TOPPING IT ALL OFF
Samson was a man whose strength was legendary. The Bible tells us that he could fight off whole armies single-handedly, and that he once killed a thousand of his enemies, the Philistines, with the jawbone of an ass. Even today, people associate him with superhuman power.
Because of a vow sworn by his parents before his birth, Samson was never to drink wine or eat the grapes it was made from, touch a dead body, or most famously, cut a hair on his head. He didn’t take those vows too seriously, however, and in time he broke all but the last one. This he kept because he knew his hair was the source of his great strength.
Unfortunately, Samson wasn’t much better at choosing women than he was at keeping promises. When he fell in love with Delilah, a Philistine beauty, she tricked him into revealing the secret of his strength and then cut off all his hair while he slept. When he woke up, he was set upon by Philistine soldiers, who easily captured the newly shorn Samson, blinded him, and put him to work as a slave. He was often placed on display, to be mocked and taunted by the Philistine people. It was a terrible life of daily humiliation and torture that offered Samson no hope of escape until his hair eventually grew back. At last reinvested with the might of several men, he was able to topple the walls of a great temple full of Philistines. His strength had returned, but at a terrible price. Three thousand people – including Samson himself – were killed.
***Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow
Samson’s story reminds us of the great power we attach to our hair. In his case, the power was physical. For the rest of us, it might be power of a subtler kind: an ability to attract mates, a sign that we are young and healthy, evidence of our wealth and position in society. We have, for centuries, spent fortunes in both money and time on our hair – cutting it, styling it, shaving it off and letting it grow, curling it and coloring it, even hiding it away beneath hats, scarves, and wigs.
Our obsession with our hair goes back to prehistoric times. Primitive men liked to smear their locks with mud or clay and tie on small trophies for added effect. For many ancient people, whose style of dress tended to be simple and unadorned, hair provided an important opportunity to display status and individuality. Hairpins, wigs, extensions, bleaches, waxes, and oils were all used to accentuate the positive and mask the negative. The Egyptians even experimented with treatments for that fear of men both ancient and modern: baldness. One “cure” advised sufferers to coat their heads with chopped lettuce leaves to stimulate growth. Bald men were also encouraged to rub their pates with the fats of lions, hippopotamuses, crocodiles, cats, serpents, and goats. There was no advice on how they were to acquire these fats – or how long they had to wear what must surely have been a pretty unpleasant concoction.
The Egyptians were a vain lot all around. If baldness wasn’t an issue, they found other hair-related worries to occupy their minds. We know, for example, that they were among the first to use dye to cover tell-tale gray. As early as 3400 B.C., they were apparently using henna, a dye extracted from a small shrub, to give their hair a reddish hue. Indigo, another dye derived from plant material, was applied to produce that blue-black color we often associate with these ancient people.
But the Egyptians were not the only ones to understand the value of an attractive head of hair. The Babylonians spared no expense in their quest to look good, powdering their locks with real gold dust. Ancient Saxons dyed their hair blue using woad, yet another dye made from a plant; Saxon women also used an ointment of burnt bear claws and swallow droppings to give their hair a glossy sheen. The Romans were so fond of their hair that it took on an almost spiritual significance. Some washed their locks only once a year, fearful that too much cleansing would scrub away the gods who protected them. And the first haircut was of such ritual importance to Roman boys that the auspicious event was recorded at city hall.
The idea that hair has some kind of magical or spiritual significance has persisted in different cultures – including ours – through the centuries. Sikhs, for instance, view hair as sacred. Throughout their lives, devout followers of Sikhism are prohibited from removing even a single hair from their bodies. They would no more cut their hair than they would remove an arm or a leg. For the ancient Greeks, hair was such a strong symbol that people would shave their heads when in mourning or decorate their doors with a lock from the deceased. We practice a less morbid version of this act of remembrance when we carry about a piece of a loved one’s hair in a locket or press a baby’s hair in a memory book.
To shave a person’s head against his will, as happened to Samson, also has great significance. Almost always, it’s an act meant to humiliate. Since ancient times, victorious armies have shaved their conquered enemies bald, a ritual that had the dual effect of degrading them and announcing their defeat to the world. Even though we have today lost many of the rites associated with hair, this is one that survives. We still shave the heads of prisoners and soldiers as the first step in a campaign to break them down and rebuild them as better models. And in France after the Second World War, women who had collaborated with the Nazis were shaved bald and paraded through the streets, their humiliation and betrayal on display for all to see.
