The Bob: the history of a hairstyle
The 20th Century bob hairstyle symbolises the independent, progressive and spirited woman. Many have turned to vintage-style bobbed hair to encourage a more daring side of their personality. Think Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Think Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. Think Louise Brooks in… well…all of her silent movies. Millie even felt thoroughly modern when her locks were shorn. When Bernice bobbed her hair in 1920 it signified a change in her personality from mousey to sassy.
Many women have turned to the bob hairstyle looking for a dramatic change inside themselves and to abandon the past along with the hair. As is usual with the 20th Century, the movies and media play a big part in promoting and popularising the fashion of the day with many women copying the styles of their filmstar idols.
Here is a complete history of the bob hairstyle in fashion.
Strong female personas throughout history have been defined by their bob hairstyle. Cleopatra is often depicted wearing aspects of the bobbed style (actually, it’s a braided headpiece). Also Joan of Arc in the 15th Century. Pioneer aviator Amelia Earhart wore cropped hair. Richard the Third…well… for him, maybe not so much about the hairstyle.
I think we all know what a bob looks like but the history of this much copied vintage hairstyle is just as exciting as the hairstyle itself. Let’s go back in time and explore…
Joan of Arc
15th Century heroine Joan of Arc may have been a direct inspiration in the creation of the bob fashion at the beginning of the 20th Century.
Celebrity hairdresser Antoine referenced the French heroine when creating his new bobbed hairstyle. It is introduced into his Paris salon around 1909 and creates a new fashion fad. This is also the year that St Joan was beatified and the French become obsessed (WW1 allied soldiers later carry her image with them to help defend France). In France the bob is referred to as ‘coupe a la Jeanne D’Arc’. 1909 is also the year that milliners introduce the simpler style of cloche hat to fashionable Paris. At this time milliners still dominate over hairdressers – there had always been tension between the two competing professions. However, modernists such as Antoineare more willing to cooperate and cut styles that fit around the latest hat fashions. The new bobbed hair becomes the perfect style to complement the fashionable cloche hat.
Joan of Arc sported a short bob more for practical reasons back in the 15th Century and to disguise her gender during the 100 years war between France and England. Trial records of the time describe her as having hair cropped above the ears, similar to her male contemporaries’ pudding bowl haircut (not a stylish look by any means).
The Hollywood silent movie Joan The Woman (1916) has Geraldine Farrar sporting a bob for the role of Joan of Arc who appears in a World War 1 soldier’s dream.
Also, the cover of George Bernard Shaw‘s script of his play St Joan (1924) depicts Joan of Arc with a Cleopatra-esque bob haircut – very fashionable for the decade.
Cleopatra and Egyptology
Cleopatra must also have had some influence on the bobbed style and the later flapper look. Archaeology and antiquarianism had developed considerably in the late 19th Century and this was of great interest in the media. Epic silent movie Cleopatra is popular in 1917 – starring the vampish Theda Bara(below).
The tomb of Tutankhamun and other mummified relics had been discovered by archaeologists by the 1920s. There was a fascination with these exotic styles and the controversial keepsakes that were brought back to Western Europe and America from aristocratic funders of the excavations.
The Marcel Iron and technology
Technological advancements in ladies hair-styling devices, originally designed to help women speed up the lengthy styling process of long hair, are also becoming popular. The Marcel Iron is a curling iron that could produce controlled waves quickly. It becomes an important tool for creating the Marcel wave (later used to style bobs in the 1920s).
Marcel Grateau began using his secret waving iron techniques in the 1880s on Parisian prostitutes – who competed to have the fanciest hair. It is only in 1885 (when he waves actress Jane Hading’s hair for a play) that his new method becomes an overnight sensation. He ends up making his fortune from this technique.
Previous to the curling iron, women had to curl their hair by simply using rags and letting the hair dry naturally. Finger-waving also became popular in the 1920s as women mould their hair into amazing undulating shapes using just their fingers, curling lotion and a comb.
