Hair: Then and Now

A revival of the 60s’ seminal American tribal rock musical, “Hair,” is currently on Broadway.

Farrah Fawcett died last month.

Those two seemingly unrelated events got me thinking about hair in general, and how we take it for granted.   We style it, or we cap it, or we blow it, or tie it, or flat-iron it, but it’s usually nothing more than a part of our total grooming routine.  For some, it might be a 30-second part.  For others, it might 30 minutes.  But I know that no matter what, having it, or not having it, matters.

I love the story my cousin told me.  My cousin is a political journalist for a cable news channel in Boston.  She’s interviewed political candidates on national debates.  She’s a solid journalist.  But when she was earning her stripes, she was given the chance to anchor a news show.  She prepared, she was nervous, she stared into the camera and gave it all she got.  When the cameras stopped rolling, she was sent to her boss’s office.  She sat down, and thinking she was going to get accolades for her brilliant, on-point work, she asked, “Well, how was it?  Did I deliver OK?  Were the stories relevant?”  And her boss brushed her aside and said, “Oh, yeah, all that was fine, but what was with your hair??”

My mother had beautiful platinum blonde hair and was known for it.  She never bought a box of hair dye in her life–although many were skeptical, it was so blonde, so pure.  Who was actually born with hair that color?

When she was 50, she was scheduled for brain surgery, to repair two looming aneurysms in her brain.  Before the nurses came in for the pre-op hair shaving routine, she had already done it herself–leaving piles of spun platinum gold on her hospital tray–she was OK with having her skull opened up, but the thought of losing her hair devastated her.  Of course, many victims of the side effects of chemotherapy would attest to the emotional toll of losing one’s hair.

And that’s not just a woman’s issue.  Men aren’t crazy about losing their hair either.  It seems that these days there are more and more shiny heads out there–men who intentionally have gone for the hairless look, rather than to appear to be in the process of losing it involuntarily.  Or maybe it’s about control, and maybe the choice-to-be-bald is the same as my mother’s choice to take the scissors to her own head.  It’s OK if YOU are the Master of Your Pate and shave it all off, but to have nature thumb its nose at you… that’s just not acceptable.

Hair is an easy way to make a statement–after all, it’s right on top of your head, and you’re always wearing it.  If you’re not into the tattoo as personal bumper sticker, you can still talk with your hair.  Lady Godiva did it, hiding her nudity behind her long locks.  The more progressive women of the 20s did it by letting down their pinned hair and bobbing it.   And of course, no one has to ask why young people of the 60s wanted hair that was “long, straight, curly, fuzzy, snaggy, shaggy, ratty, matty.”  It was to differentiate themselves from the crew-cut wearing, Bryl Cream gleaming, bouffant-do-ing, pin-curling parents.   Chopping one’s locks can also be a spiritual ritual.  I still remember watching Franco Zefferelli’s movie “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” back in the early ’60s and the scene in which Saint Claire started a religious order and cut off her luxurious long hair was just as compelling to me as when St. Francis was struck with the stigmata.

I recently asked my hairdresser what the latest ‘do is, and she said that Katie Holmes is calling the coif shots now–now that her hair is short, people are flooding the salons to chop their hair off.   From Clara Bow, to Marilyn, to Dorothy Hamill, to Farrah, to Jennifer Aniston, to Katie Holmes, every now and then someone comes along with something as simple as a haircut to define a generation.

Fashion Statements


How New York Dressed the World:  1925-1965   June 12, 2009, 7 PM, Brick Presbyterian, 62 E 92nd Street, NYC

How New York Dressed the World: 1925-1965 June 12, 2009, 7 PM, Brick Presbyterian, 62 E 92nd Street, NYC Photo credit: Britt Boyd

On June 12, at 7 p.m., New York City Coalition Against Hunger will be sponsoring a benefit fashion show.  But this is not a typical fashion show–it is a retrospective of fashion in America from 1925-1965, coordinated by designer William T. Buster.  

I’m really looking forward to this event, and not because my daughter has been coordinating it as a VISTA intern/graphic designer for the non-profit group, but because the sociological aspects of fashion have always been fascinating to me.   It is not just a random occurrence, for instance, that hemlines were short in the 20s and longer in the 40s.  There seems to be a documented correlation between the good times and short hems, and between fiscal conservatism, as in the war years,  and conservative dress.

