On October 21, The New York Times ran an essay called “Why Can’t Middle-Aged Women Have Long Hair? by Dominique Browning, originally written for her blog “SlowLoveLife.”
The subject clearly hit a nerve. The Times received 1200 comments, overwhelming its editors until they finally ordered an end to the discussion.
Dominique Browning cited the way her own long hair disturbed people, including her mother, because she was well over 40 (In fact she’s 55). She asked why long flowing locks were considered inappropriate for older women. “Why do people judge middle-aged long hair so harshly?”
Passionate opinions were submitted on both sides of the argument.
Because I’m an avid collector of antique pre-1900 photographs, I wondered if some of the acrimony about long hair may have been coming from our national subconscious. Did we inherit the attitudes of our parents’ and grandparents’ generation—that long hair was too sexy to be seen in public—and do we even today feel that sexy hair is not appropriate for women of a certain age?
In my grandmother’s day (she was married—to a Presbyterian minister—in 1896) a girl was expected to pile her locks on top of her head on the day she became a woman and entered society. She was supposed to bind her tresses into a prim bun with hairpins, and then never let any man see her with her hair down except for her husband.
In fact the older women portrayed in my earliest daguerreotypes often wear lace mob caps—like Martha Washington—to cover their hair INSIDE THE HOUSE. (Their outdoor bonnets would be put on top of these caps.)
You don’t need to be an anthropologist to draw a parallel from the mob caps of America’s founding mothers to the hijabs of Muslim countries today.
Before 1900, no reputable woman would wear cosmetics or dye her hair. (I once owned a Ladies Home Journal magazine from the early 20th century that solemnly warned: women who dye their hair will go mad.)
Today’s erogenous zones—bosom, legs, butt, thighs—were never seen in the early days of photography. (The first photographs were daguerreotypes, beginning in 1839 .)
In the dags in my collection from the 1840’s and 1850’s, women’s breasts were tightly bound and a flat piece of wood or whalebone, called a busk, was inserted into the corset, so that it was physically impossible to slouch.
Here’ s a definition I found on the internet:
Originally, a busk was a piece of carved wood or bone that was set into a pocket in a corset front to make the front completely straight and ridged. Busks were nearly always used in Tudor and Elizabethan corsets, and in certain styles of the 17th and 18th, and the early 19th century.
Elaborately carved busks were a common gift from a young man to his sweetheart. Sailors carved bones with Scrimshaw designs as gifts for the girls back home
So for our grandmothers, the sexiest thing they had going for them was long, beautiful hair. Victorian advertisements for hair-growing lotions were a sort of soft-core porn, often featuring voluptuous women naked except for their astonishingly full and long hair. (Like Lady Godiva. And then there’s Rapunzel—the subject of the animated film “Tangled” which is currently a huge success. I think long hair is definitely having a moment right now.)
Then there came a moment—in the 1920’s—when cutting one’s hair into a short, flapper’s bob was considered scandalous, daring, a statement of female rebellion against society’s mores—like smoking a cigarette in public.
For the best description of just how daring short hair was in the twenties, check out F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” from 1922. (You can find it on line.) A sophisticated, popular “mean girl” tricks her unpopular country cousin into bobbing her hair in hopes of winning popularity. When it backfires, the country cousin takes revenge in kind.
Today the tables have turned again—the rebel is not the woman who bobs her hair—she’s the women of middle age or beyond (even crone-hood!) who dares to wear her gray-streaked or white hair long, even though she’s far past girlhood. I can think of a handful of well-aged women who flaunt their flowing locks—Cher, Susan Sarandon, Diane Keaton. Among personal friends, I immediately think of a very chic Manhattan beauty, Marina, whose cascade of white hair has become her trademark and earned her a place in a New York Times feature about people who have their own unique style.
Personally I’ve never worn my hair long—except for the period in the late sixties when I rocked a beehive. I’ve always taken the easy way out, with short hair, but for those middle-aged women like Dominique Browning, and even past-middle-aged beauties courageous enough to flaunt their crowning glory, I think there should be a medal of honor, say a Croix de Cheveux.