***Flipping Your Wig
Of course, if you have been shaved or otherwise lost your mane, you always have the option of hiding your hairless state with a hat, a scarf, or the ever-popular wig. Wigs, especially, have a long history in fashion. The ancient Egyptians, both men and women, were especially fond of them and took them along even into the afterworld. For them, wigs served a practical purpose: they often shaved all the hair off their heads (and even their entire bodies), and so needed something to cover themselves with. This was not vanity but a logical solution to the very real problem of an unforgiving African sun. Wigs were removable and allowed for better air circulation, so they were both cooler to wear than real hair and a good alternative to the sweaty, greasy locks that were common in the days before shampoo and daily showers.
Among the women of ancient Rome, blonde hair was the thing to have. This look became popular around 1 A.D., when Roman gladiators returned from northern Europe with fair-haired slaves they had taken as the spoils of war. Seeing the amorous excitement these flaxen-haired women produced in their husbands, Roman wives began to look for ways to go blonde themselves. Some tried dyes made from yellow flowers, while those who could afford it simply dusted their locks with powdered gold. But for many, the easiest solution was also the most obvious: they merely cut off the locks of the captured slaves and had that hair made into thick, full wigs for themselves.
Wigs didn’t really catch on in most of Europe until the 1600s, and then they were worn almost exclusively by men. (Most women didn’t begin wearing them until the next century.) They first became popular in France, when Louis XIII disguised his baldness with a wig of dark, rich curls that fell gracefully past his shoulders and down his back. The craze soon spread to other parts of Europe, and wig-wearing remained fashionable there (and eventually in America) for the next 150 years.
Louis’s curls were meant to be taken for his own, but soon the trend was to wear white powdered wigs, sometimes called periwigs. The white color had several advantages: it masked the join where false hair met real; it disguised wigs that were of inferior quality; and it mimicked lighter-colored hair, which was the fashion at the time. The powder was made of ground starch or even plaster of Paris, and sometimes it would be scented with lavender or orange. As the trend grew, more vibrant colors were also used, including blues, violets, yellows, and pinks.
The seventeenth-century craze for wigs knew no limits. Even when rumors began to circulate that unscrupulous wigmakers were creating their wares from the infected hair of dead plague victims, people went right on wearing them. There were good reasons why. As in ancient Egypt, wigs were a much better option than greasy, seldom-washed hair, and they also helped curb the spread of head lice. The best wigs were reserved for the aristocracy, of course, but even men in the lower classes wore them if they wanted to be considered stylish. Those who couldn’t afford wigs made from real human hair had to accept poor substitutes made from horsehair, goat hair, and even the hair of yaks. One writer has referred to wig-wearing as “an ingenious conspiracy of the elderly, the moneyed, and the ungifted,” because it meant that even those with full, beautiful hair (usually the young) had to cover it if they wanted to keep up with the times.
By the time the eighteenth century drew to a close, the fashion for wigs had begun to die out. In France, where the hairpieces were so closely associated with the aristocracy, the end came with the French Revolution (1789–99). No one wanted to be caught in a wig in that turbulent society, where to wear one could spell a trip to the guillotine. In America, too, wigs became linked in people’s minds to the wealthy and privileged (and British), even though they were commonly worn in colonial times by widely admired men like George Washington and John Adams. After the American Revolution, colonists wanted to rid their society of all things “undemocratic” (and British), so wigs just had to go. In England, however, the demise of the wig was caused by a much less dramatic event than a revolution; there, an ill-considered tax on hair powder was the final nail in the proverbial coffin.
Most of us don’t wear wigs any more. For the most part, we prefer to work with what we’ve been given, cutting, straightening, curling, dyeing, and styling our own tresses. We do sometimes opt for hair extensions; these are pieces of human hair that are color-matched and then glued and woven in place to give our own hair a fuller or longer appearance. And for men who are balding and wish to try to hide the fact, there’s always the trusty toupée; like hair extensions, the best toupées should look just like a person’s natural hair.
But most wigs today are worn primarily by actors and other performers, or by people who have lost their hair because of illness. Wigs have even come under attack in the British court system, where they have long been part of the costume of judges and lawyers. In the late 1980s, some barristers with no sense of tradition began promoting the idea that these wigs should be abolished. They banded together in a group called Lawyers Against Wigs and launched a vigorous – but ultimately unsuccessful – protest against the hairpieces on the grounds that they made them look ridiculous.
***To Shave or Not to Shave
All this talk of hair leads us quite naturally to the question of shaving, which we tend to think of as a relatively modern custom. In our minds, prehistoric men ran around with woolly beards and unkempt locks, hardly distinguishable from the beasts they hunted. There is some evidence, however, in the form of cave paintings, that as early as 100,000 B.C. men used clam shells to pluck out facial hair. We know for certain that razors made of sharpened stones were in use by 30,000 B.C.
