500 Years of Haircuts: One Youtuber Tries Out the Hair Styles That Were Fashionable Between 1500 and 2000

“In Mankiewicz’s Julius Cae­sar, all the char­ac­ters are wear­ing fringes,” writes Roland Barthes in his well-known essay on Romans in film. “Some have them curly, some strag­gly, some tuft­ed, some oily, all have them well combed.” This fringe, Barthes argues, is “quite sim­ply the label of Roman-ness”: when it comes onscreen, “no one can doubt that he is in Ancient Rome.” Ever since cin­e­ma first told his­tor­i­cal tales, hair has been among its most effec­tive visu­al short­hands with which to estab­lish an era. This is in part due to hair­styles them­selves hav­ing var­ied since the begin­ning of record­ed his­to­ry, and — in one form or anoth­er — no doubt before it as well. But how many of them could we pull off today?

In the video above, Youtu­ber Mor­gan Don­ner address­es that ques­tion as direct­ly as pos­si­ble: by try­ing out half a mil­len­ni­um’s worth of hair­styles her­self. As a woman, she’s been pro­vid­ed much more to work with by fash­ion his­to­ry (to say noth­ing of biol­o­gy) than have the suc­ces­sors of all those fringed Roman men. She begins in 1520, a peri­od whose art reveals “a fair­ly con­sis­tent cen­ter-part kind of smooth look going on” with braids behind, all easy replic­a­ble. 110 years lat­er “things get actu­al­ly quite inter­est­ing,” since fash­ions begin to encom­pass not just hair­styles but hair­cuts, prop­er­ly speak­ing, requir­ing dif­fer­ent sec­tions of hair to be dif­fer­ent lengths — and requir­ing Don­ner to whip out her scis­sors.

About a cen­tu­ry lat­er, Don­ner takes note of a pat­tern where­by “styles get big­ger and big­ger and big­ger, and then — foof — they deflate.” Such, it seems, has become the gen­er­al ten­den­cy of not just cul­ture but many oth­er human pur­suits as well: the grad­ual infla­tion of a bub­ble of extrem­i­ty, fol­lowed by its sud­den burst­ing. It’s in the 18th cen­tu­ry that Don­ner’s project turns more com­plex, begin­ning to involve such things as lard, pow­der, and hair cush­ions. But she gets a bit of a respite when the 1800s come along, and “it’s almost like every­one col­lec­tive­ly decid­ed that they were tired of it, and you know what? Messy bun. That’s good enough.” Yet in hair as in all things, human­i­ty nev­er keeps it sim­ple for long.

View­ers of film and tele­vi­sion his­tor­i­cal dra­mas (which them­selves have been boom­ing for some time now) will rec­og­nize more than a few of the hair­styles Don­ner gives her­self through­out this video. But the deep­er she gets into the 20th cen­tu­ry, the more of them remain in liv­ing mem­o­ry. Take the 1940s’ shoul­der-length curls with pinned-back lay­ers on top, which many of us will rec­og­nize from pic­tures of our grand­moth­ers. That par­tic­u­lar hair­style does­n’t seem to have been revived since, but from the 1960s on, Don­ner works through a series of looks that have pro­vid­ed no lit­tle inspi­ra­tion to our retro­ma­ni­ac 21st cen­tu­ry. At the end of her his­tor­i­cal-ton­so­r­i­al jour­ney, she fires up the clip­pers and buzzes her­self com­plete­ly — thus begin­ning hair Year Zero.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Get the Ancient Roman Look: A Hair & Make­up Video Tuto­r­i­al

How a Bal­ti­more Hair­dress­er Became a World-Renowned “Hair Archae­ol­o­gist” of Ancient Rome

How Women Got Dressed in the 14th & 18th Cen­turies: Watch the Very Painstak­ing Process Get Cin­e­mat­i­cal­ly Recre­at­ed

Where Did the Monk’s Hair­cut Come From? A Look at the Rich and Con­tentious His­to­ry of the Ton­sure

50 Years of Chang­ing David Bowie Hair Styles in One Ani­mat­ed GIF

Google Cre­ates a Dig­i­tal Archive of World Fash­ion: Fea­tures 30,000 Images, Cov­er­ing 3,000 Years of Fash­ion His­to­ry

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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