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
I’m so glad you mentioned Bernice Bobs Her Hair, Sarah. It’s such a great look at this custom and what it meant. Such a huge step for many women, signifying a lot.
I really liked that story. I don’t always like FitzGerald stories, but that one really touched me. Bernice is one tough heroine! 🙂
A fascinating and informative post, Sarah! I had a similar haircut for a while, and did not know the history behind it.
Damyanti! Oh my goodness! What a pleasure to see you here!!!!
Isn’t it fascinating to lern exciting things about what we think common and granted? 🙂
Women have had to fight for so many things, and all because it was a means of control. Bravo to those brave women who cut their hair.
Tasha’s Thinkings: YouTube – What They Don’t Tell You (and free fiction)
That’s really true. And ou know, once you start lookign into fashion, you really undeerstand how deep that control was.
You don’t have to go that far back, I had hair down to my knees when I was a kid, and when I had the whole thing cut as a young teen, my grandmother almost fainted. She was very firmly all about “girls are beautiful because of their long hair.” 😀
LOL! I know! My own granny wasn’t that strickt (I mean, I always remember her wearing short hair), but she still thought that young girls were huglier with short hair.
Quite interesting to know about bobs…the history behind it. I am watching downtown Abbey and i saw how exactly like u told Mary gets bobs in mid 1920s . Enjoyed ur posts
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You know? I keep telling me I should watch that show… and still I haven’t done it 🙁
Woman’s “crowning glory” has come to symbolize so much. In Asian culture long, loose, tangled hair is often one sign of a supernatural entity. Victorian girls were on their way to womanhood once they became old enough to “turn up their hair.” Thank you so much for adding to my understanding of hair as an expression of revolutionary feeling.
HI Lillian! Such a pleasur eto see you here! I didn’t realise you were doing the challenge too!
I certainly don’t ahve your knowledge about Victorian society, but what I’m learning is fascinating. Victorians were strange people, I’ve alwasy thought that, but I see now that there were reasons bahind what they did. It’s such a fascinating subject.
It sounds so much like India today where women are considered the keepers of culture and morality. I had to laugh at the ‘Shingle Headache’. The things society will come up with to prevent women from being independent.
Well, I laughed too. It sounds ridiculous, and yet, people were trying to keep women ‘in their place’ with such things.
Great write. My grandmother was one of those who had her hair bobbed early and as a statement. Hard to conceptualize what scrutiny they endured.
My fistion is set in Ukraine 2022. Was originally written in 2007. The Basics
True, eh? I really think we can’t truly understnad, less so feel, what it felt like at the time.
J Lenni Dorner
It’s interesting that “ugly” isn’t based on how someone views themself, but how they’re viewed for the purpose of potential mating purposes.
Imagine if all people existed for was to create more people.
I’m doing the #AtoZChallenge – writing a speculative fiction short story.
On the main A to Z site today for “B” I shared a list of books. Check it out!
At Operation Awesome we’re doing the A to Z Challenge and running a survey to pick the next Pass or Pages query contest genre.
Indeed. Beauty and ugliness are quite interesting concept, don’t you think?
Very interesting post.
I guess such evolutions have happened more so as a necessity of those times. When women showed inclination to step into new roles and adapt to the new milieu, they were seen as rebellious by others, though their act in itself wasn’t rebellious.
It is really so. But then, I’ve noticed that every time women in the Western World tried to change their roles, society went cracy.
What an interesting topic!
Thanks Jeanne, and thanks for stopping by 🙂
I think the bob is my favourite hairstyle for a woman – framing the face and revealing the nape of the neck – what’s not to like! Clara Bow and a girl called Alison that I had a crush on at university…
A great post as ever Sara.
LOL! Andrew, you’re so right!
I didn’t liek the bob when I was younger, but now, I have to admit… 🙂
Ronel Janse van Vuuren
Great post, like always! I think these days the pixie cut is under the same scrutiny especially as long, wavy hair is still seen as the feminine ideal.
Really? I haven’t realise this cut has risen criticism. I find it so fashionable (my sister wore it up to a few months ago).
But it’s true, long haiar are still considered more feminine.
A very interesting post. Visiting back from the a to Z Challenge.
Happy you liked it, Susan and thanks for stopping by -)
Great post! I always like your A to Zs, and it looks like this one is going to be great. And wow does long hair get in the way! I have long hair myself at the moment, and the only way to keep it from being a constant nuisance is to put it up in a severe bun. So I can understand why ladies were very, very excited to not have long hair. And I find it interesting that ladies had to go to barbers sometimes to get their bobs. You always do great research, really digging into your subject.
HI Melanie! So happy to see you here. I hadn’t realise you’re doing the challenge. Gong over to your site right now! 😉
Anne E.G. Nydam
I enjoyed reading about this history. But while I’ll grant that really long hair would be trouble, I disagree that short hair is easy and maintenance free! I keep my hair moderately long (like halfway down my back) all the time because every morning it takes two minutes to braid and then I don’t have to think about it for the rest of the day. Women with short hair have to get it trimmed every few weeks or month, they have to style it every morning, they have to constantly have it dangling over their eyes, they often have to use lots of “product” which means they then have to wash the product back out… All those haircuts, all that product take a huge amount of time, money, and fashion stress. No, I’ve found that if you really want to be emancipated, the best length is long enough to pull back out of the way and ignore! =)
LOL! You might be right.
But then, tht would be half a statement, wouldn’t it? 😉
I just went and checked out my grandmother’s and their daughter’s hairdos. And true enough, in the early 1920s they had bobs and by the end of the 1930s they didn’t.
I imagine it was similar to getting my hair cut for an afro in the 1960s. To some it was quite scandalous. Some daughters were told to get their hair straightened or ELSE.
You know? I think that in may ways, the 1920s and the 1960s were very similar.
I’d love to have my hair bobbed or styled in a long, layered pixie again, but I’m optimistically keeping in long in case I find a husband. If I ever marry, I’m going to wear a Medieval=style wedding gown, and long hair looks much better with that style of dress than bobbed hair. I’d cut it right afterwards, though I’ll have to cover it in accordance with Jewish religious law. Bobbed hair is so much easier to take care of, even if it has to be cut more often to maintain the length. It’s hard to believe short hair on women was once considered so scandalous and dangerous.
You know? I once saw a Mediaval-Celtic wedding performed during a Mediaeval festival. It was fantastic!
Yes, I knwo what you mean. Short hair for women are now so common that it’s very hard for us to even grab how it could be scandalous.