Detail of Marie-Antoinette in Court Dress
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Lebrun. Detail of Marie-Antoinette in Court Dress, 1778. Oil on canvas, 107 ½ × 76 inches. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Yassana Croizat-Glazer shares a historical perspective on the power of hair and why lockdown haircuts have become a source of angst.

In many respects, I’ve been a risk-taker in my life and yet, I’ve never had the courage to cut my hair short or change it in any meaningful way since reaching adolescence. Jim Morrison, whom I’ve revered since around the time I settled on my hairstyle, once confessed that “some of the worst mistakes in my life were haircuts.” I have long feared such regrets, even as I’ve sincerely gushed over my friend’s new ombré pixie. These days, hair keeps popping up in my conversations, and I’ve come to realize that there’s more going on than the mere desire to inject a note of banality in discussions otherwise steeped in existential concerns. As many of us continue to spend a lot of time at home and to work and socialize primarily through Zoom, the question of what to do with shaggy dos, faded color and stray grays emerges as one intimately tied to the larger process of reassessing our identities in this novel, anxiety-riddled reality

Lucas Cranach the Elder. Samson and Delilah
Lucas Cranach the Elder. Samson and Delilah, ca. 1528–30. Oil on beech, 22 ½ × 14 7/8 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Cultures across time and space have consistently shown us that hair, that seemingly innocuous, more or less numerous collection of tough protein filaments, is extraordinary. How we choose to wear it speaks volubly about our beliefs, values, fears and aspirations. Remove it and its absence makes a statement—sometimes the most telling of all. So whether you flaunt it or shave it, there is no getting around the fact that hair is inextricably linked to power, something that many artists throughout history have thoughtfully examined. Among the most direct visualizations of this concept are representations of the Old Testament story of Samson, an Israelite judge whose legendary strength was owed to his long hair (I’m pretty sure Jim Morrison could relate). Samson made the mistake of revealing this secret to his beautiful lover, Delilah, whose tribe, the Philistines, were eager to seek revenge on him for murdering a thousand of their people. In one of his interpretations, German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder captures the climactic moment when Delilah’s sheers are just beginning to slice through somnolent Samson’s curls as Philistine soldiers approach. A voluptuous atmosphere pervades the small painting, courtesy of the luscious greenery that cradles the couple and of Delilah’s seductive allure. To the panel’s original 16th-century audience, the scene would have acted not only as an admonition against telling secrets, but also as a reminder to men of the dangers of letting themselves be beguiled by women, regarded as naturally cunning.     

Petrus Christus. Portrait of a Female Donor
Petrus Christus. Portrait of a Female Donor, c. 1455. Oil on panel, 16 7/16 × 3 5/8 inches. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Just as Samson’s hair flows so is Delilah’s tightly constrained by a sumptuous calotte, a net of gold embellished with pearls, which was fashionable in the 1530s. Add a velvet beret and she would be styled as a married woman, since in Saxony (and many other places in Europe at the time), wives were expected to bind and cover their hair, while loose tresses were reserved for virgins. What hair wasn’t kept under wraps was meticulously plucked to give the face a more oval—i.e. desirable—shape. Hair removal preparations were also used, sometimes containing ingredients harsh enough to strip flesh as well. The fashion for high foreheads was especially pronounced in 15th-century Northern Europe, as revealed in the work of Netherlandish painter Petrus Christus, whose sitters possess an otherworldly aura, courtesy of stereometric heads, pencil-thin brows and lofty headdresses.

Caravaggio. Medusa
Caravaggio. Medusa, ca. 1597. Oil on canvas over wooden shield, 21 ¾ inches diameter. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

That admiring a woman’s hair might be fraught with peril was a favorite literary trope, appearing for example, in a poem dedicated entirely to hair, which was written in France in 1536. Not without fetishistic undertones, the poet, Matthieu de Vauzelles, addresses his thoughts directly to his silky subject, remarking at one point that hair is like Medusa in its ability to transform those who enjoy looking at it too much. Since mythological Medusa, with writhing snakes in place of locks, could turn those who stared at her to stone, the verse suggests hair’s ability to sexually arouse, but also to render its admirer powerless. Vauzelles refers to the object of his fascination (and intimidation) as “made golden by the sun.” Nearly two centuries earlier, the Florentine poet Petrarch had repeatedly described the perfection of his beloved muse Laura, down to her hair “more blond that polished gold,” setting a standard of beauty women were expected to achieve throughout the Renaissance (and beyond, as Barbie would agree). Hardly a modern practice, hair dyeing was used to achieve the desired shade, contemporary cosmetic treatises offering numerous recipes, using substances ranging from fragrant saffron to astringent alum. In a culture in which, for the most part, women’s behavior was strictly regulated, their hair, both desired and feared, could easily slip into the role of bridle. 

