Cut It And Bob It: Flapper Jane Seeks the Boyish Look (The New Woman’s New Look Series)

Cut It and Bob It: Flapper Jane seeks the boyish look - The New Woman's New Look Series - No mare fashion, in the 1920s, a woman bobbing her hair was asserting her right to define herself as a person

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.

New-Woman-New-Look-4--Cut-it-and-Bob-it

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.

Barber bobbing a girl's hairIt’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.

the 1920s bob #hairstyle was a social statment from every woman who dared wering it Click To Tweet

Freedom of choice and sex-appeal

1920s erotic postcardBut 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.

Shingle

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.

Eaton Crop

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.

Cropped Curls

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.

The New Woman's New Look Logo

  1. Shameless, Selfish and Honest – The changes in society that allowed the coming of the New Woman
  2. The New Woman Appropriates the New Makeup – Women appropriate their sensuality
  3. Flapper Jane Goes Shopping for Makeup – What’s inside a 1920s beautycase
  4. Cut It and Bob It – Flapper Jane Seeks the Boyish Look
  5. Flapper: The Boyish Look of the Sexy Vamp

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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

 

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About the Author

jazzfeathers
I was born, raised and I still live near Verona (Italy), though I worked for a time in Dublin. I started writing fantasy stories as a kid. Today I’m a bookseller who reads fantasy, history, mythology, anthropology and lots of speculative fiction. Somehow, all of this has found its way into my own dieselpunk stories.

14 Comments on "Cut It And Bob It: Flapper Jane Seeks the Boyish Look (The New Woman’s New Look Series)"

  1. Hey there! I really enjoyed your post! 🙂 I never quite realized how many different kinds of bobs there were—or exactly how controversial this act really was at the time. Nice job, and can’t wait to see more! 😀

    • Happy you loked it 🙂

      It’s very difficult for us to really get the idea of how daring it was to simply cut one’s hair. It’s a very simple act for us, that doesn’t have any symbol attached to it. It was not like that for women in the 1920s.

  2. Wonderful post! Have you ever read the short story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” by F. Scott Fitzgerald? It focuses on the rivalry between two women. The “good girl” dares the “bad girl” to bob her hair. The motivations on both sides do a lot to reveal the social forces women had to cope with during the time period you mention. Even Miss Manners once wrote, “Girls who bob their hair are fast.” Fast means loose, trashy, easy, etc.
    Lillian Csernica recently posted…How to Handle Writer JealousyMy Profile

    • That’s one of my favourite short stories by Fitzgerald 🙂
      In fact it was one of the first places where I started to understand how strong a decition bobbing her hair was for a woman back then.

  3. Very interesting post! I liked getting the historical background on this (now) very quintessential women’s hair style. For me, getting my hair cut in my late teens was an attempt to look more my age or more mature and sophisticated, since people tend to think I am a lot younger than I am. It’s interesting to see what it meant for women back then.

    Thanks for sharing, Sarah!

  4. Awesome piece! Fascinating. I don’t know if you watch Downton Abbey, but it reminds me of when Mary cut her hair into a Bob in Season 5. I think for her it was about more sexual freedom and to assert her Independance. Indeed, she always does seem to find more men, despite the cut, so I think it did make her more attractive to men, not to mention her position in society.

    Really truly interesting piece 🙂
    Mandibelle16 recently posted…Flash Fiction for the Aspiring Writer: Saving The PuppyMy Profile

  5. Thank goodness we have more freedom now – although I think some of these styles would still be very high-maintenance. But it brought choice, then and now. I hadn’t thought about quite how much courage it must have taken originally.
    Anabel recently posted…Tibet 2000: escape from GyantseMy Profile

    • Me neither. I was completely fascinated when, while researching the flapper phenomenon, I realised what was behind their ‘fashion’.
      History always has something unexpected to reveal to us 🙂

  6. Love this! My fave will always be the sleek do of Louise Brooks.

  7. I love bobbed hair! I recently had mine bobbed again, after letting it grow out for a year. It’s so much easier to take care of, fits my tomboyish personality, and keeps the back of my neck cooler in the heat. When it gets to a certain length on me, the only thing to do with it is pull it back in a ponytail, wear twin braids, or style it like Princess Leia. Bobbed hair is so much more fun.

    It’s hard to imagine how radical and shocking bobbed hair was seen as in the 1920s. In the book Cheaper by the Dozen, the father hits the roof when oldest daughter Anne bobs her own hair, and the mother is also very upset. The oldest daughters only convinced them of the merits of bobbed hair when they pointed out how much less time it takes for styling. Their parents were motion study experts, and liked finding ways to do things with as few motions and as less time as possible.
    Carrie-Anne recently posted…Happy Duran Duran Appreciation Day! (My fandom story)My Profile

    • I do think we have a hard time understanding what it meant to bob her hear for a girl in the 1920s. Styling our hair is something we take for granted, it’s a right that we perceive as natural and a personal choice.
      But this is what I like about historical fiction: it allow us to get in someone else’s shoes and learn from it 🙂

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