Friday, May 14, 2010

The Many Mysteries of Hair-Dressing (part I)

My first discovery, which I have promised to faithfully report, was made a few weeks ago at the British Library. I perused one of the direct precursors to the modern fashion magazine: Nicolaus Heideloff's Gallery of Fashion printed 12 times a year from 1794 until 1803.

Just like a current fashion magazine, the inspiration was often taken from life: from the most fashion-forward ladies of the time. (Of course, in Heideloff's case, they actually had to be ladies, but I'll let that point slide.) There were pictures of models in the clothes and hairstyles that were all the rage in London - and half of these pictures weren't set in anything resembling normal life. They were either posed against a blank background, or given some beautiful but incongruous natural countryside backdrop that those dainty shoes and draping lengths of muslin and silk certainly weren't designed for. Descriptions were given of how to put together each ensemble, and how to achieve each hairstyle. It was, just like today, a who's who and how-to of fashion. Looks like the more things change, the more they stay the same.

My second discovery is entertaining simply for the venom displayed over something as seemingly trivial as letting barbers cut hair. Nowadays, it seems normal - it's their job! The barber can give a man a shave, trim up his sideburns, and do just about anything else related to the hair on his head and face. But, in 1750s Edinburgh, to hair-dressers this was a matter of union rights and job security. How dare barbers assume they can cut and style someone's hair! I'll have to let Sir Hew Dalrymple say it - he says it so much better than I do:

"The Barbers of Edinburgh, upon Pretences equally groundless and extravagant, having taken it into their Heads, that the exclusive Privilege, which they have always enjoyed, of clearing the Face from that uncleanly and unbecoming Excrement, the Beard, gave them also a Right to lop and prune the ornamental Hair of the Head, in so far as was necessary for the proper dressing and adorning thereof, did exhibit a Complaint against the Defenders, before the Magistrates of Edinburgh, for alleged Encroachments, made upon this, their particular Province of the human Body."

Wow. In the need to slander barbers, I never thought they'd be equated to the waste management guys who shovelled poop from the streets. I hope Sir Hew thought about that the next time he got a bit stubbly. "Oh no!" he would say to himself, "soon my face shall be covered in an altogether unseemly mass of facial excrement! Would to Heaven I had a barber handy to aid in its prompt removal." Perhaps he'd sound a bit more like Robert Burns when he said it, but I can't quite type that dialect.

Of course, that leads me to my last find, the exact reference to which is sadly lacking at the moment. So I'll pull a Jules Michelet and let you know that I have indeed read this interesting little tid-bit myself in an academic journal. Do I remember which one?: no. Do I remember the article's author?: not at the moment. Anyway: later on, getting into the Victorian era, I believe, there were ethnographic studies done on hair. Native American and Asian men were seen as less masculine because of their incapability to grow decent, full, itchy, bushy Victorian beards. The sorts of things that would make Charles Darwin and Brigham Young proud. Anyway, it was thought by some that a man could only grow a beard if he was hyper-manly enough to have reabsorbed his own excess semen. So only those lucky few who had, ahem, enough and to spare, would have had the ability to grow a beard. Who would have thought that facial hair was something you literally had to have the stones to do? Certainly not me.

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