No matter how much or how little into fashion you are, you make a fashion statement whether you know it or not.  For those who came of age in the 60s, the hippie dress that was supposed to say that you didn’t care about what you wore only masked the fact that you did care–you cared about associating with others who didn’t care.  If you wear an L.L. Bean flannel shirt every day with Dockers pants, don’t be so smug in thinking that you are immune to fashion. We know who you are–and that’s what fashion’s about–revealing a little bit about who you are and where you stand in relationship to society.    

I once sat and tried to figure out a completely statement-neutral mode of attire, and I could not think of one.  Even if someone dropped off a random bag of clothes on my doorstep from Goodwill and I picked out a random outfit, the fact that I am wearing a random outfit from Goodwill is a statement in itself.  

It’s fascinating to think about how people choose their clothes to reflect where they stand, or where they wish to stand in society.  My mother-in-law spent a significant chunk of her savings when she was working as a clerk in Macy’s on a mink coat– a huge status symbol of the 50s and 60s.   Now, fur is still used in fashion for sure, but in a very understated way–as a collar, or a hood lining.  Wearing fur makes the statement that you are either ignorant of the suffering of the animal who dies for your vanity or you don’t care.  

Then there are jeans, and there are JEANS.  There are your basic Levis, and there are your designer denims.   You will make a different statement depending upon whether you’re spending $30 or $300 for your jeans.

Dress-down day at work doesn’t mean you can ignore all the unspoken (or written) rules of the office.  You can be casual in khakis, but not in tank tops.  If you wear flip-flops on dress-down day, even if allowed, what will that say about your career aspirations?  

imagesAge has its own rules.  My mother once advised me, “If you wore it once, you can’t wear it again.”  That meant if you rode the Mary Quant trend in the 60s, you can’t wear those cute little A-line minis now that they are back again.  You’ll just look silly.   My son will ask me, “Mom, do you like this outfit?”  and my reply is always, “Who am I to judge?”  I might think that a t-shirt worn with a dressy suit vest and a tartan scarf looks kind of weird, but it’s not for me to say.  I don’t know the “rules” for the Gen Y indie music crowd.

I always admire people who can step over the lines.  When I saw the movie “Erin Brockovich,” about the spunky law clerk who wound up effectively winning a huge class-action lawsuit, I loved the fact that her couture is more suited for someone associated with a bar, as in drinking dive, as opposed to THE Bar, as in the legal profession.  

Some people try to be as innocuous as possible.  I was watching the Johnny Cash biopic, “Walk the Line,” yesterday and his manager said to him, “What are you doing in that outfit?  You look like you’re going to a funeral!”  Of course, how else do you think about Johnny Cash without the black shirt, black slacks, black sunglasses?  It’s his personal uniform, as much as Dolly Parton’s is her far-from-innocuous low necklines and big wigs.

One of the things I recall most fondly about my Great-aunt Florence was the fact that every single day she got up, put on a colorful, well-made, well-fitting sheath, a triple string of pearls, earrings and lipstick.  I was 21 when she died at the age of 92, and by that time a lot of her friends had passed on, but that didn’t stop her from putting on her “uniform” every single day.   I’m sure she felt she had to–out of pure self-respect.  Because fashion can also tell others what you think about yourself.  

It’s going to be fun to go to “A Full Plate of Fashion:  Fighting Hunger with Style” on the 12th of June, because I love the story of human culture through the ages.  We can’t get away from self-expression through our dress.  Even tribal cultures have very strong dress codes.   In a sense, we are what we wear, individually as well as collectively.  So we might as well pay attention to it.

Raison d’Etre

On vacation, I like itineraries. I like purpose. If we are out for the day, I chart my map, research the shops and museums that we must see, and my only anxiety comes from fear that my husband will divert us in some way, knowing full well that he will.

My husband Jim is a meanderer. His favorite way to spend a vacation day is to get in the car, and just see where it takes us–almost like a Oija board on four wheels. While this MO definitely makes me a little fearful that my to-do list is doomed, I must admit that I’m not quite sure that without Jim’s meanderings we would have ever made it to the top of that obsure mountain above Fort William in Scotland, where we comingled with sheep and schoolchildren, sharing a bird’s eye view of the town for the better part of an hour. Nor would we have discovered Weston Priory in Vermont, where my husband–uninvited but also unapologetic–drove up the driveway only to find that visitors were indeed welcomed with open arms to the services and to sit at their pond and read. Now, we are frequent daily visitors, and occasional overnight visitors there. Would this blessing have occurred if we hadn’t been meandering?

So the purpose of this blog is mental meanderings. I have a few essays that i have written in the past that I want a dumping ground for and these will be noted, but most of the material will be fresh and new and frankly, since I haven’t started meandering yet, I can’t say exactly what the journey holds.