What makes men choose a hairy state over a hairless one, or vice versa? It can be any one of a number of things: religion, social standing, the preferences of the fairer sex, a need to cover a blemish or other facial imperfection, a desire to conform or (at other times) not to conform. As long as there have been civilizations, men have been alternately shaving and growing facial hair to meet one or more of these requirements.
The ancients enjoyed a nice beard, which they took as a sign of wisdom and knowledge. Egyptian kings wore the longest ones in their society, and high-ranking men and
women would don fake beards of gold or silver for special festivals and celebrations. The Greeks also favored beards – at least until the fourth century B.C. and the reign of Alexander the Great. He ordered his soldiers to be clean-shaven because he didn’t want the enemy to have anything to grab hold of during close, hand-to-hand fighting. In both these societies, the poor slaves got the short end of the stick, as usual. When the fashion was to wear a beard, they were forced to shave (sometimes their heads as well as their beards), and when the fashion was to be clean-shaven, they had to sprout whiskers on demand. In effect, they were made to advertise their low social status on their faces.
The Romans were originally bearded too, and like the Egyptians, they would wear false whiskers for special occasions. But in the third century B.C., barbers began to set up shop on the streets of Rome, and soon shaving was the thing to do. The barbershops even did double duty as social clubs and gossip mills. Very quickly, the act of shaving took on a ritualistic significance. Roman boys would let their beards grow unchecked until they reached adulthood, when they would shave and present their shorn whiskers as an offering to the gods. The clean-shaven look remained popular until the reign of Hadrian (117—38 A.D.), who reportedly wore a beard to cover facial scars and warts. That was enough to bring whiskers back in fashion once again.
For some, facial hair, or its lack, has had religious significance. The prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, urged his followers to let their beards grow. Among Muslims, shaving was considered sinful, perhaps because a clean-shaven face was thought to be too feminine. Christian clergymen in Rome also originally wore beards, but their Greek equivalents did not. When the Church split into its Eastern Orthodox and Western halves in the eleventh century, the roles were reversed. To this day, Greek Orthodox priests still favor long beards, while Roman Catholics are more likely to be clean-shaven. And of course, when Protestantism rose up in the 1500s as an alternative to Catholicism, its leaders embraced the beard as a sign of their nonconformity. And the circle continues.
Sometimes the obsession with facial hair seemed to get a little out of control. In parts of sixteenth-century Europe, men wore their beards so long that they would have to wrap the ends around their waists like a belt to be able to walk. In Russia, Peter the Great’s prohibition against whiskers resulted in a beard tax. If you wanted to keep your chin-warmer, you’d have to pay the small toll and carry around a copper disk that was, in effect, a beard license. In 1535, England’s Henry VIII also imposed a beard tax – while maddeningly continuing to sport one himself.
Soon, men were doing a lot more to their beards than simply letting them grow or shaving them off. Facial hair began to be powdered, colored, perfumed, starched – even curled with curling irons and shaped into new styles. Some men would sleep with their beards in bags or sandwiched in wooden presses to try to protect all the hard work they’d put in to styling them. Not wanting to be left out, the clean-shaven soon had their own arsenal of hair-related products, from rust-resistant razors to shaving creams. The ever-fashionable French may have given the most to the art of shaving, inventing both the shaving brush (in 1748) and the safety razor (in 1770).
In the nineteenth century, facial hair seemed to regain its old status as a mark of wisdom and intellect. No political figure or business leader could hope to succeed without a beard, a mustache, or long bushy sideburns. But by the 1900s, the pendulum had swung again. There was too much money to be made from disposable razors to allow the bearded look to persist; even women, who alas had no beards to shave, were led to believe that removing their underarm and leg hair was an absolute necessity. In fact, except for a defiant resurgence of beards in the 1960s, the clean-shaven look has predominated to this day. Modern women prefer clean-shaven men by a massive margin, and we have even become convinced, all logic aside, that the hairless look is the more manly one.
Whether we wear it short or long, on our faces or our heads, to fit in or to stand out, our hair always makes a statement. It is the one physical feature that we can change at will, without submitting to the surgeon’s knife. Straight hair that’s suddenly curled or a beard that’s unexpectedly shaved off can have a huge, instant impact on our appearance. And if we’re not happy with our new look … well, we need only wait a few weeks for the perm to grow out or the new beard to grow in. Fortunately for us, hair is remarkably forgiving of all our sudden impulses.
Excerpted from From Head to Toe by Janice Weaver; illustrated by Francis Blake. Copyright © 2003 by Janice Weaver; illustrated by Francis Blake. Excerpted by permission of Tundra Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.