Thursday 15 November 2018

Hair in History. An interview with Susan J. Vincent by Fay Bound Alberti

I am delighted to dedicate my blog post this week to a new book by Dr Susan J. Vincent, a brilliant cultural historian and past partner-in-crime when we took our PhDs together at the University of York.

Susan, once a primary school teacher, has spent the last 24 years instead following a childhood interest in historical dress. She is a Research Associate at the Centre for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies (CREMS) at the University of York and has written on topics - and garments - that range from early modernity to the present day. Her previous books include Dressing the Elite: Clothes in Early Modern England (2003), The Anatomy of Fashion: Dressing the Body from the Renaissance to Today (2009) and as general editor, Bloomsbury's six-volume publication, A Cultural History of Dress and Fashion (2017).

Susan J. Vincent 

Susan's new book, Hair: An Illustrated History, published by Bloomsbury Press, aims to take the reader ‘on a lavishly illustrated journey into the world of this remarkable substance and our complicated and fascinating relationship with it’. Through a clever blend of art, film, diaries, newspapers, texts and images’, Susan explores the stories we have told about hair and why they matter: ‘From ginger jibes in the seventeenth century to bobbed-hair suicides in the 1920s, from hippies to Roundheads, from bearded women to smooth metrosexuals’, you will never look at hair the same way again.

I met up with Susan to talk about the book, and to ask what had been her inspiration.

Hair: An Illustrated History, by Susan J. Vincent

Fay: “Hair is a fascinating subject. What made you interested in its history?"

Susan: ‘Well as you know, I’m a dress historian. I became aware that while sociologists and anthropologists had written a lot about hair, dress historians hadn’t – hair exists somewhere between the body and the garment and it was part of dressing practice in the past – people in the past had good and bad hair days too!”

Fay: ‘What’s the most surprising thing you learned while researching this book?’

Susan: ‘So many things! I was surprised how wearing a length of hair that is opposed to the status quo and the norm is shocking and adversarial and can be used to make political statements. I was also surprised how much continuity there is in what we have wanted from hair over hundreds of years. The way we treat and wear hair might have changed, but people have always wanted to style it and look after it, and to have it thick and full. They worried about it falling out. They wanted to change its colour. Perhaps most surprising is the similarity in how people in the past felt about their hair care providers, the relationships they built with them, and the continuity in hairdresser and barber stereotypes.”

Fay: “Your book contains wonderfully descriptive stories about how people thought about and treated their hair over the years – do you have a favourite?”

Susan: “My favourite area is the bob, and how it enflamed passions. When women began to ‘bob’ their hair in the 1920s, it was linked to suicides from shock - either on the part of the newly-bobbed woman, or the suicide of a shocked and appalled family member. And bobs were hugely transformative - for individuals, for the hairdressing industry, and for society as a whole. For the first time ever, women didn’t have to have long hair, a change we take for granted today”.

Fay: “What is the most important message of the book?”

Susan: “That we can’t take hair for granted. I wanted to call the book: What we’ve done to hair and what hair has done to us. And I think that’s it in a nutshell: hair is not neutral, it has a huge effect on us, and we have an effect on it. We use it in lots of different ways, live our lives with it, make political points, and harness it to establish and articulate relationships”.

This beautifully illustrated and researched book covers a wide range of different perspectives on hair, as our discussion suggests, and I will leave you with an extract. Today, there is enormous pressure on women to eradicate hair from all over their bodies (at least the places where we don’t want it to grow). And the industry of hair removal is expensive and extensive. As a counterpoint to this trend of hair removal, and as a reminder that in the midst of exploitation around the female body, some women found ways to thrive, Susan tells the story of Madame Clementine Delait, a Bearded Lady.

Madame Clementine Delait, courtesy of
Wellcome Images

“Clementine was born in 1865 in a small village in Lorraine. Aside from shaving her facial hair, which began to grow in her teenage years, she lived an unremarkable life, marrying a local baker and together with him setting up the Café Delait. It was sometime after this that things started to change, for she ended up making a bet with a customer and letting her beard grow: ‘The success was immediate’, she wrote, ‘they were all crazy about me'. (Quoted in Susan Bell, 'Memoirs of a Bearded Lady who Noted Barbed Comments in Ink).

As Clementine’s fame spread, her beard became an attraction that was good for business, and she and her husband renamed their establishment the Café de la Femme à Barbe (Café of the Bearded Woman). Clementine’s husband died in 1926, just before she turned forty, and the widow took her facial hair further afield, eventually achieving celebratory status in Parisian and London theatres.

There are numerous postcards of her in many different poses and contexts, not only from her days of wider fame but also taken in front of her café, the establishment’s eponymous bearded proprietor. She died in 1939, requesting that her tombstone bear the inscription, ‘Here lies Clementine Delait, the bearded lady’. Thus Clementine’s memoir reveals that she deliberately put away her razor and chose to come out of the hirsute closet. She herself publicized her ability to grow whiskers, and it was a source of personal pride, as well as profit.

As evidenced by the memorial inscription she chose, Clementine Delait’s beard was a fundamental part of her identity and it gave her a social standing and degree of agency she would otherwise have been unable to attain. And she most certainly did not feel herself to be merely a curiosity for exhibit: ‘I was much more and much better than that.’


For a chance to win a copy of Hair: An Illustrated History by Susan J. Vincent, please answer the following question in the comments. The lucky winner's name will be drawn at random:

Which of the following items is the most recently invented hair-care invention?

a) tweezers
b) comb
c) hairbrush
d) curling tongs

Thank you to everyone who has commented and entered this competition. I am delighted to announce that the winner, who was selected at random, is Felicity Eldridge. Felicity, please get in touch with me via my website and we can arrange for the book to be sent to you.


AnnP said...

I'm sure tweezers and combs were around in Ancient Egypt and before so will go for d) curling tongs. This sounds like a fascinating book.

Susan Price said...

Yeah, tweezers and combs have been around forever. But I think curling tongs have been around for quite a while too. So I'm going to guess: Hairbrush.

AnnP said...

Yes, I think you are right. My first though was electric curling tongs which are recent but ones you heated up in a fire were a lot earlier. So it must be hairbrush.

Abbeybufo said...

I agree. I would go with hairbrush too. If pushed I would conjecture that the tongs were an 18th-century and the hairbrush a 19th-century invention.

Sukebind said...

I would agree with hairbrush as I think people would have been using tongs of some sort to curl at least some of their hair for a long time. Tweezers were possibly used for things other than/ aside from hair removal.

Unknown said...

Definitely a hair brush!

Julia Ergane said...

Oh, my, finding out that you are not a "short-hair" girl is traumatic. Hair-dressers lie. I am one of that number (non-short-hair--short hair made my face look round like the moon); however, I always knew that hair grew. Pretty scarves and hats cover many sins. How awful. Fashion is an expletive deleted. I'll go along with the hair brush, too.

Ruan Peat said...

Curling tongs are the newest, now if it was curling irons! they are older and oddly a hairbrush isn't that old but the wording is curling tongs so they are the newest invention, I remember my mum threatening to put my hair in rags for the curls as a child (she never did but the threat stood!) her hair had this treatment but she had a brush for many years as a child as well as rags for curls! :-)
the answer is D curling tongs, by oral history!

Fay Bound Alberti said...

Hello I am pleased to announce that you are the winner of the competition. Please can you email me via my website and I will ensure it is sent to your home address? Thanks