The History of Hairdressing
- A Brief Construction
The profession of hairdressing has a rich and fascinating history that spans over five millennia. The earliest evidence of hairdressing is from Egyptian society in 3400 BC, found in a tomb that belonged to royal architect Kha, and his wife, Meryt, who lived during the 18th Dynasty. According to Italian Egyptologist Ernesto Schiaparelli, who excavated the tomb in 1906, Meryt was buried with two baskets of personal hair accessories, containing two pieces of plaited hair, hairpins, razors, and combs. Amongst Meryt’s belongings was her wig, the most impressive female wig to have survived intact from pharaonic times. Upon its discovery, Schiaparelli claimed that Meryt’s wig “still shines with the perfumed oils that were applied to it.” (Fletcher, 2016). During the pharaonic era, the use of hair extensions was widespread in elite societies. Wigs were commonplace, but not to the same extent as hair extensions because wigs were significantly more time-consuming to create and, therefore, more costly (Fletcher, 1998).
The first visual recording of a working hairdresser was of Henut, who was depicted in a relief carving from around c.2000 BC, using a hairpin to style the hair of Queen Neferu’s. At the time, hair grooming was considered a purification ritual. For this reason, hairdressers held a beatified and hallowed status in Egyptian society, and hair equipment would have been carried in ritual processions by ‘priestesses’ (Fletcher, 2016).
However, during the second millennium, the profession witnessed drastic transformations. Hairdressers were incorporated into the guild of surgeons, barbers, wigmakers, and bath attendants in 1659 by a royal edict in France (DeJean, 2007). It was highly unusual for male hairdressers to work on ladies’ hair. Men were barbers and operated under the constraints of the guild. Chambermaids or ladies in waiting did women’s hairdressing. However, this changed during the eighteenth century. Hairdressers resented the guild’s restrictions. They considered their practice a high art and argued that their work was vital to the era’s portraiture.
Of all the arts, hairdressing should be one of the most esteemed; those of painting and sculpture, these arts which keep men alive centuries after their death, cannot dispute the title of colleague (Falaky, 2013:46).
By the 1760s, due to high demand within social elite, 1200 hairstylists were working in Paris (Falaky, 2013; Caticha, 2019). One of the reasons for the demand for talented hairdressers was the Austrian Archduchess, Marie Antoinette. Louis XV insisted on commissioning a portrait of the Archduchess because he had not yet seen an image of his son’s future wife. In 1768 Marie Antoinette’s mother, empress Marie-Theresa, requested a French hairdresser for her daughter as part of the marriage agreement. The French painter Joseph Ducreux was to paint Marie Antoinette’s portrait in Vienna, accompanied by renowned Parisian hairdresser, Larseneur. His work was hugely successful, and aristocratic ladies quickly adopted the flamboyant hairstyle (Hosford, 2004:185). In 1774, when Marie Antoinette became queen, she employed Léonard-Alexis Autier, who was her hairdresser until her death (Hosford, 2004). In 1775, Autier described the public reaction to his acclaimed ‘coiffure pyramidale’ up-style:
The pyramidal coiffure of Marie-Antoinette created a sensation at the Opéra. People crushed each other in the parterre to see this masterpiece of learned audacity (Hosford, 2004:187).
Hairstylists gained unprecedented celebrity status within French society. Women craved their services, they were featured in newspapers, and plays were written about them. In 1662, Pierre Boucher wrote a one-act comedy called Champagne Le Coiffeur. The play had homoerotic puns depicting a feminised coiffeur. A century later, the playwright Bertrand de la Tour reworked Boucher’s character of the effeminate hairdresser (Falaky, 2013). Hairdressers did not object to this portrayal. Instead, they embraced it, believing it was beneficial; it distinguished them from barbers and wigmakers, and as feminised figures, they were not a threat to French women. The portrayal allowed access “into the dressing rooms of distinguished ladies – inaccessible harems forbidden to even the most aristocratic of men” (Falaky, 2013:41). Many hairdressers in the eighteenth century were able to work without the interference of the guilds. Women who wanted to be fashionable required a hairdresser. As demand for hairstyling grew, the economic rewards caused apprentices to defect from the barbers’ guild, and venture into the hairstylist’s more artful vocation.
The products required to construct the grand hair designs caused economic ramifications across all social classes. The extravagant upstyles consisted of costly jewels, exotic ostrich feathers, and heron plumes (Hosford, 2004) and at least two pounds of flour (Herzog, 1996). Many of the bourgeoises objected to the economic strain of the social pressure of ostentatious fashion. Madame Campan, the queen’s first lady-in-waiting, deciphered the public sentiment as follows:
Immediately everyone wants the same hairstyle as the queen, to wear feathers and garlands. The expenses of young ladies were greatly increased, mothers and husbands, some fools ran up debts, there were upsetting domestic quarrels, many marriages went cold or split apart, and the general rumour was that the queen would ruin all French ladies (Hosford, 2004:190).
In advancing their social status, hairdressers felt it necessary to distance themselves from barbers by publicly criticising them. Barbers had been offended by a published essay written by a hairdresser, and angered that hairdressers were infringing on their trade without paying dues to the guild. The guild took legal action against them, and lengthy legal battles ensued. Hairstylists employed defence lawyer François-Michel Vermeil, and they won the case. Vermeil’s defence was published the following year and became a hairdressing manifesto. They were allowed to continue practising freely, but stringent restrictions were imposed upon their work. The number of hairdressers in Paris was limited to 600, and they were forbidden from instituting academies or forming new apprenticeships (Falaky, 2013). They were ordered to pay the barber-wigmaker guild £600 if they wished to continue exercising their profession.
In 1780 the court dismissed their request to establish a guild (Falaky, 2013). Simultaneously, the aristocracy did not trust hairstylists. They did not believe in the ‘effeminate coiffeur’ image, as the hairdresser could not conform to the stereotype (Caticha, 2019). Furthermore, the crop failure of 1775 had disastrous consequences for the coiffeur. Due to the rise of bread prices, public opinion of the hairdressing profession was at an all-time low. Indeed, the ‘Flour War’ unravelled attempts to liberalise the profession. As bread prices soared throughout the 1780s, due to grain shortages, public outrage intensified toward hairstylists because of the excessive amount of flour needed for hairstyling.
Hairdressers were comprehensively blamed for starving the people (Falaky, 2013). Falaky explains that the French Revolution quashed the hairdresser’s ambition to be recognised as a ‘grande artiste’. In his essay, ‘The Trouble with Hairdressers’, Don Herzog states that “hairdressers occupied a social position that made it possible to demonise them” (Herzog, 1996). Consequently, the collaborative contributions of hair and beauty professionals remains omitted from broader art discourse, and they have not received the recognition they sought. Over two centuries later, negative social stereotypes continue to exist.
Amanda Jane Graham
Amanda Jane Graham is a visual artist whose practice is autobiographical and autoethnographic. She narrates her story by excavating personal histories, memories, experiences, and emotions, some of which are challenging but rigorously scrutinised and almost always mediated through humour. Amanda graduated from NCAD with a Master of Fine Arts in 2011, and in 2019, she completed an MLitt in interdisciplinary research in the Department of Sociology at Maynooth University. Amanda has exhibited widely and has received numerous awards, bursaries, and residencies.