The bobbed hair is the most iconic feature of the 1920s women, but it was worn even before the Jazz Age. In total opposition with the idea of luxurious mane as a mark of femininity that was prevalent up to WWI, it was, and it remained, not just fashion but a form of rebellious personal expression.
The bobbed hair is the signature haircut of the 1920s, but it wasn’t new to that time.
Women had bobbed their hair even before, though the act had always been controversial – when not outright scandalous.
Women who bobbed their hair always wanted to make a statement. In the 1800s, many of them were bohemians. Others were involved in the suffrage movement. Commentators often considered these women to be freaks, strange individuals, possibly even mentally unstable.
Before WWI, long hair was the manifestation of feminine beauty. Even if it was worn up, a woman’s hair was always very long. It required a lot of ‘maintenance’. Washing it was quite the task. And since it was improper to wear it loose, it required a long morning sit to quaff it. Historians have pointed out that long hair was another way to keep women housebound, just like her dress.
But as the skirts shortened, so did hair.
During WWI, many women cropped their hair. Whether they worked in a factory or on the battlefield, it was just more convenient. Then, like so many other things, the bob stuck after the war.
“Bernice Bob Her Hair”
But it was quite the journey. In his novella Bernice Bobs Her Hair, published on May 1, 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald describes the attitude towards bobs at the very beginning of the 1920s. Women had started to crop their hair, but it was still a very controversial act. Bernice is induced to do it, and once done, everyone castigates her. She’s considered ugly. Her peer group shuns her, and her family fear scandal. That’s how serious it was.
The larger society correctly understood that the woman who bobbed her hair wanted to change the role established for her by others. She affirmed that she wanted to explore new ways and be independent, financially and otherwise. She wanted to do things always denied to her mother.
This was such a big change from the past that society translated it into a desire for destruction. Women clearly refused their feminine duties and the responsibility of keepers of the general morality. The woman who bobbed her hair must be one who didn’t want to be a mother and a wife. She was a woman who just wanted to have fun and disregarded all the duties of a good (female) citizen. And because of this, she would sooner or later cause the demise of civilization.
As the decade wore on, more and more women chose to bob their hair until it became a fad and less of a statement. Yet, as girls and even older women bobbed their hair, the society they were part of tried every way to dissuade them.
Everything but the bob
In the first years of the decade, hairdressers often refused to cut a girl’s hair because they didn’t know how to do it. Or so they claimed. Girls had to turn to barbers, and not all were prepared to do such a step. Stepping into a men’s shop seemed yet another way to shed one’s femininity.
The social pressure was very strong, especially in the first half of the decade.
Many women’s magazines still offered advice on how to go about cultivating a luxurious mane. They often warned about how cutting one’s hair would eventually make it all fall out. How it may bleed. How it was generally unhealthy. The Shingle Headache, for example, was described as a form of neuralgia caused by the sudden removal of hair from the sensitive nape of the neck.
The woman who bobbed her hair was truly besieged on many fronts.
The bob opened the decade as a very controversial matter. It slowly became common and fashionable, if not totally accepted, but like many things connected to the flapper, it died away with the Great Depression. At the beginning of the 1930s, long hair became the norm again, and nobody would talk about bobs for a long time.
Eabinovitch-Foz, Einan. Dressed for Freedom : The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism. University of Illinois Press, Champaign, Illinois, United States of America, 2021
Smithsonian Magazine – The History of the Flapper, Part 4: Emboldened by the Bob
The British Newspaper Archive – Long Hair is Dead, Long Live the Bob – An Exploration of The Defining Hairstyle of the 1920s
Vintage Dancer – 1920s Hairstyle History – Long Hair to Bobbed Hair