A Brief History Of Hair

A new book celebrates the art of hairdos throughout history, from Cleopatra’s elaborate braids to Marie Antoinette’s wild wigs to punk mohawks and beyond.

“You could rewrite the history of human society with the story of hair,” says legendary hairstylist Laurent Philippon. In his new hair bible, Hair: Fashion and Fantasy, Phillipon does just that, chronicling the history of every ‘do imaginable, from the Mohawk to the conk to Farrah’s feathery layers.


This stunning tour de hair features 250 photographs by fashion luminaries like Patrick Demarchelier, Herb Ritts, Helmut Newton, Robert Mapplethorpe, David LaChapelle, and Nan Goldin. Essays by the likes of Vidal Sassoon, Julien d’Ys, and burlesque queen Dita Von Teese explore how hair has always been intimately wrapped up in identity, sexuality, politics, and religion.

“Hair is the one part of our body that we can change whenever we want, without causing any permanent damage,” Phillipon writes. “We can dress it up or dress it down, to reflect our personality, to attract attention, to project a chosen identity or to seize the mood of the moment.” As a master of the haute coiffure, Philippon pushes the art of hairstyling to its limits. Herewith, a few highlights from his new monograph, from the fashionable to the fantastical:


Resembling a Roman warrior helmet or homegrown horns, “the Mohawk or Mohican hairstyle gives the human a ferocious, animal look,” Phillipon writes. Though it takes its name from the North American Mohawk tribe, there’s evidence of this crested hairstyle from millennia earlier. Dating from 2,300 years ago and found in Ireland, the preserved body of the Clonycavan Man sported this spiky ‘do, held in place with gel homemade from pine resin. Ancient artifacts reveal that some African tribes have always styled their hair into crests. In WWII, U.S. Special Forces took on the look “in a powerful expression of esprit de corps.” Years later, punks in 1970s London adopted the style and dyed it in a rainbow of day-glo colors as an in-your-face fuck-you to the mainstream.



From fishtails to cornrows, braiding is one of the oldest and most popular forms of hairstyling. Phillipon interviews Shoplifter, the hair sculptor behind Bjork’s iconic Medulla cover, in which the pop star sports a sculptural knitted headdress created by an “army of braiders”–“a hair portrait,” as Shoplifter calls it. Also pictured in this section is Frida Kahlo’s woven crown, adorned with ribbons, feathers, and flowers; and a Tibetan pre-marriage initiation rite in which young girls’ hair is divided into 108 strands and woven into a special braid, as 108 is a sacred number in some Buddhist denominations.


Phillipon chronicles the cult of blondeness from Botticelli’s Venus to Marilyn Monroe to January Jones, calling it “not a color, but a state of mind.” He cites a questionable research paper from 1997 by Dr. (really?) Tony Fallone, which states “hair color is the root of a girl’s personality.” Shoddy psychology aside, the history here is rich, and often counters the notion that “blondes have more fun.” In Roman times, when legionaries pillaged the northern Nordic tribes, “they cut off the flaxen braids of the vanquished and wore them as trophies.” Not so fun. And in the 15th Century, Roman and Venetian fashion victims would bleach their hair with a disgusting concoction of sulphur, quicklime, wood ash, and saltpeter, letting it soak (and stink) for days in the sun, enduring scarring and burnt scalps for the sake of style. “Quite surprising, then, that it took another 300 years to invent peroxide,” quips Phillipon.

Hair: Fashion and Fantasy is out now, published by Thames and Hudson. For more–including a cultural history of curls, wild wigs, meditations on the chignon, and Kate Moss’s first photoshoot–you can order it for $24 here.


About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.