Much like the tide, historical trends and taboos ebb and flow. Some of them, like fashion throughout the centuries and the most common ways to die, are solid and almost definitive indicators of the cultural zeitgeist. Others, like hair trends throughout history, may seem inconsequential in comparison. However, like the tide itself, these hairstyles have affected humanity on a global scale.
This may feel like a dramatic statement, but hairstyles can reveal a lot about a particular culture. Historical haircuts reflect whether a society valued practicality over style. An opulent wig could tell you just how affluent the owner was, while a shaved head could indicate lower social status.
Given the option, which hairdos in history would you want? Or, perhaps more importantly, which one would you have ended up with whether you wanted it or not?
Sumptuary laws in Egypt prohibited enslaved people, servants, and non-royals from wearing elaborate hairstyles and wigs that signified high status. In the Old Kingdom, both men and women of lower and middle classes shaved their heads or wore short hairstyles. Bob haircuts were common among the elite, although lengths varied. Styles became more creative in the New Kingdom, with curls, ladder cuts, braids, and angles incorporated into the bob styles. Women had longer hair, but both men and women had ends cut straight across.
Bob cuts probably featured an Egyptian's own hair. Tripartite cuts could be achieved with real hair or wigs. For the tripartite cut, two long sections of hair fell to both shoulders, while hair across the brow formed a heavy bang. This type of haircut can be seen in funerary masks and statuary of various types. The tripartite cut was more common among women, however, as only sacred men were allowed to don the style.
Children in Egypt wore distinctive hairstyles. Males had shaved heads on one side with long hair on the other; females cut their hair at the middle of their necks, leaving one longer side section that reached the shoulders. The longer sections of hair could be braided or twisted.
Based on artistic renderings and Homeric descriptions, Archaic Greeks wore their hair long, often in braids. Spartan boys kept their hair short, perhaps as they trained and developed their athletic prowess. However, according to Plutarch, they "wore their hair long as soon as they ceased to be youths, and particularly in times of danger they took pains to have it glossy and well-combed, remembering... that a fine head of hair made the handsome more comely still, and the ugly more terrible."
Women in Sparta also grew their hair long, often binding "a white turban on their heads" to create a crown of sorts. Later, Spartan women began to wear their hair shorter, perhaps as part of a marriage practice described by Plutarch; "For their marriages the women were carried off by force, not when they were small and unfit for wedlock, but when they were in full bloom and wholly ripe. After the woman was thus carried off, the bride's-maid, so called, took her in charge, cut her hair off close to the head, put a man's cloak and sandals on her, and laid her down on a pallet, on the floor, alone, in the dark."
Hairstyles in Athens during the 5th century BCE had some commonalities with those in Sparta, as cutting hair when one reached puberty was the norm. Once Athenians descended into adulthood, they grew their hair long again. Long hair was worn in crown styles by men and women alike, with knots or chignons, clips, and bands used to hold the hair in place. Athenian women wore gold and leather bands or hairnets woven with gold and silk. Athenian women sometimes wore cloth head coverings made of wool and silk, winding their hair in elaborate patterns amid the materials.
According to Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, the hair of the Celts who lived throughout Western Europe was "heavy and coarse." Writing in the 1st century BCE, Siculus said, "Their hair is blond, and not only naturally so, but they also make it their practice by artificial means to increase the distinguishing color which nature has given it. For they are always washing their hair with lime-water [lime dissolved in water] and they pull it back from the forehead to the top of the head and back to the nape of the neck."
Siculus's account indicates the hair of the Celts was similar to that of a horses' mane, and that men and women alike grew their hair long. Women usually wore braids and knots; men reportedly wore braids, too. Curls were common and they were often pinned up with decorative bands, stones, and beads.
Wealthier Celtic men sported beards and mustaches. According to Siculus, "Some of them shave the beard, but others let it grow a little; and the nobles shave their cheeks, but they let the moustache grow until it covers the mouth."
Myths about the Vikings and their appearances call to mind dirt, hair, and horned helmets. However, generally speaking, those conceptions are all wrong. Based on archaelogical evidence, Vikings were well-equipped with grooming devices including combs and tweezers. According to historian John Wallingford, they were also "in the habit of combing their hair every day, to bathe every Saturday, to change their clothes frequently."
According to a carving from a Viking ship and an Anglo-Saxon letter, hairstyles of Vikings resembled reverse mullets. The Osberg ship contains a carving of a male head with a long mustache and beard, both well cared for. Men also liked to dye their beards blond.
The aforementioned letter, written in Old English, describes Viking hair as a "Danish fashion, with a shaved neck and blinded eyes," indicating there was fringe along the front of the face. Men may have braided the front sections to keep them out of the way.
Evidence indicates women wore their hair long, often in braids or knots and decorated with pins and ribbons.