A Timeline of 20th Century Hair. Part 1, 1900’s

For anyone paying attention, it’s clear I love history. Fun fact: I’m minoring in dramaturgy (basically a research assistant) in college, with a focus on–you guessed it–history. And that part of my education has given me a perspective I didn’t have going in.

It always irks me the way history tends to be taught: a focus on war and politics, and what’s said of any other subject is vastly oversimplified, if not completely forgotten. While politics does affect the average person, it’s rarely the number one thing that the masses cared about, especially in the times before television, where the day-to-day news was much less accessible. The invention of the internet has helped to shed light on other academic studies, but how it’s disseminated tends to be very oversimplified for the sake of entertainment.

Nowhere is history more oversimplified than in fashion history.

Cause, the truth is, every decade had many, many different styles of dress (much like today). So, today, to fix this pet peeve and combine two of my great interests–history and beauty–I’m going to go through fashion history trends decade by decade.

I’m focusing on American women’s hairstyles in the 20th century because it’s the most exploited fashion history trend among the beauty media. I’ll be discussing the history rather than making this a how-to, but I’m open to doing how-to’s on these styles on request. Also, let me know if you’d like me to cover other centuries or countries later down the road.

Now, let’s get into it!

The Gibson Girl

This is that signature bun-like updo that every fashion blogger focuses on. It came into popularity in the late 1890's, thanks to the works of American illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. His illustration of the infamous style, first published in Life Magazine in 1898, blew up and dominated the entire decade.

While its initial appeal came from Gibson’s framing as a rich, elite woman, the hairstyle was very popular among the poor working-class because the basic look was easy and quick to replicate, and it was an elegant way to keep a woman’s long hair out of her face. You can bet that was important to factory workers, domestic servants, and other industries that employed the vast majority of working women. This niche allowed it to surpass class, culture, and racial boundaries. Its ubiquity in photographs from that decade is likely why it’s remembered today as the signature look.

The Pompadour

Named after the 18th century French aristocrat Madame de Pompadour, this historically-inspired style was one of the first American styles that wasn’t an updo. As the decade progressed, the Pompadour became an updo when the hanging hair was tied just below the neck. This is why, in modern times, this style is sometimes (incorrectly!) lumped in with the Gibson Girl look. But, for most of the decade, the Pompadour was a down do.

This style was exclusively an upper-class look, as it took far too much time to properly do. It required coiling one’s hair with curlers, extensive back combing, and had to be held up by a wire frame. For this reason, among the leisure class, it was mainly a formal evening style. And, because it was associated with blondes and thin, fine hair, it was considered a white look, which made it stigmatized against black women. When the hair bleach and hair extension craze set in in the middle of the decade, the Pompadour became a signature way to elegantly display these expensive editions. Fashion magazines advised that blondes should add volume to the scalp of their style by adding curls, while brunettes should keep it straight and smooth.

The Grecian

This look’s another result of historical influence, this time based on images from Ancient Greek goddesses, hence the name. It became popular around 1906, when the chemical perm traveled from Europe to the United States. It was popularized by the French stylist Francois Marcel, leading ot the nickname “marcel waves.” While the Grecian could be replicated by super-thin curlers, that was too laborious for most women’s patience, and, sometimes, the too-small coils wouldn’t hold. So, it was a much easier sell to those who wanted to show off their perm.

This style was more popular among the middle and upper classes, who had the money for a perm and didn’t have to perform laborious tasks that could mess up their hair. But, unlike the Pompadour, the style was sometimes worn by black women, usually singers, as it was a way to project sophistication in a way that wouldn’t offend white audience members. The look was mainly focused on a slightly raised scalp and its signature curl on the side of the forehead, both of which required pins to hold in place.

The Fringe

This look sprung from the Grecian, for those who didn’t have the super thin, coiled hair only achieved by a chemical perm. This look used curlers to make sturdier, looser curls, as opposed to thin coils.

Since the curls from this style could be made by placing curlers in the evening and sleeping through the night, it was much less of a hassle than the Pompadour. So, this was a great option for the working classes when they needed a more formal look. Because the bangs fell over the entire forehead, and the low bun required no hair wires and few pins, it was more sturdy than other complex updos, and those in the middle and upper-classes could wear it as a daily style if they chose. It was mainly popular in white populations, but had less of a stigma than the Pompadour.

Come Through, Growth!

Source: Glamourdaze Archive, various entries