In 1906 German hairdresser Charles Nestle introduces a machine in London that could produce a permanent wave which lasted for 6 months. Revolutionary! The machine effectively used a boiled alkaline solution. Not so good for the hair.
Media and popular culture
Meanwhile, back in Paris, Eastern styles are becoming highly fashionable in 1910 following a run of Scheherazade by the Ballet Russe: pantaloons, turbans and looser shapes inspired by the Arabian Nights tales.
The rising popularity of Art Nouveau design also has an influence on headwear, making shapes simpler and less fussy. Hairdressing magazines set up in the late 19th Century help to spread the word of new hair fashions to the style capitals of Paris, London and New York: Hairdressers’ Journal International in the UK; Paris-Coiffures in France; Ladies’ Home Journal in the USA.
By the time World War 1 breaks out, the new bobbed style of hair has reached the avant-garde bohemians in London (such as the Bloomsbury Set). The bob hairstyle becomes very much a European fashion amongst actresses, writers, bohemians and progressive women.
French designer Coco Chanel has her hair bobbed in 1916. Some aristocratic women in the UK further popularise the bob haircut in the media. For example Lady Diana Cooper always wore a bob just as she did as a child.
USA embraces the bob
The story of the bob as a liberating haircut for women takes off in the USA in 1915, almost by accident rather than design. Irene Castle (born 1893) is a famous American ballroom dancer and performer. She is dance partner to her husband Vernon. During the early 1910s, they popularise the new social dances in both America and Europe and open fashionable dance schools. Irene endorses fashion designs and becomes a style leader for fashionable young ladies. Hooray! Irene admits to being a very practical woman and had decided to cut her hair short prior to an appendectomy (to avoid needing to comb her hair while in hospital). She hides the short hair under a fashionable turban while it grows back. But a friend persuades her to wear the short style in public. Irene decides to go to dinner with her new short look uncovered and boom! a fashion trend is born.
This new style of short cut hair with little curls at the bottom is soon named the Castle Bob as ladies start to copy the new look. Irene Castle gives the short-haired look an air of respectability for American women.
Previous wearers of a short haircut were not considered respectable, such as French actress Polaire. She started wearing her hair short in the 1890s and toured the USA with a nose piercing – ‘how vulgar!’ they must have cried.
World War 1 effect
Irene’s practical reasons for cutting her hair become even more appealing during World War 1 as it becomes more acceptable for women to cut their hair to take on military duties and Red Cross work. Women are also becoming more active and health conscious and taking part in more athletic pursuits. It is also considered more hygienic – a modern concern for the woman-about-town as access to hot water becomes easier and more affordable.
A rising number of women in the 1910s are rejecting the politics of the day and campaigning for women’s rights to vote. This is picked up by the media and coincides with the advancement of consumer culture and technology. Magazines of the day debate the idea of bobbing the hair and young women embrace the new look which distances them from the Gibson Girl feminine ideal.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
In 1920 a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald is published in the USA’s Saturday Evening Post magazine. The story is titled Bernice Bobs Her Hair and tells the tale of a young sweet girl who is transformed into an avenging vamp merely by getting a bob haircut. The story becomes a talking point for the fashionable young ladies of New York.
By 1921 the bob is sported by celebrities such as Louise Brooks, Coco Chanel, Joan Crawford, Clara Bow, Colleen Moore, Ina Claire and Dutch film star Truus van Aalten. Fitzgerald claimed:
“I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth, Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble.”
Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda was also a wearer of the bob style and the flapper attitude to match it. Fitzgerald called her the first American flapper.
The bob will forever be defined as the 1920s look as the female revolution quickly abandons old rules of femininity and fashion. After the personal freedom allowed them during the World War 1, young women go out to work, get permission to vote, play sports and demand to leave the house unchaperoned (oh my!).
Women are becoming emancipated and financially independent, especially since so many men had been lost to the war or died from Spanish flu epidemic in the years that followed. Giving up long hair becomes a symbol of an independence and strength equal to men.