Marie-Antoinette in Court Dress, 1778.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Lebrun. Marie-Antoinette in Court Dress, 1778. Oil on canvas, 107 ½ × 76 inches. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Hair could also slip into the role of a noose, as it did in the case of trendsetter extraordinaire Marie-Antoinette (1755–1793), although her hair was by no means the only cause of her demise (being foreign and a woman certainly didn’t help). Married to the future king of France at age 14, the Austrian-born Marie-Antoinette found herself thrust into an environment that grew ever more hostile to her and responded by retreating deeper into an insular world of court ritual and fantasy. In the decades preceding the French Revolution, the French nobility increasingly cultivated larger-than-life fashions to accentuate their privileged status. Designer Rose Bertin helped the queen achieve some of her greatest sartorial successes (and targets for criticism), including staggeringly wide gowns that allowed her to cut a far more imposing figure than any of her male counterparts. 

hairstyle Belle Poule
Anonymous engraving. Coiffure de l’Independence or the Triumph of Liberty (a variant of the hairstyle “à la Belle Poule”), c. 1778. Musée Franco-Américain du château de Blérancourt, Blérancourt.

Big clothes needed big hair. Marie-Antoinette’s hairdresser, Léonard Autié, devised numerous extravagant styles, including countless variations on the popular pouf, which involved weaving real and fake tresses into a wire framework to create a towering coiffure. Hair was powdered not only to degrease it but also to scent and color it, preferably in shades of white, gray or steel blue. To make the pouf stand out even more, various accessories could be added, including figurines, butterflies, birds and even crematory urns. The decorations often related to topical events. For example, in honor of a naval battle fought with the British in June 1778 which marked the beginning of France’s involvement in the American Revolution, Autié recreated in miniature the victorious frigate la Belle Poule to set in a pouf worn by Marie-Antoinette. The hairstyle “à Ia Belle Poule” was an instant hit, as attested to by contemporary fashion prints, although the queen was often the subject of biting satirical images. Her sumptuous hairstyles were stunningly captured by Élisabeth Vigée Lebrun, whose career Marie-Antoinette carefully nurtured, for as much as her detractors sought to defame her with vile accusations, including ones of incest, she was not only fervently devoted to charitable causes, she was also an enlightened patron of the arts. 

Given hair’s mighty personality, it’s hardly surprising that in this pivotal moment we might be wondering what to do with our locks, especially as our faces are often covered with masks.

In the end, Marie-Antoinette rode to the guillotine in a wooden cart, her head shaven. A lock of her hair, braided together with strands from her beloved friend the Princesse de Lamballe, is preserved in a ring in Paris’ Musée Carnavalet. It’s an eerily moving reminder that long after everything has turned to dust, hair remains as a potent memento, tactile and intimate. Given hair’s mighty personality, it’s hardly surprising that in this pivotal moment we might be wondering what to do with our locks, especially as our faces are often covered with masks. For some, letting hair do its thing without much interference has always been the norm, while for others it may be a new Covid 19-related experience—possibly one of freedom, or conversely, one of discomfort. After all, hairstyling may not only feel like a pleasurable component of self-care, but also like an essential contribution to shaping one’s public/professional persona. Many have managed to preserve their look throughout quarantine for this very reason. Others have been relaxing their routine, letting their vulnerability peek through, out of necessity sometimes, but also perhaps as an expression of a commitment to reevaluating priorities in this new order. In the end, whether you are the queen of messy topknots or are counting the minutes until you can support your favorite hairdresser, one thing is for certain: more than ever, we should be especially indulgent toward ourselves and one another these days, on matters follicular and beyond. As for me, I’m about to ask my husband for a slight trim (he’s not ready to tackle roots yet). Hopefully, I’ll come out feeling like me and with all my powers intact.