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Courtesy @arianagrande

What’s the big deal about ponytails?

From high drama ponytails a la Ariana Grande to minimal styles at Chanel fall 19 couture, the humble ponytail is having a moment – here we examine its origins

Ponytails are having a major moment. Just look at Ariana Grande, the second-most followed person in the world on Instagram. She’s never without a head-topping, high swinging poker-straight pony. With its towering height a sharp contrast to her diminutive figure, it’s a look that conveys high drama and diva-like glamour. It’s so signature for her, that it makes global news when she wears anything but.

On the runway too, the ponytail has been popping up all over the place. Channelling less high drama, and more relaxed minimalism, for Chanel’s AW19 couture show presented last month in Paris, Sam McKnight styled models’ hair into low ponytails secured simply with a basic black elastic. “It's serious hair for serious bookworms," McKnight said of the style. 

Months earlier at New York Fashion Week, hairstylist Justine Marjan styled models’ hair at Christian Siriano's AW19 show into low ponytails laced with silver embellishments, while the style also made an appearance albeit in a more classic iteration at Ralph Lauren and later in Milan at Prada, where legendary hairstylist Guido Palau offered simple low ponytails with a strong centre parting.

But whether worn high or low, serving diva glamour or bookworm chic, we’ve always been into ponytails. Taking its name from its resemblance to the tail of a pony, according to the Encyclopedia of Hair, some of the earliest versions of ponytails were seen in ancient frescoes from Crete that are thousands of years old. “The hairstyle that we call the ponytail is pretty much as old as we are,” says Rachel Gibson, known as The Hair Historian on Instagram. “For as long people have been doing sports, hunting, fighting and other practical activities, they have also been tying their hair back to keep it out of the way.” 

Walking through almost any art museum, examples of the ponytail can be seen from nearly every century, worn by men, women, children, of all classes and ages. According to bronze age burial sites in England, most of the ponytails worn during ancient times were secured with solid rings made of gold, clay or bronze. In Ancient Rome, women wore hair bands made of their own hair or the hair of other women or slaves. While in ancient Japan, women wore combs and long pins (made of wood, metal, ivory or jade) to secure their hair in place.

Beyond practical reasons, people have also worn the ponytail as a symbol of class and status. During the Renaissance era, for example, women of nobility would decorate their ponytails with pearls, precious stones and veils while lower-class women would have worn cloth cords to secure their hair.

The ponytail has also stood as a political symbol in the past. Pre-17th century, the men of the Manchu people in Northeast China used the ponytail as a way of forcing enslaved colonies into submission. “The Manchu people forcefully introduced the style to Han Chinese men (who along with Han Chinese women, traditionally wore their hair in buns or topknots), during the Manchu conquest of China in the early 17th century,” according to BBC. “The enforced style was a symbol of submission, with execution as the punishment for non-compliance.” 

Fast-forward to 18th century Europe and women would adorn their ponytails with elaborate plumes, flowers and handcrafted objects including replicas of ships, while their male counterparts wore wigs tied into ponytails using a leather strap or a small bag. This style was called a “queue”. 

It wasn’t until the mid 19th century when the rubber industry was modernised, that elastic hair ties came into fashion.

Cut to the mid 20th century and women started wearing ponytails as a mainstream fashion look - popularised by preppy pop culture stars like Gidget and I Dream of Jeannie. Even Barbie had a ponytail. Originally unveiled at the New York Toy Fair in 1959, the first iteration of Barbara Millicent Roberts, as she’s formally known, wore a high ponytail secured at the back of the head, with a curly fringe. 

Due to the popularity of free-flowing hair during the hippie era in the late 60s and 70s,  ponytail sightings became less regular. Men were growing their hair longer than ever before, and even popular athletes, such as tennis star Bjorn Bork, wore their hair down. One man who embraced the ponytail during the time, though, was the designer Karl Lagerfeld, who wore the style until his death this year. 

Then came the 1980s and the ponytail made a massive comeback. This time, it was being worn to the side, given lots of volume, and, towards the end of the decade, was typically tied back with a scrunchie - the thick fabric-covered elastic band that was patented in 1987 by Rommy Revson, who named the decorative hair accessory “Scunci” after her pet toy poodle. “No longer was it just a youthful and practical style worn for the gym or school – suddenly it was a fashion statement in its own right, that was super cool, very sexy,” says Gibson. 

Capitalising on the success of the scrunchie, the 90s saw the birth of the extremely high ponytail. Think D.J. Tanner of Full House, who sported a high ponytail that fanned out around her head and was tied back using a scrunchie. Or Topanga in Boy Meets World. Then there was Sporty Spice, whose whole identity was tied to her simple, high ponytail. 

One woman, in particular, helped to propel the style: Madonna. During Madonna’s Ambition Tour in 1990, the singer wore a sky-high blonde ponytail that became famous in its own right. In fact, the hairpiece from the tour sold for £12,000 ($20,000) at an auction in 2014. “It was really integral to Madonna’s entire stage look,” says Gibson. “I think that totally transformed how people saw the style, and absolutely launched its renaissance in fashion.” 

In 2019 the ponytail is everywhere. Once the symbol of practicality, today’s iterations come in all forms: high, low, laced with accessories, parted down the middle, channelling high diva glamour or minimalist bookworm chic. Have we reached peaked ponytail? If last season was anything to go by, something tells us it's only just the beginning. Stay tuned.