“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.
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.