Looking Your Best: The History of Hairdressing

Hairdressing throughout history has in many ways defined a period in time. It has been a symbol of status from Ancient Rome to the Red Carpet in Hollywood as well as centuries in between. Fashions were ever changing and while new styles and techniques were being cultivated one thing remained, women and men still wanted to style their hair. Even in bleak moments in history, hair was still revered as a statement. Many of these styles and ways of altering hair have influenced how we approach hairdressing today.

Ancient Hairdressing

In Ancient Rome hair for both men and women were symbols of status.  Roman women would augment their hair with wigs and hairpieces that were then adorned with golden nets, pins and combs. Noblewomen’s hair in Ancient Rome eventually became so involved that slaves would work daily on the hair styles. Men’s hair fashion often changed, young boys would wear their hair long until a ceremony in which their hair would be cut off to signify their arrival into manhood but then would be grown out later. Ideally, whether men had long or short hair, thick waves were expected of Roman men, especially if they were wealthy.

European Hairdressing

During the 15th and 16th centuries men would wear their hair no longer than shoulder length, as it was unacceptable to be worn long. It was even in fashion for men to dye their hair and wear bangs. Fashions changed for women as well. European women began to use less hair coverings and let their hair be more visible but with more elaborate hair styles. Hair ornaments were not neglected though, feathers, flowers, jewels, ribbons and pearls became vastly popular. However, unlike the Romans, women in the 16thcentury saw hair that was bound in ornate styles and not loose was a symbol of modesty while letting one’s hair be free flowing was considered sexual.

During the Elizabethan Era, red hair, a natural trademark of Elizabeth I, became the ideal hair color in England for both women and wealthy men. They would use saffron and sulfur, just two ingredients that would be used, to dye the hair red but would unfortunately make the user feel sick with nausea and headaches.

19th Century

This is the period in time where going to a hairdresser was becoming popular for Victorian women. The “Marcel Iron” was also created during this time. Women would use this “iron” to create loose waves that would be worn about the head. Unlike the 15th and 16th centuries wearing half of one’s hair loose and full in the back became popular and considered acceptable in society. The iconic pompadour, which was popular in the late 1880’s, was when women would wear their hair in a high large poof in the front of their heads. Fake hair was used as well to add to the size of the style. By the late 1890’s into the very early 1900’s wearing one’s hair high quickly went out of style and young Victorian women began to wear their hair low in what was called “The Gibson Girl” which was essentially a loosely worn bun. Another popular style was the “psyche knot” which was a style of bun in which the hair was pulled back and twisted at the top of the head. Hair ornaments, like in many centuries were also used to add to these styles.

20th Century

The 20th century gave way to a more liberal way of wearing one’s hair. Hair was being worn shorter and this is when the permanent wave became immensely popular. A German Hairstylist by the name of Karl Nessler invented a way to wave the hair. A system was patented in 1906 in Germany. The machine was large and was made up of a group of rollers where the hair was then wrapped around each roller. Each roller was connected to a machine that heated the rollers however before the hair could be heated a mixture of sodium hydroxide was applied to the hair and then the hair was heated for several hours. This process took 6 hours to complete but regardless was immensely popular.

The Bob, made its debut in the 20th Century style and was worn by most women. The cut was short and usually worn with waves and bangs. Often times if bangs were not worn, women would wear a single curl on the forehead or none at all. After the Great Depression women began to wear their hair more naturally and longer although the perm was still used. This gave way in future years a style that was more self-expressive and a marker of the times. Women and men were wearing their hair longer and with bangs. Hairstyles of the movie stars were growing in popularity and could be seen on the time periods youth. Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn’s iconic short styles grew quickly in popularity as well.

Hairdressing Today

Hair styles of today consist of several ever changing fashions. There are new ways to cut and style hair being produced every day. Often times styles used in history, such as the permanent wave has come back in style with a more modernized effect. However, a constant influence of movie stars, models and musicians have cultivated many of today’s popular styles just as it did in the 20th century. Even though the widely popular “Rachel Haircut” was asked of many hairstylists in the 90’s, variations still remain in the 21st century. Men’s hair has also greatly changed and has gone from not having many options to having a plethora of styles to choose from. A popular look for men was shaving the hair on the sides and spiking the longer hair on top, while this style is still used. Many men are growing out their hair and are mimicking the “mop tops” of the 1960’s. 


  1. Hair in Ancient Times
  2. Hair and Style in Ancient Rome
  3. 18th Century European Hair and Style
  4. Victorian Hairstyles
  5. 19th Century Hairstyles
  6. Introduction to 19th Century Fashion
  7. The History of Hair – 20th Century
  8. The 1920’s Bob
  9. 21st Century Hair Styles
  10. Famous Modern Hair Styles

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