They say that clothes maketh the man, but hair plays just as important a role in making a statement about us as individuals or members of a particular ethnic or social group. Hair can also speak of wealth and marital status, virility, or femininity; hair has a language and role of its own in many cultures around the world.
Today’s hair care industry is worth around $80 billion – from products including shampoos, colorants, sprays, gels, and oils, to the trade in human hair for wigs, weaves, and extensions. We may not always have spent such a vast sum on our hair, but even in ancient civilizations, men, as well as women, have lavished their hair with time and attention, all in the name of sending the right message.
Hair as a marker of social status has been a feature of many indigenous people from Asia to Africa. Even today, the dreadlocks of the Himba women of Namibia denote wealth and rank, as well as age and marital status. In ancient Egypt, the wearing of wigs was a show of power – using other people’s hair to wear as your own depicted an ability to command respect and acknowledgment of status.
The less hair someone had, the more subservience it indicated. Similarly in Norse and Viking cultures, short hair was associated with servitude, and the lower classes, where long hair, elaborately braided denoted higher social standing.
Hair length and style are also a way of publicly declaring one’s marital status, most especially amongst women. Married women were and still are in some cultures, afforded the privilege of certain styles, where young, unmarried girls’ hair is worn more naturally. This was certainly the case amongst the Viking women, where single girls wore their hair loose, whereas married women braided theirs.
Head adornments are also used to signify a women’s marital status and this can be seen again amongst the nomadic Himba women. When a young girl reaches marriageable age, she can wear a headdress called Ekori, fashioned from tanned goatskin. Once she is married, the headdress becomes more intricate and includes the iconic dreadlocks for which the Himba people are famous.
Stages of Life
As a woman moves through the different stages of life, her hair is, in some traditions, an indicator of girlhood, adolescence, marriageability, fertility, and maturity. For the Geishas of Japan between the 17th and 19th centuries, the way they dressed their hair denoted their journey from apprentice to professional geisha, trained in the art of singing, dancing, conversation, and tea ceremonies. Novice geishas, or maiko, wore their hair in five different styles throughout their training, with the fifth marking her graduation ceremony to official status as a geisha, worthy of the ancient tradition.
For some indigenous people, hair has a very spiritual significance. The Miao women of ancient China’s so-called ‘long horn’ hairstyle dates back as far as two thousand years and incorporates the hair of up to four generations of ancestors wrapped around a U-shaped piece of wood atop the woman’s head.
The result gives the women the appearance of having horns but in addition to paying homage to the ancestors by using their hair, the style speaks to the reverence that the people have for their cattle, namely buffalo and oxen. The Maori people of New Zealand use items from the natural world such as feathers, leaves, and flowers to deck their hair, but during periods of mourning and grief leave it unkempt. During pregnancy, the women also refrain from cutting their hair in order to ensure the unborn child receives all of the mother’s strength and energy.
Political Protest and Rebellion
Throughout the history of indigenous people, hair has also been a part of political protest and rebellion. The mohawk of the Native American Iroquois was worn by young warriors tasked with protecting their tribe from incursions. It was considered disrespectful for anyone else to wear their hair in the same way but in the modern day, the mohawk, or Mohican, became a symbol of social non-conformity in the punk rock subculture. In medieval China, hairstyles denoted affiliation to a tribe or dynasty.
The so-called ‘queue’, which was brought by the Manchu people to Beijing, and who overthrew the Ming dynasty to establish the Qing dynasty, all Han men were ordered to wear the queue as a sign of submission to the Manchurians. The Han objected to shaving the front part of their heads, even though this resistance was punishable by death. And so, hair for them became a symbol of political uprising.
Cornrows date back as far as 3000 BCE amongst numerous indigenous people of Africa but more recently they became a tool in the fight by Africans against slavery in the Americas. The width and formation of the cornrows were a means of communicating escape intentions and routes and a safe way for slaves to conceal their plans from their colonial owners.
And finally, sometimes hairstyles speak only of sheer practicality. Viking men, it seems, were in the habit of braiding their hair, but this amounted only to the need to be comfortable during battle and not to any other significance.
Today, although strong cultural traditions are retained by many indigenous people of the world, even if the hair is no longer worn in the styles of the ancestors, the stories of how and why it was worn in a particular way have been preserved and passed down.
What is certain, is that hairstyles are more than a form of self-expression; they have a deeper and more meaningful significance that should not be lost on generations to come.