Back then, big hair was big, too

Our hons had nothing on coifs of Egyptian belles, French queen

October 05, 2003|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun Staff

Life in ancient Egypt, the Court of Versailles or 1960s Baltimore was a hair-raising experience.

Really.

Perhaps in no other eras has the female coiffure reached such, well, heights, towering actual feet above the wearer's skull line. There are hairdos on display in the Eternal Egypt exhibit at the Walters Art Museum (running through Jan. 18, 2004) that would make Hairspray heroine Tracy Turnblad sick with envy.

For instance, there is the Shabti statuette of a woman who appears to be wearing what only could be described as a black fright wig that would put most punk rockers to shame.

And in 18th century France, Marie Antoinette may have been the original hair-hopper. She introduced a style called the "pouf," in which the wearer's real hair was supplemented by wigs and wired sky-high. It was a kind of precursor to the beehive.

Granted, the Eternal Egypt exhibit, which spans 3,000 years of that storied civilization, does not focus specifically on "hair don'ts." But it contains some fine specimens that could well form the basis of a future exhibit on Big Hair Throughout the Ages.

"That is an idea that we have been kicking around as a potential exhibition topic," says Griffith Mann, the Walters' assistant curator of medieval art. "As Baltimore is the hairdo capital of the world, this is a subject that would have immediate relevance in the larger community."

Oddly enough, Mann says, big hair seems to communicate the same subliminal, nose-thumbing message across the centuries and cultures -- despite the enormous differences between the people of the Nile and the people of the Chesapeake. That message is: We're so rich that we have oodles of leisure time, and no duties more pressing than dressing our hair, and you short-locked peasants don't.

That might seem odd at first. After all, isn't the beehive inextricably linked with that working-class icon, the Hon? But while big hair eventually went out of fashion among the idle rich and became a trademark of the hoi polloi, it took about 34 centuries to make that transition.

According to Mann and several Web sites devoted to historic hair styles, nearly everyone in ancient Egypt -- men and women, young and old, royals and commoners -- went for the Michael Jordan look. Even Queen Nefertiti wore wigs, and for a very good reason: the blazing sun.

"It was very, very hot," Mann says. "Everyone worked outside, and it was much more comfortable to have cropped hair or a shaven head."

But for ceremonial occasions, moneyed Egyptians commissioned wigs of various kinds and adorned them with bejeweled hairpins and combs. Some were made from human hair, while others were formed from horse-hair, palm leaves or wool.

A man or woman who wore a heavy wig or elaborate headdress projected the image of someone who had spent the day being fanned by slaves and eating figs. For example, in the museum's permanent collection is the bronze bust of a queen whose headdress resembles a snake coiled around her head -- with a Marlo Thomas flip at each end.

"Hair is one part of the human body that people manipulate to signify social status," Mann says.

Hair spoke volumes

Of course, when you send a message about your superior social status, the folks on the receiving end just might take offense. Marie Antoinette's enormous, puffy hairdo got her in trouble when she showed up for a big ball in Paris in 1789, wearing a style that she herself had made de rigueur for the properly dressed aristocrat."The great thing about these hairstyles is that it was the fashion for them to comment on current events," said University of Pennsylvania Assistant Professor Caroline Weber, who is writing a book on Marie Antoinette's clothing and coiffure.

So the Queen's wig contained a pro-revolutionary message, a model of a French man-of-war that was helping the struggling American colonies win independence from Great Britain.

But the wig required a humongous amount of powder, which was made from flour -- "from want of which," Weber noted, "thousands of Frenchmen were rioting and even dying on a daily basis."

It was the right message, perhaps, but the wrong revolution. Timing is everything, and unfortunately, the Queen made her little fashion statement just a few weeks before the Bastille fell. Luckily for the human species, not every woman who ever has had a bad hair day has been summarily beheaded.

But Mann has a more benign interpretation of this particular style.

"The wigs were for the world of the royal court," he says. "Interactions at court were extremely formalized and crafted. Witty repartee was an art form. It involved a great deal of work, but was supposed to convey a sense of ease and elegance. The wigs were a way of participating in that culture."

For a woman to allow anyone to see her unadorned hair was a sign of great intimacy, Mann says, and generally was reserved for her husband and children.

Liberating hairspray

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