What would William Prynne, one of England’s most fearsome Puritans, have made of the state of the nation’s hair, out of control as it is and running wild? Appalled by the flowing tresses fashionable among the cavaliers of the 1630s, Prynne couldn’t find enough words to condemn such excess: “Unlawful, effeminate, vainglorious, evil,” he fulminated, as recorded by the historian Lucy Worsley. “Odious, immodest, indecent … ungodly, horrid, strange, outlandish … pernicious, offensive, ridiculous, foolish, childish and unchristian.”
Horrid, strange and outlandish certainly fits the bill for the chaos up top that has been on display over the past year. Not unlawful though. During a year of lockdown, it was the law that did this to us. Only the most resourceful and capable survived with a modicum of dignity. The rest gradually fell by the wayside as the months wore on, roots grew out, and hair began to satirise faces rather than flatteringly frame them. Like doctors or priests, hairdressers have sometimes found themselves ministering telephone or online advice to clients at their wits’ end. Box dye and cutter sales have skyrocketed. For many, to go grey or not to go grey became the inescapable question.
We have all learned, of course, to be tactful and discreet. One notes, but refrains from commenting upon, the sad outcome of hair surgery performed by a loving but incompetent partner. Many bowl-haired teenagers look like they have joined the 1970s sitcom The Partridge Family. Some women just about get away with a Rapunzel look; others gaze despairingly in the mirror, as their faces disappear behind vast curtains of hair. Middle-aged men of a certain stamp, drawing on an ancient memory of Top of the Pops in 1983, develop a floppy fringe and pretend to be Tony Hadley from Spandau Ballet. But winsome only works when you’re in your 20s. Fresh-faced youth has ridden out the year best, cropping and dyeing in vivid colours and generally getting away with it.
On Monday, the nightmare will be over. The national shearing session will probably take weeks, such is the volume of demand. In Scotland, where hair salons reopened this week, some were welcoming customers through the doors at 6am. Beauty salons will be back, too. The psychological lift for millions of people will be real and important. The sociologist Erving Goffman once wrote a book called The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. For much of the past year, such presentations have been a bit of a shambles.
Perhaps, from this week, hair can finally go back to being interesting rather than just an unruly outcrop on the scalp. Its management has always been political, as the recent school controversies over afro hairstyles have illustrated. In the 1920s, the new assertiveness of women who had done men’s work in the first world war found expression in the daringly short bob. The countercultural hippy locks of the 1960s were a counterpoint to the shorn heads of soldiers sent to fight in Vietnam. Hairstyles are an adornment, but also a statement and a shaping of our presence in the world. It will be nice to have them back.
This content first appear on the guardian