February 26, 2013
On May 1, 1920, the Saturday Evening Post published F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” a short story about a sweet yet socially inept young woman who is tricked by her cousin into allowing a barber to lop off her hair. With her new do, she is castigated by everyone: Boys no longer like her, she’s uninvited to a social gathering in her honor, and it’s feared that her haircut will cause a scandal for her family.
In the beginning of the 20th century, that’s how serious it was to cut off your locks. At that time, long tresses epitomized a pristine kind of femininity exemplified by the Gibson girl. Hair may have been worn up, but it was always, always long.
Part and parcel with the rebellious flapper mentality, the decision to cut it all off was a liberating reaction to that stodgier time, a cosmetic shift toward androgyny that helped define an era.
The best-known short haircut style in the 1920s was the bob. It made its first foray into public consciousness in 1915 when the fashion-forward ballroom dancer Irene Castle cut her hair short as a matter of convenience, into what was then referred to as the Castle bob.
Early on, when women wanted to emulate that look, they couldn’t just walk into a beauty salon and ask the hairdresser to cut off their hair into that blunt, just-below-the-ears style. Many hairdressers flat out refused to perform the shocking and highly controversial request And some didn’t know how to do it since they’d only ever used their shears on long hair. Instead of being deterred, the flapper waved off those rejections and headed to the barbershop for the do. The barbers complied.
Hairdressers, sensing that the trend was there to stay, finally relented. When they began cutting the cropped style, it was a boon to their industry. A 1925 story from the Washington Post headlined “Economic Effects of Bobbing” describes how bobbed hair did wonders for the beauty industry. In 1920, there were 5,000 hairdressing shops in the United States. At the end of 1924, 21,000 shops had been established—and that didn’t account for barbershops, many of which did “a rushing business with bobbing.”
As the style gained mass appeal—for instance, it was the standard haircut in the widely distributed Sears mail order catalog during the ’20s—more sophisticated variations developed. The finger wave (S-shaped waves made using fingers and a comb), the Marcel (also wavy, using the newly invented hot curling iron), shingle bob (tapered, and exposing the back of the neck) and Eton crop (the shortest of the bobs and popularized by Josephine Baker) added shape to the blunt cut. Be warned: Some new styles weren’t for the faint of heart. A medical condition, the Shingle Headache, was described as a form of neuralgia caused by the sudden removal of hair from the sensitive nape of the neck, or simply getting your hair cut in a shingle bob. (An expansive photograph collection of bob styles can be found here.)
Accessories were designed to complement the bob. The still-popular bobby pin got its name from holding the hairstyle in place. The headband, usually worn over the forehead, added a decorative flourish to the blunt cut. And the cloche, invented by milliner Caroline Reboux in 1908, gained popularity because the close-fitting hat looked so becoming with the style, especially the Eton crop.
Although later co-opted by the mainstream to become status quo (along with makeup, underwear and dress, as earlier Threaded posts described), the bob caused heads to turn (pun!) as flappers turned the sporty, cropped look into another playful, gender-bending signature of the Jazz Age.
Has there been another drastic hairstyle that’s accomplished the same feat? What if the 1990s equivalent of Irene Castle—Sinead O’Connor and her shaved head—had really taken off? Perhaps a buzz cut would have been the late 20th-century version of the bob and we all would have gotten it, at least once.
February 12, 2013
Shrove Tuesday is a day to be remembered by strangers in New Orleans, for that is the day for fun, frolic, and comic masquerading. All of the mischief of the city is alive and wide awake in active operation. Men and boys, women and girls, bond and free, white and black, yellow and brown, exert themselves to invent and appear in grotesque, quizzical, diabolic, horrible, strange masks, and disguises. Human bodies are seen with heads of beasts and birds, beasts and birds with human heads; demi-beasts, demi-fishes, snakes’ heads and bodies with arms of apes; man-bats from the moon; mermaids; satyrs, beggars, monks, and robbers parade and march on foot, on horseback, in wagons, carts, coaches, cars, &c., in rich confusion, up and down the streets, wildly shouting, singing, laughing, drumming, fiddling, fifeing, and all throwing flour broadcast as they wend their reckless way.
– James R. Creecy, Scenes in the South, and Other Miscellaneous Pieces, 1860
Drunken revelry. Beaded necklaces. Doubloon throws. Zulu coconuts. Today is Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the culmination of weeks of Carnival celebrations that end on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. It is a time when hundreds of thousands of tourists stream into New Orleans and treat the city like one huge frat party. Many local New Orleanians will avoid the French Quarter ,just as New Yorkers stay away from Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Yet, like New Year’s in New York City, Mardi Gras is an institution.
Mardi Gras made landfall in the United States back in the 17th century when the French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville set up camp 60 miles from New Orleans on the day that the holiday was being celebrated in France. He called the location Point du Mardi Gras. But, Mardi Gras and the accompanying masked balls associated with the holiday were outlawed when the Spanish governor took control of the area in 1766 as well as when it came under U.S. rule in 1803. But by 1823, the Creole population convinced the governor to permit masked balls. By 1827, wearing a mask in the street was legalized in New Orleans. (They’re now only legal to wear on Mardi Gras Day.) When the first official “krewe,” or elite social club, was established in 1857, the Mardi Gras parades that they organized became formalized annual occasions, which meant that parade participants donned masks and colorful regalia with greater frequency.
Taking cues from masquerade balls that made their way through Europe as early as the Middle Ages and Venetian carnival celebrations, the now-familiar face covers we see on Shove Tuesday (as Fat Tuesday is also known) mimic variations that have been around for centuries. The Bauta (full-faced mask shaped for ease of eating and drinking), Columbina (half mask), and Medico della Peste? (the beak-like steampunk-esque mask that is familiar to anyone who’s attended the interactive, immersive theatrical performance Sleep No More), but thankfully not the Moretta (a terrifying blank-faced mask held in place by biting a button inside the mask, thus inhibiting speech), all frequently associated with the Venice Carnival, are on grand display during the festivities (and legally to boot, as the law prohibiting mask-wearing, which is in effect throughout the year, is suspended on Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans). Today, the feathered, sequined, glittering disguises use the now-universal Mardi Gras colors originally established by the krewe of the Rex parade in 1872: purple symbolizing justice, green for faith and gold for power.
A mask is a funny thing. Slide one over your face and, with its exaggerated expression, the mask immediately transforms you into someone else (say, Richard Nixon) while also making you expressionless under a frozen guise. It’s also the manifestation of one’s id. According to Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, “in Robert Laffont’s A Dictionary of Symbols masks do not hide the persona, but reveal and liberate the lower tendencies of the true personality of the one who wears the mask.” Think Tom Cruise as doctor-by-day, sexual escapader-by-night in Eyes Wide Shut. Mardi Gras masks provide the freedom to hide behind, or embrace, the creature of our choosing, real or made-up—even, in James R Creecy’s words, “manbats from the moon.”
But not everyone celebrating Mardi Gras will follow the mask tradition. Tomorrow on Facebook you might see “Frat” Tuesday photos of girls exposing themselves wearing only beads and dudes drinking ’til they’ve vomited. Sadly, these revelers will wish they’d chosen to disguise themselves with “heads of beasts and birds” before taking those photos.