pre-war hairstyles. “In the 1910s, women wore their long hair in a bun or a chignon. Wearing your hair down was simply not done, unless you were a child. In true Edwardian spirit, he hair would be elegantly rolled up with lots of volume..Once the updo was set,tiny wisps of hair were curled to showcase class and style.The pompous hairstyles staying in place with U-shaped bobby pins and a tried-and-true technique–working with unwashed hair..Women then crowned their voluminous hairstyles with hats. The general rule was that the bigger, more lavish, and more extraordinary the hat, the higher the women’s status. The brims were enormous and decorated with extravagant creations, featuring feathers, plumes, and silk flowers.” 

In their two volume book, Battleground: Women, Gender, and Sexuality, Stephanie Brzuzy and Amy Lind wrote on the historical connection between women and long hair. “Beginning in sixteenth century England, the view has been held that hair was given from God for women to cover themselves as a symbol of subjection and to be distinct from men. When Queen Elizabeth cut her hair and publicly announced her marriage to God, effectively calling off any possibility of marrying a man this symbol went down in history as a sign of her strength and authority as the Queen of England..At given historical times, when women have chosen to cut the hair, it has been seen as a sign of rebellion; the bob haircut of the Roaring Twenties, for example, was a sign of women’s emancipation.”    

After the Great War, the new woman wanted her hair to be “bobbed,” cut short like a little boy. Because there were no beauty salons, women, seeking a simple hair-cut, flocked to men’s barber shops, upsetting men who saw their sacred territory invaded. Obviously, the women who wanted their hair “bobbed,” had to be served, and an entire styling world sprang up around these adventurous women. For the first time, a variety of hair styles, from the classic bob to the extreme Eton to the sharp-edged shingle cut to the marcel style waves, were invented to suit the newly developed desires of women to experiment with a style that suited the individual’s face. After centuries of equating the length of the hair with the extent of a woman’s femininity, the sudden arrival of the “bob” came as a distinct shock.In Rapunzel’s Daughters: What Women’s Hair Tells Us about Women’s Lives, Rose Weitz wrote, “The bob and the shingle were roundly attacked by many who considered them evidence of female vanity, ‘loose’ morals, or dangerous feminist ideas. Newspaper articles from the time describe employers who refused to hire women with bobbed hair on the grounds that such women were ‘not thinking about business, but only about having a good time.’ Other articles tell of men who beat or abandoned their wives or fiancées for having their hair bobbed. These hairstyles—and public dismay over them—quickly spread around the world. In Japan, a speaker at a national hairdressers’ convention declared, ‘All bobbers are not dissolute women, but all dissolute women are bobbers…’ 

Weitz pointed out that, despite men’s fears, women who were feminists were more likely to be involved in political activities than with the style of their hair. Women were bobbing their hair to be  modern, to be in style. As she wrote, “The spread of bobbed hair was much more closely connected to the rising importance of mass media. Although the first films appeared in the late nineteenth century, they only emerged as a mass medium—in fact, the first truly mass medium—around 1914. From this point on, films would be produced for and distributed to all social classes and all regions of the country, as well as to Western Europe. And from this point on, certain actors and actresses would be promoted as stars and their fashion choices emulated by millions. One of those fashions was bobbed hair..By the 1920s, polls found that girls were going to the movies almost weekly..young people more often named movie stars as their role models than named contemporary political, business, or artistic leaders. Fan magazines ran stories in each issue on clothing, lifestyles, and hairstyles of movie actresses..The movies of the 1920s implicitly taught their female viewers to adopt a flapper style and attitude to get or keep a man. In movie after movies, women shortened their skirts, bobbed their hair, and learned to exploit their sex appeal either to catch a husband or to retrieve one who had been tempted away by a flapper.” 

 It is at this time, that women began to be bombarded with a plethora of hair products. In contrast to long hair, it was easy to wash short hair and short hair needed to be washed often. Permanent waves and Marcel waves  became popular and were impervious to washing thanks to a German hairdresser named, Karl Ludwig Nessler who lived in London. “Charles” Nessler used heated medal rods on chemically treated hair as early as 1906. HIs first attempts to curl hair were conducted on his wife and resulted in burning her hair ands scalp but he persisted. In 1909, Nessler received a patent but during the Great War, Britain jailed him because he was German. He fled to New York, not yet at war, in 1915 and resumed his practice. His permanent waves wre successful with his American clients and Nessler became “nestle,” in the late 1920s, giving his name to a chair of salons up and down the east coast. 

Women also began dying their hair openly, going a light blond with new chemically dangerous products. It should be pointed out that the “bob” was designed for white women. For Caucasian women, there was a choice, a straight haired bob, like the movie star, Louise Brooks, or the Marcel wave for curlier hair, like Joan Crawford. Asian women, with their straight thick hair, could easily wear a straight bob style, but African-American women did not have straight hair and used dangerous chemicals to achieve the appropriate slickness. African-American men had to go through the same process to reach the slick hair of Rudolph Valentino, the male matinee idol. The most famous success story was that of the musical star, Josephine Baker, who managed to slick her hair into a short Eaton cap cut, complete with curling “spit curls.”  

Once her hair was bobbed, the woman authoritatively joined the ranks of the Flapper, young and carefree and light-headed. In addition, any women who wanted to wear the stylish new hat—the bell-shaped cloche, which fitted closely on and around the head, in contrast to the tray-like concoctions that used to be perched on top of the head—had to have bobbed hair. And the New Woman needed a face as new and as precise as her sharp new bob. Just as beauty parlors for women were established to cater to this completely new customer base, another new business was created just for the daring “Flapper.” As can be seen—new hair new hat—they go together, but all this attention to the head had the effect of visually focusing attention to the face which, in its natural state, suddenly seemed stark and bare. Make-up, once used in secret, was now allowed to come out of the shadows and enter into the realm of respectability.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
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