Women bobbing their hair created debate all over the 1920s. Nobody seemed to really like the boyish cut, but as it was true for so much of the New Woman’s look, it never was a mere matter of pure fashion.
The dramatic break with the past
One of the more sensual and feminine features of the Gibson Girl was her hair. She wore it long, very long, then coiffed it in complex ways on her head, with pins and ribbons. The Gibson Girl dedicated a lot of time to her hair because that was a sign of distinction. But like the ponderous clothes that hindered her movements, the focus on a lustrous, intricately coiffed hair was an unspoken way to bind her to the house, because the mere amount of time she needed to take care of her hair limited her available time for other activities.
No surprise then that one of the first things the New Woman of the 1920s did was cropping her hair. Very short.
It’s very hard for us women (and men) of nearly 100 years later to fully understand what kind of revolution that was.
Almost nobody seemed to like the bob. Not on aesthetic grounds. Hairdressers always tried to dissuade girls from cropping their hair, with very scant effects. The Chicago Daily Tribune in 1925 reported a girl commenting on her new cut, “It is comical, isn’t it? But it’s new. I’ll try it out for a while, although it makes me feel as though I hadn’t got any clothes on.”
Girls felt uncomfortable, but they still did it. In the same article of the Chicago Daily it is stated, “Brushing your hair back leaving your forehead and your ears exposed like a boy’s, is more of a test of personality than it is of beauty.”
For a girl, bobbing her hair meant embracing a new concept of life. Many of them claimed to do it because it was far more comfortable in an increasingly busy life. It was carefree and less troublesome to care for than the long mane so common in previous eras. It was informal and made it easier for women to remain well groomed during the busy campus and working day.
All the rest of society appeared to have a very hard time accepting women’s choice of hairstyle. All through the decade, newspaper repeatedly predicted the end of the bob.
All sort of legend flourished around it, such as that cropping a woman’s hair could damage her skin, causing eruptions. That hair could start bleeding (siringing was advised to prevent this). That bobbing one’s hair would cause it to shad.
And when women – even older women – kept bobbing their hair, it was claimed that they would actually want to go back to long hair, but they hated the in-between status when the hair wasn’t neither long nor short, which looked so untidy they ended up just cropping it once again.
Freedom of choice and sex-appeal
But there was a lot more to it and prove it is that bobbed hair was often attacked not only because it was ugly, but because it was dangerous. It was thought to be a symbol of female promiscuity, of explicit sexuality and of self-conscious denial of respectabilities and domestic ideals. Women who bobbed their hair were the ones that went out dating boys they didn’t actually mean to merry. Who smoked and drank like men. Who painted their faces. Who went out clubbing in illegal speakeasies and danced the outrageous new jazz dances.
This was what they meant when they said they had a busy life that demanded a more carefree look and for most of critiques, they were in so doing refusing everything which was expected from a nice girl.
As for their young men counterparts, most of them found the bob attractive. The look of it might have been strange and comical to them too, but once we suspend absolute definition of sexual attractiveness, we can begin to see the sexuality implicit in bobbed hair in the context of the period. It was not mannish but liberating.
While we women of the XXI century cropping our hair is a matter of fashion and personal preferences, for the New Woman of the 1920s it was a social statement. By bobbing her hair, she declared her freedom from the old feminine ideals bond to the house, motherhood and marriage. The New Woman declared she was as good as any man, she could do whatever men did. She was free to choose every aspect of her life and nobody could decide for her.
This idea, expressed from the cutting with the past and the cutting of her hair, was what young men found attractive and other people found scary.
A new woman in the mirror
me in many different fashions with many names that, in line with the flapper’s extravagant language, had many funny names (what about a coconut bob?). But there were a few main versions.
It was made famous by Louise Brooks and was a very short bob with a tapered back.
Bangs were very common with this cut. They were cut straight across covering the eyebrows, or were heart-shaped. The sides of the bangs were curved into points resting on the cheekbones.
This was the shortest cut and took its name from the famous English college where boys wore their hair slightly longer than was common for the era. It was essentially a man’s cut with fully exposed ears and often a shaved neck. It may have be further flatten down by using brilliantine that plastered the hair to the skull.
The Eaton cut made the kiss curls very popular (the kiss curls remained popular even when the short-lived Eaton wore off). These were perfect curls sculptured with gel resting on the cheek or the forehead.
Although a straight hair was considered more desirable because more elegant, many women wore their curls proudly, like Clara Bow. Some of them discovered their hair to be curled only after cutting off the weight of a long mane.
Finger and Marcel Waves
These were more popular in the late 1920s and remained so for a couple of decades more. Wet hair were sculptured in tight waves with the fingers or with Marcel irons.
Irons came with wood handles and round iron shafts that had to be heated over coals. This operation could turn out to be quite dangerous, since the iron may become overheated and burn the hair more than it curled it.
Permanent wave machines were perfected over the decade and became more common and effective in the later years of the 1920s.
Even women who didn’t take the plunge and bob their hair wanted to take advantage of the new fashion. Faux bobs were quite common, especially among older women. They were essentially buns made very flat and sometimes rolled under. A flat hair was necessary in order to wear the fashionable cloches.
All this bobbing was mostly done at home, particularly in the early 1920s. Girls would entrust themselves (and their hair) to a friend, a sister, a mother and this may have resulted in less than optimal cuts, which furthered the idea that bobs looked ugly. Because hairdressers were unfamiliar with such short cropped hairstyles, girls started to go to the barber.
Whatever the hairstyle, the hair was supposed to be lustrous, so women, like men, used brilliantine.
Magazines advised to brush the hair often and for a long time and not get scared if many hairs came out because that was a normal occurrence, it just removed hair that would come off anyway.
In the 1920s, women learned a completely new relationship with their hair, one that was according to fashion… but also to women’s new perception of themselves.
- Shameless, Selfish and Honest – The changes in society that allowed the coming of the New Woman
- The New Woman Appropriates the New Makeup – Women appropriate their sensuality
- Flapper Jane Goes Shopping for Makeup – What’s inside a 1920s beautycase
- Cut It and Bob It – Flapper Jane Seeks the Boyish Look
- Flapper: The Boyish Look of the Sexy Vamp
Fass, Paula S., The Damned and the Beautiful. American Youth in the 1920s. Oxford University Press, New York, 1977
Speaking of Bobs – Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963); Jul 5, 1925; Chicago Tribune pg. B4
The Huffington Post – 1920s hairstyle that defined the decade from the bob to the finger waves
Vintage Dancer – The history of 1920s hairstyle: from long hair to bobbed hair