Posted by Susan Doll on November 18, 2013
Last week, I was reminded of Louise Brooks when someone on Facebook noted that it was her birthday. As a film historian, I should have immediately recalled her best films—Pandora’s Box, A Girl in Every Port, Diary of a Lost Girl. Instead, my first thought was: “Great hair.”
A good haircut can be more than mere fashion or part of a glamorous appearance. It can also connote something about a character’s persona, and in some cases, tap into a larger social significance. While some male film stars have sported distinctive-looking styles (Elvis’s ducktail, Yul Brynner’s bald pate, Johnny Depp’s dreadlocks), hair is more obviously part of the identities of female characters and stars. For example, I have seen films in which a female character’s hair is shorn, shaved, or chopped off in order to extinguish or obliterate her individuality or sense of self. When I was a little girl, I watched the WWII drama 5 Branded Women, directed by Martin Ritt. The story follows five women who are accused of sleeping with the Nazis. As part of their punishment, a group of partisan men chop off their hair, obliterating their sense of femaleness and scarring them as outcasts. The film scared me, because I found the act so brutal—like destroying someone’s personal identity as a way to control or punish them.
While reflecting on novel and influential hair styles in the movies, I dismissed those hair do’s that are used for comic effect or to ridicule a character, such as Glenn Close’s doppelganger ‘do in the live-action 101 Dalmatians in which one side of her hair is white and the other black. Nor, did I consider hair-dos designed to deliberately de-glamourize a character, as in Demi Moore’s shocking buzz cut in G.I. Jane. With that in mind, here are my candidates for most memorable movie ‘do’s. Feel free to add your own choices.
Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box. The short Bob that Brooks sports in Pandora’s Box and other films was not created for her, but her sexually liberated screen characters fit the connotation of this controversial haircut. The Bob’s popularity is often attributed to ballroom dancer Irene Castle, who debuted the style in 1915. Apparently, Irene adopted the Castle Bob simply because it was convenient, but the cut became associated with the new liberating social values that followed in the wake of women winning the right to vote in 1920. The cut was a drastic departure from the long, feminine locks made popular by Dana Gibson and M. Marcel Grateau, and it appealed to bold women and flappers, who also wore long beads, short skirts, and rolled stockings. On May 1, 1920, the Saturday Evening Post published F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” in which a sweet young thing is transformed into a smooth-talking vamp after she cuts her hair. The story seemed to capture the dangers posed to women who dared cut their hair, and various organizations voiced their opposition to the haircut. Clergy warned their parishioners that a bobbed-hair woman is the same as a loose woman. Men reportedly divorced their wives because of their bobbed hair. And, a prominent department store fired any employee who wore her hair bobbed.
Mary Pickford in Pollyanna. Brooks’s Bob can be taken as a reaction to the long curls of the previous era as represented by Mary Pickford. Known as America’s Sweetheart, Pickford became a star playing adolescent girls with boundless energy and an indefatigable spirit. She excelled as a physical actor, who tussled, tumbled, climbed, fell, and moved with a natural ease and grace. In addition to being full of life, her characters were often crusaders or defenders of the oppressed. Her blonde hair, which fell in long curls over her shoulders and down her back, became a signifier of her youth, innocence, and an earlier time and place when life had been simpler. Pickford’s hairstyle had been popular during the Victorian Era when curly hair was thought to indicate a sweet disposition. After her mother died in 1928, and in an effort to age into more mature roles, Pickford cut her hair into a Bob, which made the front page of The New York Times. The public did not respond well to the new Pickford, who was introduced in the film Coquette. She retired from acting in 1933.
Jane Fonda in Klute. My favorite hairstyle of all time is the Shag sported by Jane Fonda in Klute. A shag is a cut that has been layered to various lengths. The version that was popular when Klute was released was created by barber Paul McGregor who intended it as a unisex cut. The layers were feathered at the top and sides so that the crown looked full while the hair at the sides was fringed. Fonda plays call girl Bree Daniels in Klute, who seems to be liberated by her choice of occupation, which gives her financial and emotional control. Her short hair, which runs counter to the long or overdone ‘do’s of typical calls girls, fits her aura of independence.
Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. Rosemary is a timid little housewife in Rosemary’s Baby until her husband sells his soul for success at his wife’s expense. After conceiving a child, Rosemary grows suspicious of her husband’s actions and her neighbors’ interest in her pregnancy. She is weary of their constant interference, and she asserts herself by changing her hairstyle from a cute little pageboy to a more severe cut created by young Vidal Sassoon. Director Roman Polanski paid Sassoon $5,000 to cut Farrow’s long hair in front of reporters to generate publicity for the film. The characters in the film are shocked at her new hairstyle, prompting Rosemary to declare, “It’s Vidal Sassoon!” It’s very in.” Farrow’s very short but very hip ‘do created a sensation.
Jean Harlow in Red Dust. Adhering to a Victorian-era trope, Hollywood writers and producers had generally cast dark-haired women to play the parts of vamps and vixens, but Jean Harlow altered that convention. The original Blonde Bombshell, Harlow was not always platinum in her films. But, she initially attracted her fan base with her platinum blonde hair. Legend has it that peroxide sales skyrocketed in America after Harlow burst onto the scene, though it was very easy for women to botch efforts to match her ultra-platinum color at home. Harlow’s star image was perfectly captured in the scene in Red Dust in which her character looks out a window during a typhoon, with her silver-white hair lightly blowing in the wind.
Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In 2011, hairdressers in Britain voted Audrey Hepburn’s up-‘do in Breakfast at Tiffany’s the most influential hairstyle of all time, though I don’t ever recall seeing women wearing this hairdo on a regular basis. However, combined with a little black dress and cigarette holder, it continues to be part of a popular costume at Halloween. Swept into a twist in the back, with a teased-up bouffant on the top, this style echoes the kind of hip sophistication that modern girl Holly Golightly signified. My favorite part of the style, which is most often ignored by those emulating it, is the skunking of the hair—that is, the streaks of blonde that highlight the overall dark color.
Shirley Temple in Her 1930s Films. Called sausage curls, the tightly wound curls that Shirley Temple sported in her iconic musicals for Twentieth Century Fox were an essential part of her star image. Temple’s mother personally set her daughter’s hair so that the curls would always number 56. Apparently, she developed the style because Shirley’s hair had a natural tendency to frizz. The curls accentuated Shirley’s boundless energy and optimism because they bounced and moved whenever she danced.
Veronica Lake in Her Early 1940s Films. In the days of the Production Code when stars could be sultry but never sexual, hair and legs were often signifiers to subtly suggest that a female star had sex appeal. An example was Lake’s Peek-a-boo hairstyle in which her long blonde hair cascaded over the right side of her face. The style was not only flirtatious but it added an aura of mystery, which suited her characters in such film noirs as The Blue Dahlia, This Gun for Hire, and The Glass Key. During WWII, as part of the war effort, Lake changed her hairstyle. Managers of defense factories feared that Lake’s fans who adopted similar hairstyles would get their locks caught in machinery.
Kim Novak in Vertigo. As Madeleine, the classy wife of a successful man, Novak wore her very blonde hair in a French twist, or chignon. The style was popular in the 1950s, an era when mature women deliberately cultivated European glamor and sophistication in their hair and clothing. In a chignon, the hair is pulled up into a ponytail, coiled close to the head, then secured with hair pins. During the 1950s, women wore the coil at the nape of the neck, like Madeleine does in Vertigo. The coil is akin to a spiral, which is a symbol that Hitchcock often borrowed from German Expressionists. The spiral symbolizes disorder or chaos.
Pam Grier in Foxy Brown. The Afro hairstyle stemmed from the cultural awareness that was generated in the wake of the civil rights movement. The Afro was a unisex, natural style worn by African Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. Instead of copying the long, straight hairstyles of the white mainstream, African Americans embraced their natural hair texture as a powerful statement of pride. Pam Grier, who played assertive female characters in Blaxploitation films, adopted a ‘fro in Foxy Brown, making a socio-political statement in the process.
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