Those of you who know me well, know that I’m a little bit of a dork and when things like literature and history inspire me, I don’t stop talking about it easily. And when literature, history AND hair fashion all come together, I get a little obsessed. I wouldn’t say I am a huge reader, but lately I have been really enjoying books related to the history of hair in America and it is fascinating to see how hairstyles reflect where we are and where we are going as a society. It is also interesting because back in the day, ideas were not so quickly spread, and that is something that is a little hard for me to understand, having grown up alongside the internet.
A few months ago I read a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald (author of The Great Gatsby) called, “Bernice Bobs her Hair.” It is easy to find it and read it for free after a Google search. It was written in 1920, which was an interesting time because women were only first beginning to cut their hair off, so even the most progressive and adventurous young women had mixed feelings about it. I thought the story would be about the rush and freedom and invigoration of a short hair cut during this time period, but the story take a different turn and it made this critical turning point in hair history a lot more realistic to me. It is very easy to just say, “One day women started chopping their hair off and it was awesome!” But the reality is that it was a lot more complicated, and the idea of chopping off your hair was enticing, but the reality was that women were still deciding what parts of femininity they wanted to keep and what parts they wanted to do away with and while it is easy to say, “hair is just hair,” the reality is that few things were more intertwined with femininity at that time.
One thing I always forget about is how rare unisex salons were prior to the 1960’s. In the beginning of the roaring twenties when women started cutting their hair short, they would go to barber shops instead of salons. As a mild mannered lady, I can’t imagine how intimidating that would have been, especially back in the day.
Anyway, I wanted to share a few quotes from the book that were really interesting to me, regarding femininity at that time. Marjorie is the cool, modern cousin to Bernice, who is visiting from another city where everyone is a little more traditional. The men find her painfully boring and will only pay her any attention as a favor to Marjorie. Marjorie is not a particularly kind or thoughtful person, but she does want to help Bernice become less of a bore.
“I think you’re hard and selfish, and you haven’t a feminine quality in you.”
“Oh, my Lord!” cried Marjorie in desperation. “You little nut! Girls like you are responsible for all the tiresome colorless marriages; all those ghastly inefficiencies that pass as feminine qualities. What a blow it must be when a man with imagination marries the beautiful bundle of clothes that he’s been building ideals round, and finds that she’s just a weak, whining, cowardly mass of affectations!”
Bernice’s mouth had slipped half open.
“The womanly woman!” continued Marjorie. “Her whole early life is occupied in whining criticisms of girls like me who really do have a good time.”
This marks the beginning of so many freedoms for women. She is harsh and perhaps going too far, and while I don’t believe women should necessarily be like her today, woman like that in the 20’s changed so much for women today.
And this one is my favorite from the story.
“But I thought,” interrupted Bernice in bewilderment, “that you despised little dainty feminine things like that.”
“I hate dainty minds,” answered Marjorie. “But a girl has to be dainty in person. If she looks like a million dollars she can talk about Russia, ping-pong, or the League of Nations and get away with it.”
Image is important. A femininely dressed woman can speak more masculinely, but also a powerfully dressed woman won’t feel the need to be as aggressive in person. Of course people can and will do whatever they want, but it is interesting to think of outfits as a counterbalance for how we want to act.