(Post by Andrea Grace Burn of East Yorkshire – April 2022)
It’s funny how hair styles can define an era and popular culture.
The war-time 1940s were synonymous with austerity: pin-curls, victory rolls and snoods for women which kept their hair out of harm’s way when they worked in munitions factories.
The 1950s saw a younger, more rebellious generation sweep away utilitarian styles in favour of more glamour: from bouffant to the poodle-cut made popular by film stars such as Lucille Ball. Men kept their hair short throughout the post-war era until the 1950s, when rock and roll introduced more textured styles such as the quiff and pompadour.
Then came the ’60s with its Flower Power, anything-goes zeitgeist; but not at my house.
My parents were far more conventional when I was growing up in America’s Deep South in the ’60s. Not one to “let it all hang out” my mother kept her long, black hair scraped up in a large bun rolled over a foam doughnut-shaped hair form; held aloft by hundreds of hair pins and a cloud of Elnet hairspray which seemed to follow her around; like the cloud of dust around Pig-Pen in the Peanuts cartoon.
I can still smell it. As for that hair form – it had a life of its own and seemed to crop up in unexpected places. I was scared of it.
Dad was old-school and favoured short back and sides, slicked down with a dab of Brylcreem, which gave it a high glossy sheen and controlled his unruly, curly forelock. He looked like Frank Sinatra (his musical hero), or one of those guys in Madmen.
Dad and I would sing along to the Brylcreem ad on TV, “A Little Dab’ll Do Ya,” which became our special song for the rest of his life.
My grandmother kept her beautiful white hair in a permanent wave during her weekly trips to the beauty parlour and sometimes her hair changed colour from white to mauve, which kept us all on our toes.
When my brother was about twelve and hitting new pubescent strides, he did something radical and grew out his crew-cut which my dad had insisted on, into a longer style inspired by the Beatles. My grandmother gave him five dollars to “get a decent hair cut” which he spent on records and came home with his mop intact. Having survived our grandmother’s scorn, he had a narrow escape outside the local ice-cream parlour when some kid threatened to cut his hair off with a knife! Life in Appalachia could be tough.
If we were going to church, Mom would slick our hair down with a dash of spit on the palm of her hand; she was even known to wheel out the Elnet for that perfect, sleek finish. I can see my brother now, ducking and diving with a mischievous grin as he tried to dodge the spit.
As a very young child, my mother kept my hair short with a fringe but as I grew, Mom let my hair grow and had fun styling it. I had low bunches, high bunches, ponytails, pigtails, plaits across my head or rolled in coils above my ears like Heidi – and buns for ballet! And don’t get me started on French Braids! They HAD to be just like Dorothy Gale’s in The Wizard of Oz (MGM 1939).
When Mom washed my hair she would twist it – stiff with shampoo – into ‘sheep horns’, ‘dog ears’, ‘rabbit ears’, ‘kitten ears’ and ‘unicorn horns,’ which I thought was funny but I’m sure was a ploy to get me to sit still long enough to have my hair washed.
My grandpa used to say, “Why sugar – you look just like Minnie Pearl with your hair in pigtails.” Minnie Pearl was a comedienne and star of the Grand Ol’ Opry; who to my knowledge did not wear her hair in plaits. Mom insisted that I looked nothing like Minnie Pearl, despite the fact that we were vaguely related to her. Minnie Pearl (real name Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon) was my mother’s father’s brother’s wife’s niece. Work that one out!
By the time I was nine, my hair was waist length and to my mother’s despair, “tangled at the drop of a hat.” She called them “rat’s tails.” Exasperated with my fine, knotted hair, she once took me to her hairdresser, where he held the crown of my head with one hand (getting a purchase on my scalp) and raked a fine comb through the wet tangles, at which point I screamed and Mom marched me out, telling him that he had “absolutely no understanding whatever of how to tackle tangles – or children!”
