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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," meaning helmet.
 
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.
 
It 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.
 
Take 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.
 
Curls 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.
 
In 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.
 
Such firm categories began to dissolve toward the end of the first century B.C., when Octavia, the sister of the Emperor Augustus, introduced style for style's sake.
 
Trendsetting was born, nursed into being by the "ornatrix," or servant hairdresser.
 
For 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 lonely pursuits.
 
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.
 
It's 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.
 
Alongside 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.
 
As 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.
 
Perhaps we still perceive hair, more than clothes, as an expression of the inner persona, one way of accounting for the unsettling impact of punks and skinheads.
 
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?