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What about Short Hair for Women?

Dear TIA,

I have been wondering what hair styles for matronly women have been historically until more modern times. I have grown so tired of seeing older women - even traditional Catholic women - with hair shorter than many men wear, and can't help but wonder what it was customary for women to do with their hair as they became gray and/or older, and even elderly.

I can't help but think that they must have put it up in some sort of "bun", but I recall my own grandmother having a shorter, curly styled hair in the years I knew her, but that was during the 1960s, '70s and early 1980s. Can you give any information or a site that discusses this issue?

     Thank you very much,

     E.S., Ph.D.

TIA responds:

Dear Dr. E.S.,

19th century hair styles


19th century hairstyles

We are pleased to respond to your question. It is topic that we had already considered addressing, and your request provided us with the opportunity.

You may find it interesting to learn that until the first years of the 20th century, women had long hair. Waist-length tresses were not uncommon, and longer hair was the norm due to the fact that cutting women’s hair was something done only as a necessity, as in extreme sickness. Long hair was considered a mark of femininity.

Young women and girls wore their long tresses in braids, or cascading ringlet curls in the 19th century. Older women usually wore their hair braided and coiled atop their heads or in French-style twists pinned loosely along the nape and crown.

If you look at this brief history of hair, you will see that, apart from some extravagant court styles, through the centuries there were no radical changes in hair styles for women.

Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, the revolution in hair styles for women began.

Mode à la garçonne or ‘the bob’

In 1908, the modernist couturier Paul Poiret broke dramatically with convention when he chopped the models’ hairs for the presentation of his collection in Paris. In France the short hair style was called mode à la garçonne, that is, the hairstyle of a man.

In American English, the short hair cut for women was simply called the ”bob,” a reference to the boy’s nick-name Bob since the style was viewed as a ‘boy’s cut.’

By 1917, many in the “smart set” were cutting their hair short and, in a few years, the bob was attaining epidemic proportions. This style was supposed to represent the ‘New American Woman’: a busy, active and independent woman, liberated from old social customs.

the bob


The bob or boy cut

Many critics in Europe saw this as a sign of the rising feminism, and predicted that short hair for women would be a passing fancy. The First World War, however, instead of dimisnishing that trend, accelerated it. As women came into the workplace, they adopted shorter haircuts made popular by actresses such as Eve Lavallière and Isabella Duncan.

The end of the war released the fashionable classes from whatever moral restraints or social inhibitions that had kept them following the previous traditions. At celebratory galas and victory balls, hairstyles were short, ladies revealed their shoulders, and skirts were moving up. Young flappers appeared on scene with bobbed hair and shockingly short skirts.

The cutting edge of hair fashion in 1914 – predicted to be short-lived – had become the mainstream by the time of World War II. What is certain is that the mode à la garçonne signaled a major transition in the ideal of feminine beauty and behavior. Where maturity had once defined the perfect woman, the emphasis had turned toward youthfulness and constant change.

The passion for youthfulness and boyishness had consequences – post WWII fashions emphasized slimness, athleticism, breeziness, rebelliousness. The bob and dresses exposing nubile legs became signposts that marked a younger hip generation, a social revolution.

This revolution in fashion sent women en masse for first time in history to the beauty salons, or salons d’ondulation, where ladies received “waves” (permanents), curling iron stylings, hair colorings – the platinum blonde like Jean Harlow appeared. All this - including the taste for short hair - then entered the habits of the mainstream.

Holywood stars

Stars and models played a big role in promoting short hair: first row, Eve Lavilliere and Isadora Duncan; second row, Audrey Hepburn and Twiggy

The ‘60s broke every residue of decorum

HAIR musical 1968


HAIR musical in 1968: anarchy of customs symbolized by rebellious hair styles
By the end of the 1960s another revolution in mode and costumes showed up with an amazing energy. Under slogans like "forbidden to forbid" and “power to the imagination", thousands of young men and women protested around the world against the social values, moral and ethics inherited from former generations.

Hairstyles and dresses became more liberal and bold: afro or twiggy style boy cuts for woman and long hair for men were “in.” Hair became an open symbol of protest and rebellion against traditional values. The new styles were inspired by diverse revolutionary movements, such as feminism, the hippy rebellion, the guerilla communist Black Power, etc.

After that, style was open to anarchical variations, and every possible hairstyle would be accepted including grunge, the unwashed look and many androgynous styles. By the 1990s almost every woman – young and old, and including some vain men – were coloring their hair.

The lack of opposition to the punk movement made the most extravagant haircuts acceptable, such as the Mohawk, commonly seen in youth of both sexes in high-schools, and the green, blue, red or violet hair colors now in fashion, especially but not exclusively among women.

butch cuts lesbians


'Butch' cuts for lesbians
With the legalization of homosexual “marriages,” many lesbian who play the role of “men” in their torpid relationships started to sport a radical extreme of the bob style: They not only imitate men in their haircut, but even sport a military or butch cut.

I offer this brief history of the massive change that took place in women’s hairstyles in the 20th century with the aim of showing that all these changes, starting with the bob, were revolutionary in intent. Those styles were introduced with the aim of feeding the feminist revolution, of making women want to look and dress more like men, to adopt bold new attitudes and break with the traditional feminine behavior.

While at first, it was the young “fast set” that adopted these styles, they gradually entered the mainstream customs. This is why you can remember your grandmother with short, curly hair: she was following the style of the day.

A counter-revolutionary stance

How does a counter-revolutionary Catholic woman respond to this revolution in hairstyles that only began in the 20th century? I believe it is good to return to the ideal of the feminine woman, and that the short cuts should be avoided, especially for matrons.

queen matilde


Queen Matilde of Belgium offers a feminine model at her royal inauguration

When a woman finds a style that is suitable for her – dignified and not difficult to maintain – she should adopt it, and not be constantly following the latest fashion.

Today, it is indeed fashion that has become the dictator of women’s lives. In our opinion, it behooves them to break with this tyranny and pay less attention to the “latest” trends set by movie stars and top-models, who are not model ideals for Catholic women.

We believe that if women are aware of the revolutionary process of hair styles, it becomes easier to break with this fashion tyranny and to return to women’s femininity. Let us look for model ideals of womanhood that maintain a feminine ideal, and, in general, that ideal includes longer hair for women.

We hope this history and reply may help you,


     TIA correspondence desk


Blason de Charlemagne
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Posted Januray 16, 2014


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