Many commentators predict this new wave of bobbing the hair to be a fashion that will soon pass. Hairdressers, more accustomed to styling and waving long hair, are shocked to discover that the urge to bob is taking on a fervour that they need to take advantage of. New York, however, is not quite prepared for the queues of women outside barber shops waiting to take the plunge and bob their hair.
At this time, in New York, hairdressing salons did not really exist in great numbers. It takes a while for the style to get a more professional look after the European hairdressers move in on the opportunity to answer the demand. Just a few years later, by 1923, women of New York are wearing the bob in waves and shingle cuts.
The shingle cut
The shingle cut, introduced to Belle Epoque Paris by Polish-born hairdresser Antoine ‘de Paris’, is considered masculine and severe at first but soon becomes popular.
In 1924 Antoine opens his New York salon on Fifth Avenue to respond to the demand for cutting women’s hair. This new style fuels the flapper girl spirit to be more and more daring and controversial in style. Incidently, the term ‘flapper’ has for centuries been a slang word in the UK to refer to, how shall I put it?, an impetuous young woman of easy virtue.
The shingle cut is named after the method for tiling roofs which allows tiles to overlap each other. The look of the rows of waves and layers over a closely shorn neck closely resemble the row of sloping shingles used on a roof.
Singer Mary Garden has this to say when she is interviewed in Pictorial Review in 1927:
“Bobbed hair is a state of mind and not merely a new manner of dressing my head…When I consider the achievements of women in the past few years in the field of athletics I find it impossible to do so without taking into account the tremendous freedom-giving changes in fashion that have accompanied them. And enjoying the blessings of short hair is a necessary part of those fashion changes. To my way of thinking, long hair belongs to the age of general feminine helplessness. Bobbed hair belongs to the age of freedom, frankness, and progressiveness.” from “Why I Bobbed My Hair,” Pictorial Review, April 1927 (www.historymatters.gmu.edu)
The Eton crop
The Eton crop briefly becomes the extreme fashion choice for the flapper who really wants to cause a stir. This style largely resembles a masculine hairstyle and is groomed very close to the head. Women’s sexuality is questioned as gender-bending becomes a fashionable pursuit. Josephine Baker is known for this type of severe hairstyle.
Plenty of women decide to keep their hair long in the 1920sbut they can still look fashionable by pinning it up into a style that resembles a bob. This can easily be done by turning the long hair under at the nape of the neck and pinning it into place (see picture, right).
Many women also cover up their short bob style on certain occasions by using creatively designed hairpiece pins (postiches) to hide the shorn section at the back of the neck.
Indeed some women even keep the hair that had been cut off only to re-attach it when the occasion called for them to be more ‘traditional’.
By the time the 1930s roll around, bob styles are becoming less short and severe and more feminine and sophisticated. The bob is not going to go away that quickly: women have been changed forever.
The bob evolves through the movie star styles of Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Katherine Hepburn, Carole Lombard and Ginger Rogers.
They all wear a more sophisticated, natural and less severe version of the bob haircut throughout the 1930s and 40s. However it still symbolised the independent, modern lady in her many forms.
The page boy and gamine looks become popular with bohemian types.
Bobs are once again symbolising youth and the teenage look with jaw length styles that are less wavy and more smooth, structured and flicked out at the ends. Housewives are wearing their hair in a structured bob almost sitting like a helmet on the head and gallons of hairspray.
Think Doris Day, who modelled the bob in its varying shapes throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The bob, unfortunately, is losing its revolutionary edge until…….
The 1960s bob
In the 1960s the bob is about to become as radical a style shape as in the 1920s and will symbolise a further phase of female emancipation. Young women take interest in the future and distance themselves from the stuffy austere past of their parents (does this sound familiar?).
In 1963 Vidal Sassoon re-styles the bob and its attitude for the 1960s by creating the five point bob cut.
It is short, geometric, angular, unfussy. This time the bob is easier to style as the shape lies in the cut and can be styled at home.
Sassoon begins another bob revolution that speaks to liberated young women. Fashion designers Jean Muir and Mary Quant, at the heart of Swinging Sixties London, become known for making fashionable the 1960s bob.