The point was, my hair was in my mother’s hands, quite literally. The length and style were her choice. She even rinsed my hair in warm vinegar to make it squeaky clean, but boy did it stink! The only hair conditioner you could buy then was Creme Rinse which Mom considered an extravagance.
One of the first records I bought was ‘Hair’ by The Cowsills (1969), written by Galt MacDermot with lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni; a cover of the original song from the musical ‘Hair’. I thought it was really “groovy” and “far out man”, as I sang along swinging my “shining, gleaming, flaxen, waxen” locks. It was the dawning of the age Aquarius and my first and only foray into psychedelia. Cool.
As the ’60s gave way to the ’70s and my family moved to Birmingham, West Midlands, I became aware, for the first time, of how hair could get you noticed. Watching Top of the Pops one Thursday evening in 1971, I was mesmerised by Rod Stewart’s feather-cut as he strutted around on stage singing Maggie May. Dad said Rod’s hair looked like a cockerel: well, that was the whole point! And we all knew that David Essex’s trademark dark, shaggy curls were going to make him a star.
I begged Mom to let me have a feather cut – or a Lion Cut, like Jayne Bolton’s at school – but I was met with near hysteria from my mother who said these “fancy hair-dos were just plain ugly.” Good job she had a set of Carmen rollers; I spent hours in front of the bathroom mirror trying to perfect the Farrah Fawcett flick a la Charlie’s Angels – and half a canister of Elnet. My flick was nothing compared to Rachel Sadler’s, whose blonde tresses were sprayed into magnificent, solid waves.
One day, aged fifteen, I decided to take matters into my own hands and get my hair cut – only shoulder-length mind – but it was a significant moment. My dad greeted me in the hallway and burst into tears, “My little girl has cut off her beautiful hair! She’s all grown up!” Embarrassed beyond belief, I marched through the house swinging my new shiny bob tied back with a cotton bandana.
“Oh Dad, of course I’m grown up! Duh!”
A trip to the cinema in 1976 to see ‘A Star is Born’ starring Barbra Streisand changed my hairstyle for the next decade. In the film, she wore her blonde tresses in a soft curly-perm which I thought was the most exciting, sexy looking hair I’d ever seen. Luckily for me, Steiner hair salon in Birmingham city centre were advertising for perm models, so I took a seat, lit a cigarette and strutted out four hours later with a halo of tight curls and an afro comb. I looked perfectly ridiculous and nothing like beautiful Barbra.
On a trip back to the States with my dad to visit my grandparents in the summer of ’78, I stepped from the plane in my high-heeled sandals and perm, which immediately caught the attention of my conservative, Southern grandmother.
“Your shoes are just tacky and your hair – well, there’s nothin’ I can do about your hair!”
She had a point.
As disco stirred-up a veritable Night Fever on dance floors in the late ’70s, my curly-perm took on even greater, pretentious proportions; it even had its own routine! Beneath the mirror balls and strobing lights of Birmingham’s clubs and wine bars, my hair held centre stage, glistening with gold spray. As I sashayed along Corporation Street one afternoon to the bus stop – my perm radiating sophistication – I was approached by a sleazy photographer offering me work as a model for ladies underwear. My perm bubble was burst.
The ’70s gave way to the ’80s, heralding my Liza Minelli era with a short crop which went to my head and announced my arrival at university to study Performance Arts, where I felt emboldened to take to the stage as a jazz singer with a new, sassy confidence.
By the mid 1980s trends were changing as the age of BIG hair arrived, influenced by TV shows such as Dynasty and executed with a tonne of mousse and attitude. With hair as wide as my huge shoulder pads, I strutted around the office in power suits and towering heels that Alexis Carrington Colby would have been proud of; until my hair caught fire as I lit a cigarette.
A pixie crop followed – it was a lot safer.
These days, I keep my fine, grey hair short and think of my mother as it still tangles at the drop of a hat.
(Copyright: Andrea Burn)