From a symbol of femininity and fertility to a subversive and counterculture act of rebellion, long hair has represented ever-changing values throughout history
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We can’t escape long hair right now. It has dominated the runways for the last few seasons, from Collina Strada’s XXL braids and Blumarine’s dishevelled mermaid hair last year, to the soaking wet styles this year at Avavav in SS24. At Ashley Williams this season, too, models wore super long wigs in pinks, browns and platinum blondes that were part sleek, part unkempt cult hair. In the celebrity world, Ice Spice traded her signature do for a long mane, while Kim Kardashian exchanged her fuck-ass bob for long tresses. But perhaps most interestingly, at a time when the reclamation of girlhood and femininity is at the forefront of culture (Sofia Coppola, Lana del Rey), fashion (Sandy Liang and Elena Velex) and beauty (coquette hair and strawberry make-up), long hair plays a complex role.
From Rapunzel to Cher, cults to beauty pageant queens and hippies, long hair has a long history in beauty and culture. Many mythical characters and legends are associated with long hair, which often becomes a symbol of femininity and purity – figures like Mary Magdalene, Botticelli’s Venus and Lady Godiva, for example, use their long hair for modesty. Longer hair has long stood as a sign of status and knowledge – from the ancient Greeks to Germanic Goths and Merovingians and even the Egyptians, who were some of the first to dive deeply into wig-making.
In Sikhism, the kesh practice involves allowing one’s hair to grow naturally out of respect for the perfection of God’s creation, while for Native Americans long hair is linked to strength, power, virility and pride across different tribes. In China, long hair dates back to the Han dynasty as a symbol of wealth for men. Later on in the Tang dynasty and into the Song dynasty, long hair became even more covetable, but for women. “In the 17th century, Louis XIV of France popularised a robust, dark, centre-parted curly periwig for men,” says Elizabeth L Block, an art historian and the author of the forthcoming book Beyond Vanity: The History and Power of Hairdressing. “The secret reason was to cover his bald spots, which at the time signified a lack of virility.”
Starting in the mid-1800s, long hair hit an all-time high for European women, according to Block. Victorian women were expected to grow their hair as long as possible without cutting it, though it was scandalous to wear one’s hair down and expose it outside of the bedroom. It was also a direct correlation to class since poorer people often didn’t have the means to grow their hair long due to the upkeep. Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) of Austria’s trademark hair extended well past her waist, and she reportedly spent a full day every three weeks washing and drying her brown tresses. “In the Victorian era, super long hair signified not only femininity, as it had since antiquity, but also superior health and hygiene,” says Block. “Short hair or baldness was associated with illness, like tuberculosis. Extremely long hair could also communicate wealth. In order to care for long tresses, a woman either needed a personal maid, as did Empress Sisi, or a sufficient amount of leisure time.”
In white Western culture, most women wore their hair long for much of history right up until World War I according to Rachael Gibson of the Hair Historian Instagram account. “Long hair for women is generally considered as symbolic of femininity, health and fertility, which in turn led to it becoming a standardised beauty ideal,” adds Gibson. “However there are religious and cultural reasons beyond pure aesthetics which lead people to grow their hair as long as possible.” The same is true for men. “Think of Sampson in the Bible, although society has gone back and forth on the appropriateness of men’s hair depending on where you are in the world and at what time.”
Changing roles and freedoms for women in the 20th century allowed for more diversity in styling, for example, the flappers and jazz age brought the bob – and shorter hair in general – front and centre. Long hair would make a big comeback starting as early as the late 1940s, however. While Victorians were using their own contraptions to create longer, thicker hair, in 1949, Christina M Jenkins invented what is the closest thing to what we know today as hair extensions. She developed the “Hair-Weev” technique, sewing extensions into braided rows of hair. Jenkins applied for the patent in 1951 and it was granted in 1952.
In the 1960s, women started trading their beehives and flipped bobs for the bombshell-like, big puffy blowouts seen on women like Brigitte Bardot and Priscilla Presley. Raquel Welch and Jane Fonda wore their hair big and long, epitomising on-screen sex sirens in contrast to the little pixie cuts worn by Twiggy and the sharp and short cuts done by Vidal Sassoon. The social change and dynamic introduced a new kind of expression of femininity that also reflected the male gaze and the heavy-handed objectification of it all.
Fast forward to the 1970s when long hair became well associated with the counterculture movement of the hippies and the rejection of societal conformity. People of all genders grew their hair out, while musicians from Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell and Cher became iconic from long flowing hair that was as far away from the conventional establishment as possible. While Joplin’s aesthetic symbolised freedom, Cher’s showed a different side – one that revolved around the total embodiment of glamour that was completely unapologetic. The iconic singer recently said she would never not have long hair: “I just can't believe I will be 80 at some point, sooner than I wish, and I will still be wearing my jeans, and I will still be wearing long hair, and I will still be doing the same stuff I've always done.”
Then, in the late 80s and the 90s, icons like Diana Ross and Lisa Bonet wore long hair better than anyone. Daryl Hannah – who starred as a mermaid in the 1984 movie Splash – wore long, loose mermaid hair at the Cannes Film Festival that will forever be remembered. And Naomi Campbell, who also made her debut in the 1980s, has become forever known for her flowing hair.
Today, it’s a powerful expression to have super, super long hair – with many people leaning into the look specifically for its versatility. “There are so many things that I like about super long hair,” says Nafisah Carter, celebrity hair stylist and hair extension specialist. “I can wear my hair up or down or even in two braids if I want to. To me, long hair gives an illusion of accentuating curves in all the right places. Who wouldn’t love that!”
And yet, even in modern times, it feels like there’s an interesting line between long hair for glamour’s sake and long hair that verges into religious imagery. Take, for instance, the Amish, who don’t believe women should cut their hair. Or polygamous cults, with their endlessly long locks. The styling is inherently different than, say, a Kardashian. Perhaps the most interesting thing about long hair is just how much it prevails across gender, culture and spirituality, but all for such vastly different reasons. It has its internalised meanings and it has its myths too. Is there any other hairstyle that can claim as much?