Hairdressing History 101

The art of hairstyling has been a profession which has undergone many changes over the centuries. From the highly stylized wigs of the ancient Egyptians, to the Farrah Fawcett blow-out, the spectrum of hairdressing is ever-changing and always in flux. “There is nothing new under the sun,” the saying goes. Hairstylists challenge that every day.

In the ancient world, parasites and scalp issues ran rampant. The ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians often shaved their pates to ward off these infestations, and barbering was born. The trade of barbering was the first form of medicine, but more about that later. Wigs were literally a “hot” trend. The fashion ranged from the blunt-cut Cleopatra-style wigs to the extremely curled and coiffed wigs of the Roman elite. Male and female citizens both wore wigs, and they allowed them the ability to both have a natural sunscreen against the harsh desert elements, and to also remove them once inside. No such thing as air-conditioning in those days! Cutting the hair also was believed to release evil spirits and sickness from the body, which is where our next part of the journey begins.
Disease and plague were a common malady in the medieval era. Medical science was nascent and the human body was a new frontier.  Barbers were the first true doctors. Blood-letting was the primary means of relieving any ailment, and the barbering profession was the first to receive the designation of  “surgeon.” The barber pole, with its classic red and white stripes still symbolizes this practice. The red represents blood and the white represents the bandages used to bind up the patient. Barbers were also the first dentists: so you could go in for a haircut, blood-letting and extraction, all in one day! Now that’s convenience.  This continued into the Victorian era, when doctors were rare and stretched to their limits.
In the centuries to follow, hairstyling evolved slightly. As the ability to manufacture tools and machines grew during the Industrial Revolution, the actual art of coiffing the hair with irons and clippers became possible. Ladies could go into the salon, or have their hairdresser come to their home before a soiree. Subdued curls, and dramatically full styles like the Gibson Girl were all the rage. Men still frequented the barber for shaves and cuts, and hand-held manual clippers made much quicker work of the tapered styles that men favored.
Things began to shift early in the 20th century, and a move to a more relaxed, natural style for women’s hair became fashionable. During the Roaring 20s, young women began to challenge the austere, conservative values of their Victorian parents. They cropped their hair into the classic shingle-cut bob, trashed their corsets, and rolled their stockings down to the ankle. The Flapper was born.  The jazz-age woman favored finger waves, blunt bangs like the film stars of the time, and  a rebellious fun-loving attitude toward fashion. The first true sexual revolution came to fruition, and hairstylists swept the long locks off the floor just as change began to sweep the world.
After the 20s, a return to elegance and sophistication with hairstyles commenced. The silver-screen was responsible for launching the careers of many young startlets, as well as many young hairstylists, who strived to keep up with the demands of their clients. Not much has changed – Hollywood is still a driving force in the industry.  Coloring and bleaching of the hair became extremely popular during this time.  Stars such as Carole Lombard and Jean Harlow were huge influences to popular fashion of the day. The chemicals used to create the ethereal blonde locks coveted by many were extremely harsh, and it was not unusual for women to experience hair-loss and breakage from the lighteners used.  This was the golden-age of the wash and set. From pin-curls to roller sets, the volume and body that were needed to recreate these glamorous styles elevated hairdressing to a fine art.
Another paradigm shift occurred during the 40s and 50s. Women were rejoining the workforce during World War II. Long hair was a hazard in the factories, and more upswept styles became the fashion. The snood, a finely woven mesh hairnet, became popular. Rosie the Riveter’s iconic scarf was also true to the era, and women had to buckle down and save money. They often styled their hair themselves, and rationed trips to their stylists. It is an interesting note, however, that the beauty industry was one of the least-affected during the war. Women needed to feel and look pretty, even in hard times. This has proven true throughout the centuries; the beauty industry has amazing resilience, and morale is often dependent on looking and feeling ones best.
During the 60s and 70s, volume was queen. From the beehive to the back-combed pageboy, women’s hairstyles went skyward. Some attribute this to a more space-age mentality, with our interest in the space program and technology. We just think it’s because big hair is awesome.  In the 70s a free and bohemian mentality was more present, and women AND men preferred their hair long, flowing and earthy. Women ironed their hair and wore long braids. Dreadlocks began to come into fashion, inspired by Bob Marley and his Rastafarian beliefs. Later in the decade, the disco invasion became the new craze, and glamour reigned supreme. The sexy, bouncy feathered look that Farrah popularized became the goal of every soccer-mom in the country. However, the come-hither look and snug tank top were a little harder to  achieve. The blow-dryer became more widely available, and the rise of styling products began. Women could learn to recreate the style that their hairdresser gave them in the salon, at home. It was a revolution in the hair industry.
Today, hairstyling is reclaiming its place as a fine art.  Great artists such as Paul Mitchell, Vidal Sassoon, and Yosh Toya, perfected the art of precision haircutting in the 80s and 90s.  Their descendents are carrying on the torch, and today we are lucky to have brilliant innovators in our field.  Continuing education through Paul Mitchell leaves us on the cutting-edge of the profession, and we are always eager to learn more about our trade. There may be nothing new under the sun, but there are many ways to evolve and grow as a stylist. We enjoy sharing our passions with you, our clients. You are a constant source of inspiration and we are thankful that you have chosen Alchemy to lead you into your future, with style.