As we witness a redux of yuppie culture and embrace of prepster looks, the black stretchy headband is making its return. Kristen Bateman explores the hair accessory’s cultural history and current role as a stealth wealth symbol
The beaded, crystal-spun maximalist hair accessory is dead. And in its place is a new kind of adornment that says so much while displaying so little. Meet: the stretch headband. It’s recently been embraced by Bella Hadid, Alexa Demie, Kaia Gerber, Laura Harrier, and every influencer under the sun. Then there was Schiaparelli’s Autumn/Winter 2023 collection, seeped in an aesthetic of extravagant wealth, but toned down with sculptural, minimalistic black and white forms. To top it off, each model wore a stretchy black headband. “The higher you go in the stratosphere of luxury, the more basic it feels,” said the Schiaparelli creative director Daniel Roseberry.
Somehow, the humble stretch headband has become the scrunchie or hair grip of our era – totally functional, but also something that says so much about our current perceptions and aspirations of style. And with that, the stretchy headband has become this generation’s sleuth status symbol. In 2023, we’re experiencing what feels like a return of minimalism as well as an ample embrace of prepster looks and a redux of yuppie culture. From diamond tennis bracelets to normcore logo hats coming back into the zeitgeist, the stretch headband has also found its place.
But how did we get here? We can trace the origins of the humble elastic headband back to the 1950s. “Stretchy headbands started to be worn after elasticated fabrics were first invented in the late 1950s,” says Rachael Gibson, who charts the history of hair on her Instagram account, The Hair Historian. “This tallies with the popularity of more relaxed and teen-led fashion, hairstyles that were less structured, and more active lifestyles. Your artfully sculpted perm or wave set isn’t likely to get in your face sitting around at home in the same way that long, loose hair flailing around when you’re out dancing is.”
Fast forward to the 1960s, when Brigitte Bardot defined her messy bedhead hair by layering a wide, black elastic headband on top. Wearing little striped tops and tight black pants and a matching cardigan, she was the epitome of the idealised woman in the high-brow art world, surrounded by intellect. Wearing the style in the 1963 French New Wave film Contempt, directed by Jean-Luc Godard, she stars as the alienated wife of a writer. “The classic Brigitte Bardot wide, black headband is such a great contrast to the big, blonde, backcombed hair,” says Gibson. “It almost brings it back down to earth and makes the whole look feel more nonchalant.” It also transforms the trope of the classic blonde – one associated with sex kittens and bimbos – into something new; something cerebral.
But it was only in the 1980s when the elastic headband really became a sleuth status symbol. Along with sweatbands, the look became associated with elite gym culture. Think: Jane Fonda. “As we move into the 80s, and the concept of fitness and aerobics become more mainstream, and a sporty headband has the same visual clues as athleisure would go on to demonstrate – you’re someone who keeps fit and are so busy living your sporty lifestyle you’re going straight to brunch in your chic sportswear,” adds Gibson.
“I think as soon as we start to associate the plain stretchy headband with ideas of sport and keeping fit in the 1980s it becomes a bit more status-y because of the societal connotations of health and wellness. There’s always an element of who’s wearing the headband that feeds into bigger ideas about who’s allowed to look which way: society’s prejudices and preformed ideas about beauty dictate whether someone looks like they’ve just jumped out of the shower and rushed out the house with a headband vs someone who is doing a stealth wealth look.”
Enter the yuppie revival we’re experiencing now. In the early 1980s when it was first defined, it stood for "young urban professional" and represented a whole generation of people wearing power suits, pearls, and work-ready fashion for their nine-to-fives; most of all, fashion that conveyed a sense of professional, well-bred, moneyed style. Looking at the runway, labels from Yves Saint Laurent to Thom Browne fetishized workwear for Autumn/Winter 2023, so it’s only natural that the elastic headband fits right in. Going to Erewhon for a $15 smoothie in your black elastic headband? That’s today’s twisted influencer version of a yuppie.
Still, the 1990s and early 2000s were the last times in history when we saw the black stretch headband everywhere, which is why many people associate the stretch headband with the 90s preppy looks of yore. “For me the 90s is peak headband, creating a minimal, sleek silhouette or leaning into a slightly preppy sporty aesthetic, like Dionne in Clueless with her white stretch headband,” adds Gibson. “As we move into the early 2000s, there’s more of a literal sporty influence from Mel C and the cast of Bend It Like Beckham, giving headbands an actual practical use.” Adds the hairstylist Kieron Fowles, “The elastic headband for me in 2023 represents a revival of 90s accessories and fashion. It was worn everywhere and was featured by nearly every iconic lead cast member in popular TV shows or movies of that decade, such as Clueless and Sarah Michelle Gellar in I Know What You Did Last Summer.”
Perhaps the most interesting thing about associating this look with stealth wealth is the fact that the headband has long had its own links with class. It’s an accessory that’s been worn by all genders and a powerful signifier of class throughout the ages. Think about the padded Prada headbands from a few years ago that looked a little bit like crowns, with their metal-studded embellishments and sequins. At the same time, when the United States and the UK are both in financial crisis it’s interesting that the low-brow, often extremely inexpensive stretch headband that seeks to convey so much, is so ubiquitous.
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