THE HISTORY OF HAIR: In Fact and Fiction
Hair is as important now as it ever was in our daily lives, influencing the people we meet, the opportunities we get, the wealth we can accumulate. And to better understand the role of our hair in our modern lives, we must take a look through history and lore to get a better overall idea of how crucial hair has always been to the human culture and everybody in it.
Hebrew women’s hair, long and luxurious, was considered the source of their beauty. Those women took great care of their hair, decorating it, curling it, and even strewing gold dust on it for highlights. Often their hair was kept veiled in public. It was a great shame to cut a woman’s hair, unless it was for reason of deep mourning.
In another ancient empire, Greece, women wore their wavy hair much longer due to the more temperate climate. But they generally kept it piled in a bun, or chignon, mere ringlets dangling over the sides of their faces. This is the famous Grecian updo that is still popular with women today. Headbands and ornaments were favored by the Greeks for purely social reasons, as a display of wealth or luxury.
The Romans believed that hair was indicative of good breeding, genetics, even intelligence, in what they called studio capillum, Latin for the study of hair. Today the science continues as capiology.
In the 1950s, conservative styles came back and women’s hair was often kept up, under pill box hats or veils. Girls often wore ponytails.
In the last twenty years we’ve seen the rise and fall of the so-called Rachel haircut—a choppy shag—the return of the Caesar for men (called the Clooney in modern lingo) and a variety of hipster throwbacks to ancient times in the form of the aforementioned man-bun and beards both sculpted and shaggy. For women it’s been an open field, at least from the neck up. Many millennials have adopted the Cher Hair look, wearing it straight down or piling it on top of the head in a “messy bun.” Otherwise, hair styles have more or less disappeared from popularity.
Hair has always held a mythic, almost magical place in fiction, lore, and alternative (or Biblical) history.
In the Old Testament, Israelite Samson gives his heart to a Philistine woman, Delilah, who discovers that the key to his amazing strength is in his long hair. Once cut, he becomes powerless and humiliated until his suicidal redemption. Even today, men with long hair are sometimes said to suffer from a Samson complex (the compulsion to reenact betrayal and rage, even unto suicide).
In fairy lore, the imprisoned beauty Rapunzel herself holds the key to her own rescue, her flowing locks of hair, which provide a ladder for her lovelorn knight errant. The story was retold to popular acclaim by the Disney company in 2010 as Tangled, as well as a sequel and cable series spinoff, proving that the mythology of the power of hair lives and thrives in the modern era as it did in ancient times.
Hair has been central to seminal cultural masterpieces like the stage musical Hair, the sexual satire Shampoo, and the popular Barber Shop films.
But the story of hair transcends history and fiction and enters the realm of the incredible. It’s easy to believe that hair might indicate wealth or power in certain cultures, but remember that among the five basic elements of business, the most mercurial is mystery. And hair is as embroiled in mystery as any other facet of the human experience.
During the Vietnam war, for example, Native Americans were enlisted due to their innate tracking skills. But once a military buzz-cut removed their lifelong locks, their tracking senses mysteriously escaped them in virtually every instance. Scientists deduced that hair can act like a kind of antennae, and that makes some sense when you think about the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end, a reaction to some stimulus, just the way an antennae might react.
But hair can act as a transmitter as well as a receiver. Kirlian photography has revealed a definitive energy field around living hair, and much less so around the same hair after it is cut. It proves that hair generates energy as well as merely being sensitive to it.
And we all know how hair can retain and transmit static electricity.
In short, one has to wonder if there’s any facet of the human experience, be it history or religion, fact or fiction, science or superstition, where hair doesn’t play at least some vital part. What is certain is that hair will go on being a central part of our culture, our fashion, our sense of identity, our notion of who we are and what place we hold in the natural world and in the civilized world we created and in which we struggle to live, thrive, and survive.