That hair tie on your wrist is such a hard worker!

A brief history of women’s hair, and the hairbands that let us take care of business.

Image by Max Guitare via Flickr Creative Commons

Is there a hair tie around your wrist right now? If you’re a long-haired person like me, I’ll bet there is — unless it’s already in your hair. Right now I’ve got a messy bun on the top of my head, absent-mindedly assembled for the sole purposes of getting my hair out of my face. I started the day with my hair down, and when I’m going out for drinks later I’ll take it down again — before I’ll probably put it back up when I get home tonight.

Loose hair looks great — so casual, so carefree. But it’s not very practical, so we’ve enlisted a little helper that’s always on hand: the elastic hair tie. I thought about this the other night in a Vietnamese restaurant, about to dig into some steaming hot pho. As the waiter put the bowl down in front of me, it was almost instinctual: I reached for the hair tie around my left wrist. As I was putting my long hair into a ponytail, I happened to catch the eye of a woman sitting a few tables over — she was doing the exact same thing! We smiled at each other, as if to acknowledge that yes yes yes, it’s not the classiest move. But needs must! You’ve got to get that hair out of the way so you can focus on the task at hand: soup’s on, and it’s going to be delicious.

That elastic band around your wrist is such a hard worker, repeatedly being called upon for whatever hairstyle the moment calls for. But women weren’t always so casual about their hair. Looking back over Western hair history, this haphazard approach to how ladies wear their hair is frankly unprecedented. There’s never been fewer rules for what hair should look like, but as hair still carries a strong social message: what does it mean to be so casual about our hair?

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Kurt Stenn is a leading hair expert with decades of experience from Yale Medical School and Johnson & Johnson. “Why is hair so important to human existence? That’s the basic question to the casual fashion of this up-and-down hair, which I think is a [unique] trend of our generation,” says Stenn. At its most extreme, hair represents humanity: Joan of Arc, Anne Boleyn and Marie Antoinette were all shaved before being executed. Beyond that, hair signals who we are: “Through history, hairdos reflected different [standings] in society. The very little hair on the Egyptian pharaoh and more hair on the slave; lots of hair on the big wigs of Louis in the Renaissance. Even today, you can look at people and [infer how] they’re of a certain socio-economic level”

Nowadays we may think of hair primarily as a signifier of individuality, but historically it’s been heavily linked to societal class, religious belonging, as well as sexuality. “Take Queen Victoria: she wore her hair up, very tightly, in court, but at home she would allegedly let her long hair down,” says Stenn, whose book ‘Hair: A Human History’, was published by Pegasus last year. So while we may not be aware of it, our modern relaxed attitude about hair is not devoid of meaning: “Having the hair up in a casual way means it can [easily] come down.”

For women, long hair has been the standard for throughout the majority of history, says Stenn — this is consistent across most cultures. One explanation could be that long hair signals health: you need to eat well to grow a thick mane. But Stenn admits there’s little hard data on the nuanced social meaning of hair — how do you measure whether blondes have more fun? “But history and literature suggests long hair is [perceived as] sexy,” says Stenn. He points to Rapunzel: it’s her long hair that enables the prince to climb up to her tower.

Modern women are unlikely to dangle a long braid out the window to attract suitors, but they may take their hair down before a date. Most of the long-haired people I spoke to agreed that loose locks is the best look, suggesting this idea is deeply rooted; the expression “let your hair down” means being free and enjoying yourself. But everyone I spoke to agreed that loose hair is too impractical when you want to get things done. Examples of moments requiring an updo included work, eating, sex, exercise, and looking after children — essentially anything other than sitting still with a drink in your hand.

Rosie Spinks (27), a journalist from Los Angeles based in London, says it’s rare for her to have her hair down all day long. “I’ll put it up when I eat, or at the end of the day when I’m tired, or I’ll put half of it up when I’m working so it’s not in my face.” Rosie can often be seen with her hair in a topknot: “It’s kind of a signature of mine!” She laughs. “I’ve heard people describe me as, ‘She’s tall, and she wears her hair in that thing on top of her head.’” Karima Adi (36), a publishing executive in London, also puts her hair up at the gym, before adding what was a common refrain: “I also tend to wear my hair up when it needs washing!” While Gemma Dietrich (33), a singer in Norwich, loves “long, unkempt, sun-bleached hair that doesn’t give a shit”, she prefers to work with her hair up: “I feel like I can concentrate more, which is weird?” Hels Martin (32), an editor in Bristol, adores a wave: “But we all love to chuck it up. It’s like putting on sweatpants and taking off your bra!”

