Much ado about hair through the centuries
Hairdressing offers ultimate proof of the adage that you must suffer to
be beautiful. It's implicit in the word coiffeur. A coif is the
tight-fitting cap worn under a veil, as by nuns, or a white skullcap
formerly worn by English lawyers. It derives from the Latin "cofia,"
The military connotation itself smacks of
constriction. Remember those beauty salons of yesteryear? The beehive
dryers crowning pink-faced women, scratchy curlers strapped to their
heads, their ears puce with heat? About as comfortable as preparing for
battle in a suit of armor in mid-July.
How different peoples
have marshaled unruly hair into expressions of beauty, style or
symbolic representation is the subject of the exhibition "Un Diavolo
per Capello" ("A Devil in the Hair," meaning a bee in the bonnet),
showing through July 2 at the Archaeological Museum in Bologna.
comprises three sections: an archaeological and ethnographic overview
of hairdressing; a panorama of hairdos from the 15th to the 19th
century; and cut and color as a rebellious statement in the 20th
century. Although the Far East is curiously missing from the overall
picture, there is still plenty of intriguing material on display.
the art of hairdressing in ancient Egypt, for instance, where the
search for beauty must have muted olfactory awareness. Baldness was a
no- no, to be remedied in its early stages by liberal applications to
the thinning pate of lion, hippopotamus, crocodile, cat and snake fat,
all mixed together. And gray hair could be covered up with black calf's
blood cooked in fat.
For special occasions, prominent Egyptians would turn to wig workshops for some highly complex replacements and additions.
and braids were initially popular with both men and women, although by
the Middle Kingdom (1987-1640 B.C.) men were more inclined to opt for
wigs that covered much of the forehead, hanging in heavy tresses on
either side of the face, where they could be tucked behind the ears.
the early days of ancient Rome, a woman's hair was dressed in a manner
befitting her status. Thus ringlets, kinks and ribbons as well as the
coif itself differentiated free women from slaves, virtuous matrons
from prostitutes, matres familias from priestesses.
categories began to dissolve toward the end of the first century B.C.,
when Octavia, the sister of the Emperor Augustus, introduced style for
Trendsetting was born, nursed into being by the "ornatrix," or servant hairdresser.
their part, the men turned to the tonstrinae, or beauty salons, set up
in Rome by expert Sicilian barbers. Compared with such sybaritic
indulgence, present-day male grooming and cosmetics seem rather sad and
The newfound interest in individual appearance
required special aids. Not only unguents, dyes, pins and combs, but
also curling tongs consisting of a cane or metal pipe to be heated on
the fire then enwrapped with a lock of hair to create a coil.
difficult to imagine that such crimping didn't sometimes involve
charring. But no doubt a glance in a burnished bronze mirror made up
for much sufferance.
Clearly, such pastimes were the
prerogative of the patrician classes. And since not every noble man and
woman was blessed with abundant hair, again it was the creators of
wigs, hairpieces and toupees who provided the desired decorative effect.
Though the Bologna exhibit only includes a few perukes as such, the sphere and extension of artificial hair is well illustrated.
the tools of the wigmaker's trade, which include combs so large and
aggressive that they would seem better suited to grooming a yak, there
are plentiful portrayals of wig wearers in early modern Europe that
smack of torture; or rather aesthetic martyrdom.
In the 18th
century, in particular, towering constructs for women that surely
imposed poise by restricting movement. How their necks must have ached.
for the curtains of false hair donned by gentlemen of standing, warm
ears in winter may have been an advantage, but in summer such wigs must
have been hellish.
We live in an age in which hairpieces are
not perceived as fashionable accessories, except in the entertainment
world and, say, transvestism.
Still, stories about hair - real
and unreal - bring us back to its deep symbolic significance. Samson
lost his strength when shorn against his will. And among recent
inflammatory international issues there is, of course, the veil.
we still perceive hair, more than clothes, as an expression of the
inner persona, one way of accounting for the unsettling impact of punks
Not all hairdos are elegant. But they can't fail
to be eloquent. Eloquence requires discipline in the use of razor and
scissors, rigor with color and gel. Now, doesn't that just about bring
us back to the pain principle?