UK model Twiggy (Lesley Hornby) also wears a style not unlike the severe Eton Crop of the early 1920s and becomes a sensation. She is poster girl for a new generation and look.
In fact, aspects of the 1920s spirit, style and fashion was very much in vogue in the 1960s and early 1970s. Many stars also donned a bob during this era: Julie Christie, Barbara Streisand, Diana Rigg, Amanda Barrie and singers such as Keely Smith and Diana Ross.
Thoroughly Modern Millie, a musical film starring Julie Andrews is released in 1967. It is a jolly pastiche of the 1920s flapper girl attitude and continues the late 1960s love affair with 1920s style and culture.
By the 1970s, the coiffured look is out and a more natural way of styling the hair is considered sexy. The hippy outlook had its influence on killing the more structured styles of the 1960s.
During the 1976 Winter Olympics, ice skating champion Dorothy Hamill‘s bob becomes a sought after style. The pageboy look is most definitely ‘in’ and many take to wearing this low-maintenace cut: Kate Jackson in Charlie’s Angels and Joanna Lumley in The New Avengers.
Punk style also raises its ‘ugly’ head and the fashion for anti-fashion begins: Debbie Harry creates her own messy style of anti-fashion bob in the new wave band Blondie.
So, as the decade wears on, the bob diversifies even more and becomes more of a stylistic choice than a symbol of anything deeply radical.
In the 1980s the bob haircut starts to diversify further and creative cuts are used to show off the talents of high-profile hairstylists.
Rebellious Dutch hairdresser Christiaan Houtenbos creates the buzz bob in 1984. From the front it can look like a classic bob cut but the back is shaved underneath the shape.
Also the radical look of buzz-cutting the sides or one side becomes a futuristic fashion trend for many.
The spiky punk style has morphed into a futuristic spiky bob. Pris, Daryl Hannah’s character in Blade Runner (1982) has a punky bob, as does pop stars Siouxsie Soux (above), Hazel O’Connor and Toyah Wilcox.
The bob also goes retro in the mid-80s as jazz and nostalgic music become popular for a while. Think Swing Out Sister, Martika and Lisa Stansfield (with her contemporary Eton crop).
The sleek bob in the style of Louise Brooks also becomes a very popular look. Actresses also wear this sleek style such as Phoebe Cates, Patsy Kensit and Molly Ringwald.
There is also a new type of textured bob which was messier and layered, influenced by the punk/Indie look: Beatrice Dalle in Betty Blue (above); Samantha Mathis and Winona Ryder.
Perms also become popular and the curly bob is seen as a sophisticated move away from the sleek boyish bobs and funky textured looks. It seems that for a while everyone has a curly bob in the mid 1980s and Madonna revamps the 1930s bob style in her 1989 video Express Yourself whilst filming scenes for the Dick Tracy film of 1990 (below).
In the mid-1990s the bob goes into hibernation for a while and eventually the just becomes another hairstyle choice. Bobs come in all shapes, sizes and colours and even become popular with men looking for an air of French sophistication (men have been successfully getting away with bobs in France for sometime now).
In fact the bob is no longer a symbol of liberation or modernity in the 1990s. Everyone from Whitney Houston to Courtney Love and even Emo Phillips expresses personal style through the bob haircut.
The future of the bob haircut
In the 21st Century, I think the bob has nowhere left to go as its versatility has meant that many people have tried a bob hairstyle just for a change of style for a while.
Bobs will often now signify a relatively safe alternative: retro, chic, edgy, vintage, arty.
Now we also have tame bobs: soft classic bobs that are flattering and not too severe; bobs that don’t look like bobs and back to bobbing the hair for practical reasons. And, if you are Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, the bob is the only haircut to be taken seriously in fashion circles.
Is there anywhere left for the bob haircut to go?
For me, the bob will always be the epitomé of French style from Joan of Arc to Polaire to Coco Chanel to Betty Blue to Amelie. But I love its daring history.
How do you feel about the bob?