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But loose, long hair hasn’t always been the ideal. Throughout history, long-haired ladies have usually maintained their locks according to more formal rules. In Ancient Egypt, hair would be kept long and straight, often in braids. Elaborate knots and decorated updos were common in classical Greece and Rome, before the Dark Ages brought with it an edict for women to cover their heads. In the Romantic period, loose curls were the ideal for nobility, while in the Baroque era it was all about height — to the point where women (assuming they had money to hire help) used wireframes to construct towering dos.

Hairstyles started to become less strict in the Victorian era, which brought back a more natural fashion with buns surrounded by braids and curls. In the 1890s, women would emulate the Gibson Girl: a puffy pompadour rolled across a horsehair pillow. The cloud-like result carried an appealing social message: independence and self-assuredness. When more women entered the workforce after World War I, necessity encouraged shorter hair: a practical bob was less likely to get tangled into machinery or catch fire.

The French singer Josephine Baker, known for her sensual dance routines, was associated with the bob, says Stenn: “Women were freer in the workplace, but the bob [also] became associated with sexuality.” Like fashion and music, hair is clashing point between generations, and especially women’s hair choices have always carried sexual undertones.

Religious leaders have taken great interest in ladies’ coiffure through the ages, declaring hairstyles morally improper or even a threat to the salvation of the soul. Stenn writes in his book about Manasseh Cutler, a Yale-trained pastor in 18th century New England, who claimed the new fashion of girls piling long hair on top of their heads reminded him of “the monstrous devil” — and so it was declared cursed. 130 years later, at the peak of the bob, the short style was the one to be declared unholy: it was too seductive, preachers decried, and hence indicative of a person of lax morals.

Not that this kind of judgment ever stopped women experimenting with their hair. In the 1940s, Veronica Lake’s loose locks swung the trend away from the bob and back to long, before Audrey Hepburn again brought back short and chic in the 1950s. Farrah Fawcett set the bar for the ultimate free-flowing style in the 1970s, before the 1980s brought us the working girl’s crop along with the power suit.

While we’ve been repeating the same hair variations since the beginning of recorded history, the elastic hair tie was a quantum leap: never before has it been so easy to change up your hair on a whim. Today’s no-style hairstyles wouldn’t be possible if we were still using hairpins and ribbons. The modern hair tie can be traced back to the rubber band, patented in England in 1845. But rubber snatches on hair, so the hair tie didn’t really come into its own until 1951 when the Hook Brown Company of Massachusetts secured a patent for an “elastic loop fastener”. It was officially intended for footwear and raincoats, but the picture shows a dead ringer for a modern hair tie: an elastic band with a braided cover, the ends held together by a metal clasp.

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For Chantal (36), a yoga teacher in London, those hair ties floating around in her bag carry an extra layer of meaning: freedom to choose. “My favourite style is the topknot, because it’s easy and looks messy but kind of cool.” Born into a mixed cultural family, Chantal chose to wear a religious headscarf for a while in her 20s. This became its own creative outlet: “The scarf became my hair, in that it was a way to express myself” Chantal sometimes misses her headscarf because it represented the “non-white part” of her, but she doesn’t think she will go back to it: “Every time the wind blows my hair onto the lipbalm on my lips, I feel grateful I’m able to make the choice daily, with no restrictions.”

Maybe a desire to choose is also what lies at the root of our love of the hair tie? It would certainly explain why we’re doing this, because it’s not really all that practical; if putting your hair up gets it out of the way, shouldn’t we just do that in the morning and be done with it? But it seems we just love that feeling of loose, carefree hair far too much. That hair tie on the wrist means the freedom to have some of those moments as we go about our day.

Hair will always carry a social message about who we are, where we belong, and how we see ourselves. Loose hair may look great, sure, but who has time for that? That hair tie on your wrist represents unlimited options. Not that everyone idolises free-flowing hair; Rosie says freedom has a different look for her: “My topknot! Those are the days when I give zero fucks.” That’s also the attitude of the quick and easy updo, thrown together with practised hands as you’re about to get to work, be it at the office, the gym, or on a steaming hot bowl of soup. This may well be a rare example of a hairstyle that’s not about looking pretty, or appropriate, nor is it about pleasing your family, some priest, or a date — it’s the hair equivalent of sweatpants. This is just for you, and that’s the ultimate social message of the hastily assembled updo: let me get my hair out of the way — I have things to do.