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The Bob: A Revolutionary And Empowering Hairstyle

1920s | April 14, 2019

American actress Louise Brooks, shown here in 1929, was known for her daring short bobbed hair. Source: (John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

Prior to the 20th century, the vast majority of women kept their hair long but pulled up in buns or braids. Long hair, in fact, was a symbol of femininity. To wear one’s hair short was quite scandalous…which is exactly why young women began cutting their hair in the early 1920s. The bobbed hairstyle of the twenties was a form of social rebellion that helped women take a step closer to gender equality. And it helped give rise to a new industry that was predominantly women-owned…hairdressing salons. 

Ballroom dancer Irene Castle, shown here with her pet monkey, created a stir when she cut her hair short in 1915. Source: (Wisconsinhistory.org)

Fashion-Forward Irene

The bob of the 1920s actually got its start prior to the beginning of the decade. In 1915, famous ballroom dancer, Irene Castle, cut her hair short just before having surgery for appendicitis. She thought that it would be easier to wash and comb her hair during her convalescence if it was shorter. Before this, Castle had a reputation for being a style icon and trendsetter, so cutting her hair was not a decision Castle took lightly. Once she fully recovered from her illness and surgery, Castle was ready to hit the dance floor again, but not ready to debut her bobbed tresses. She wore a turban to hide her hair but was persuaded to join friends out for dinner with her hair uncovered. The public went wild for the daring new hairstyle. It became known as the Castle bob. 

Source: (ukmusicmanagment.com)

An Androgynous Trend

The shorter hairstyle caught on and was all the rage of the Roaring Twenties. This was a time when the role of women in society was changing. There was a cry for more gender equality, particularly after women were granted voting rights with the passage of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920. The shorter, bobbed hairstyle gave women a more man-like appearance. To add to this, fashionable women bound their breasts to give themselves a boyish, flat-chested look. They even went so far as to wear trousers. 

Barber shops were willing to chop off a woman's long hair. Source: (pinterest.com)

Women’s Hairstylists We Aghast

Tradition women’s hairstylists…and there weren’t many…were shocked and aghast by the brazen new hair-do. Many of them refused to be party to the shocking hair rebellion and turned away young women looking for a bob. The hairstylists who were willing to cut a woman’s hair so drastically found that they were ill-equipped to cut and style women’s hair into the modern bob. They had only even trimmed long hair with shears. The women visited barber shops, instead, where the barbers were willing to chop off their hair and had an assortment of fine scissors and clippers to do a neat job. 

Source: (vforvintage.net)

A Boon for Women’s Hairstylists

After they got over their initial shock, women’s hairstylists quickly realized that they needed to learn the skills necessary to create the new, shorter hairstyles or they would be out of business. Moreover, they realized that there was a need for more hairstylists than ever before. Unlike long hair, the bobs needed to be regularly maintained to keep their tidy look. The Washington Post ran a news article in 1925 titled, “The Economic Effects of Bobbing.” In it, the author explained how the bob hairstyle was solely responsible for the rise of women hairstyling shops. For example, the article stated that, in 1920, there were about 5,000 hairstyling studios in the U.S. Just four years later, there were more than 21,000. 

Finger waves, a variation on the bob. Source: (chicvintagebrides.com)

Variations of the Bob

As the popularity of the bob haircut grew, hairstylists got more creative at developing variations to the standard bob. One was the finger wave, in which s-shaped waves, was made using styling gel and wrapping the hair around fingers. Another was the Eton crop, made popular by Josephine Baker. This super short bob was arranged in unique shapes using styling gel. The shingle bob was a tapered cut that exposed the back of the wearer’s neck. Using a hot curling iron—a new invention—women could create the Marcel, another type of wavy bob. 

Source: (recollection.biz)

Bob-Inspired Hair Accessories

The new, short haircut also inspired new hair accessories. One was even named for the popular new haircut…the bobby pin. It was developed as a way to keep short hair in place while remaining unseen. Flappers often added headbands to their ensembles. These headbands were worn over the forehead and hair as a way to add a bit of style to the cut. The cloche style hat, which was designed by Caroline Reboux in 1908, enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the 1920s when women realized how appealing the close-fitting hats were with bobbed hair. 

Actress Clara Bow. Source: (vogue.com)

The Scandalous Bob

For celebrities like Louise Brooks and Clara Bow, as well as non-celebrities, the bob hairstyle identified them as members of a modern, rebellious, non-traditional class of women who were bold enough to cast off the standard hallmarks of femininity and forge a new identity. For many people bobbed hair was linked to other scandalous behavior that went against societal norms for women, such as wearing skirts above the knee, drinking, smoking, and wearing cosmetics. Actress Mary Gordon summed up the attitude of the short-haired women when she was quoted in Pictorial Review in 1927 as saying, “I consider getting rid of our long hair one of the many little shackles that women have cast aside in their passage to freedom. Whatever helps their emancipation, however small it may seem, is well worthwhile.” 

Tags: 1920s | hairstyles | the bob | womens hairstyles

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.