Bobs. Baby bangs. Braids. For as long as there has been hair, there have been hair trends in styles, cuts, colors, and dos reflective of broader cultural movements. Like other aspects of style and aesthetics, hair is never just hair.
Rachael Gibson, better known as The Hair Historian, has espoused these hair truths for most of her career as a writer and now as the curator of her marvelous Instagram account, @thehairhistorian. Every day, Gibson shares imagery from throughout the ages and across cultures of noteworthy hair. From the golden ringlets of Renaissance portraiture to the swirly texture of curls carved into ancient Egyptian sculptures, Gibson sheds light on the power of hair to signify time, place, and so much more. Fascinated by the imagery she sources and reveals to the masses, I reached out to learn more about her process, platform, and relationship to hair.
What’s your academic background, and how did it lead you to hair history?
I studied Fashion at Manchester College of Art, and while I loved designing and making clothes, I soon realized that what interested me most was the social and cultural history that fashion fed into. This led to me undertaking my Masters in Journalism at the London College of Fashion, where I was able to explore subculture, style, and the stories that our clothes tell—whether consciously or not—in more depth and through an academic lens.
When I graduated, journalism jobs were thin on the ground (no change there!), so I broadened my search to include beauty. This led to my first role at a title called Hairdressers Journal, a then-weekly magazine for the hairdressing industry. The Journal was first published in 1882, and we had full access to the archives. Once again, my interest in history led to me obsessively pouring through old issues. If I was writing a feature on the return of the bob, for example, I could look back at issues from the start of the 1910s to see how the trend was first covered— and not just that, but the advertising surrounding it, the readers’ opinions, the suggested pricing of this new service. All fascinating things for a history fan, and the information helped create much more compelling features.
Hair is unique because it’s both a body part and an accessory that allows us to communicate ideas about ourselves with the world.
I started saving images and anecdotes I found interesting and started building up my library of hair reference books and my knowledge of the industry. I spent the next decade working both for publications and with brands, all in the hair industry, to create content that was (hopefully) meaningful and contextual, as well as engaging.
The Instagram account started about six years ago as a place to share the imagery and ideas I came across and to give hair a bit of academic research and thought that fashion gets that beauty so often doesn’t. My goals have always been to elevate hairdressing in the eyes of those outside the industry and to support those within the industry with interesting references and ideas for their work. Also, to reiterate the often unsung role that hair and hairdressers have played in global history.
What is it about hair that you find so compelling?
Hair is unique because it’s both a body part and an accessory that allows us to communicate ideas about ourselves with the world. Whether hair is styled for religious, cultural, or purely fashion reasons, it has globally and historically been an important signifier of the self and a visual shorthand for many bigger concepts. Changing it through cutting and coloring, styling it in specific ways, or simply wearing it as it grows out of your head all say something about a person— and it’s something that humans have done since the earliest civilizations.
What does hair have the ability to reflect about a time, place, or community?
Hair is a visual shorthand for so many things— even choosing not to be interested in your hair makes a statement. There are countless global examples of how hair plays into our sense of self, from braiding patterns across African countries that share visual messages about status, heritage, and beliefs to the politics of the Afro during the Civil Rights era and the bob at the turn of the 20th century, through to the universal quest to appear younger by somehow changing your hairstyle. Aging is a concern that dates back to ancient civilizations, with hundreds of historic recipes for both anti-grey dyes and anti-balding solutions.
While today we live in a time where trends emerge and disappear at pace, for much of history, a hairstyle serves in the same way as fashion choices to tell us about who a person is, where they were living, and what role they may have held in the world.
What’s your research and curation process for culling hair history content for your Hair Historian project?
Buying endless books, going to galleries as often as possible, and spending hours typing “hair” into online archives!
I’m also lucky to have many friends both in the hair community and in the art, fashion, and heritage spaces who send me pictures of things I might find interesting. It’s such a universal topic that it’s easy to find inspiring imagery and artifacts; there’s always some hair ephemera in every small-town museum or a weird advert in a vintage magazine that tells you something about what was happening at the time. Once you start thinking about hair and it infiltrates your brain, it’s hard not to find stories everywhere. As an example, my partner is obsessed with wrestling, and there are so many fascinating hair moments that intersect both our interests. If you’re looking for a deep dive into masculinity and the importance of hair, there’s no shortage of interesting moments there, so it is with many areas of life!
What’s your favorite hairstyle or trend from throughout history, and why does it rise above the rest for you?
The answer changes constantly, but as it was recently the anniversary of Marie Antoinette’s execution, her hairstyles—and those she influenced—have been on my mind and are so wonderfully captured in lots of imagery from the time. It was an era of expensive celebrity hairdressers and ostentatious looks that were eagerly documented (and ridiculed) in the press.
The fact that women who may not have had much of a say in politics could pledge their allegiances through the choice of a hairdo is always fun to think about, and they really did take the idea and run with it. There are stories of women putting everything from glow worms to urns in their hairstyles to say something about their inner selves. As a literal example of what hair can tell people about yourself, this is a pretty visual one.
Featured imagery in the banner image via Rachael Gibson. From left to right: Egyptian Hairstyle; Roman bust of Plautilla, wife of Caracalla; Louis xin hairstyle, Album de Coiffures Historiques, E. Nissy.