Long May It Wave

Fashion and its victims.
July 10 1997 3:30 AM

Long May It Wave

In praise of hair.

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The perpetual hair crisis is never over. Hair produces 10 times the anxiety clothes ever stir up--nobody admits to having a bad clothes day, for example. Fashion in coiffure naturally relates to what's cool below the neck, but since we mostly grow our hair ourselves, its visual life has a stronger meaning than that of pants and shirts. A man I know, a distinguished professor of philosophy at a distinguished university, has just had his short, light-brown hair dyed platinum blond. What made him do that? He wanted, he told me--this man's career is based on deep thinking and he lives in amorous harmony with a woman--to look like a gay weight lifter. So he does, sort of. His new hair produces a fine ambiguous effect, a not-so-easily-readable physical presence that can blend in with several wayward forms of nonacademic company. It also gives just the slightest salutary fright to colleagues and students.

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Not everybody pinpoints his own wishes as accurately as my friend, but since the death of compulsory hats, men and women have allowed their personal fantasies to focus on hair even more than on clothes. Clothes are public husks, they shift on and off your body and in and out of fashion and your life; you can hide your alternate selves, or your mistakes, in the back of the closet. But hair is only partially public. Since it stays with you continuously, even while you're naked, your hair adorns your most intimate identity, just as your face does, and only secondarily supports the roles you play in life. What you do with it has to satisfy in both realms. Not so easy in our hyperconscious and fractional modern world.

The hard thing is that the comforting fantasy you realize on your head may seem like quite another thing to the world. You cut your hair very short to feel young and free; your audience sees the look of a plucked turkey. Your haircut imitates a movie star's; in it you resemble a schoolteacher. In fact, hair fantasy is mostly unconscious and so is the response to it. Our personal failures count as such only if we feel that our hidden hair agenda fails us. Most others don't notice anything.

The publicity of private hair is a long story; it figures in the willingly shaven heads of ancient priests and modern skinheads, in the punitive shearing of male convicts and female French collaborators, in huge powdered wigs and elaborately extended curls or braids. Politically charged hair doubtless dates straight back to humanity's first racial conflicts, perhaps preceded by its earliest social conflicts. It's the hair of the enemy that marks him as such, as with the flowing tresses of royalist Cavaliers (effete tyrants) and the cropped hair of parliamentary Roundheads (crude thugs) during the English Civil War. Partisan passion about hair has been keenest in gender politics--expressed mainly by women cutting off their hair and by men growing it--since hair is universally erotic and has no function except as a vehicle of pleasure and meaning. The idea that men and women must wear differing coiffures goes very deep, since visible hair is what should reveal the invisible difference between the bodies. This shows up in pictures of Adam and Eve before the Fall, where his hair is always rather short and hers is always very long and noticeable, as if God had personally styled them that way from the beginning.

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F or some years now women have been wearing disorderly hair as a rule--the more chic the messier. An insouciant, infantile carelessness seems to be the desired effect, even if a well-tailored suit is covering a well-tended body below the helter-skelter head. This custom suggests new stages in the old rebellion against religious strictures, which once demanded that female hair--divinely ordained to be long and seductive--be covered up lest it incite lust. In the modern West, progressive slackening of those rules came to permit naked hair for women, but only under visible control--not hidden, but very well-dressed in public. Even short hair was eventually acceptable for women, too, but visibly careful grooming was still the rule for fashionable female heads until the last 15 years or so.

Since then we've been having the mop and the shag and the mane and the haystack, with straight and curled, long and short versions of each, sometimes untidily caught up in clamps and clasps and elastic bands. Hair in historical movies is often the same, never mind the elaborately coiled and oiled evidence of history. It would seem that the more powerful modern women feel, the less they want their hair to look submissive--and that includes neat. By contrast the complex systems of braids worn by many black women seem like elegant reincarnations of ancient Egyptian or Minoan practice, a civilized display of effort made, precise care taken, beauty manifestly pursued and achieved in the most august tradition.

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T his idea is even fashionably acceptable for the chic face and body and for certain clothes, but not for modish hair. Heaven forbid that the old tease-and-spray routines should appear habitual to Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy or the supermodels. The look of money spent, yes--mops and haystacks do actually need a constant attention that braids don't; and elaborate processes for streaking and tinting and correctly disarranging them can rack up a very noticeable tab. But the overall impression must remain that of no trouble taken whatsoever, even to make a straight part, so that the hair looks as if sun and wind and some tumbling in bed were all it ever got. Anything too processed might smack of oppression or repression, pretension or hypocrisy, maybe acknowledged alliance with reactionary values, the Margaret Thatcher effect. Coiffed hair is desirable for TV anchorwomen and political candidates, as a proper concession to masculine convention, but not when off-duty.

Men have a harder time with their hair. Censure for hairstyles has mostly fallen on men, since male appearance has forever mattered so much at war and work. Detailed rules have much more often been applied to male rather than to female arrangements. As a result men are much more afraid of looking ridiculous than women are, since female fashion has risk built into it. For men's hair, the cosmic risk is the possible baldness haunting them all, and that only adds to the high tension attending male choices.

Modern men have been saddled with an image of strong simplicity, the neat suggestion of an upper-class sporting and military milieu. That Ralph Laurenish note blends quite well with proletarian chic or the skinhead aesthetic. The visual keynote is sharp clarity, so that the overall norm is neat, short hair, give or take a few inches. Long and flowing is occasional, really messy is exceptional. But dreadlocks aside, modern pared-down male looks, even daring ones, will not permit any deliberately ornamental curling and braiding and powdering and adorning of hair. That mostly leaves creative topiary, with shearing and partial shearing included, for the fantasy life of male hair.

Flagrant dyeing for men is also becoming more common, following female practice--but not in the mainstream, out of which my academic friend is so eager to keep. At an earlier period, this same adventurous philosopher briefly affected the softly stubbled face, and still earlier the quarter-inch-long haircut then uncommon even at the margins, except in military school. When he did that, I said, how could you? why did you? wailing at the loss of his fine thatch and simultaneously unable to keep from stroking his mown, velvety skull. "Q.E.D.!" said he with satisfaction. Touché.

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