Fashion History Lesson: The Bob Haircut, Feminism's Ultimate Style Statement

This short-and-chic hairdo has a long history of shaking up the status quo.
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Karlie Kloss in Cannes, 2013. Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Karlie Kloss in Cannes, 2013. Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Welcome to Fashion History Lesson, in which we dive deep into the origin and evolution of the fashion industry's most influential and omnipresent businesses, icons, trends and more.

We recently called the short, blunt bob the official haircut of 2017 after seeing a slew of editorials, runways shows and street style snaps featuring the iconic 'do. While bobbed hair always has an air of modernity, there's still something that's undeniably classic about the look. It's no coincidence that a slew of fierce, fashionable females, from Coco Chanel to Anna Wintour, are associated with the bob haircut.

So, what is it about this simple coiffure that seems to represent confidence, individuality and high style? On a subconscious level, it still serves as an indicator of a woman's choice to break from tradition. While cropped hair has been worn by women across the globe for thousands of years, beauty ideals for women throughout the majority of Western history have usually included long hair (a standard that's held far more constant than those ascribed to "ideal" body types). Of course, there's also something undeniably sexy about the bob. Vogue summed it up aptly in a 1988 story: "When a woman cuts her hair, she creates fresh erogenous zones and effects." Sexy yet sweet, the haircut is somewhat of a paradox: "childishly demure, yet calculating, quirky, and soignée." [3]

The look has also coincided with rapid social and political changes in Western society since the start of the 20th century, although the idea of the rebellious, short-haired woman possibly dates back to Joan of Arc. Flappers helped to perpetuate this image, and, almost a century later, a drastic change in the length of a woman's hair is still known to raise a few eyebrows. In order to better understand its cultural impact, we're looking back at the history of the bob to find out how and why it became a quintessential symbol of feminist fashion and what it says about how women are perceived today.   

[Left]: "Jeanne D’Arc" by Albert Lynch, 1903, Image: Wikimedia Commons; [Right]: Poster featuring Irene Castle, 1919, Image: Wikimedia Commons

[Left]: "Jeanne D’Arc" by Albert Lynch, 1903, Image: Wikimedia Commons; [Right]: Poster featuring Irene Castle, 1919, Image: Wikimedia Commons

Most people trace the popularity of bobbed hair in Western fashion back to the 1920s, thanks to the haircut's close association with the image of the flapper. However, the cigarette-smoking, flask-wielding flapper of the 1920s didn't exactly start this trend. In 1920, the New York Times traced the origins of the bob "epidemic" to 1903, when two female students at Bryn Mawr college appeared with short hair to play basketball. The article also claims that bobbed hair became popular in Greenwich Village between 1908 and 1912, thanks to the influence of "intellectual women" from Russia who used bobbed hair to disguise themselves from police. [5]

While the bob haircut may have been sported by small groups of rebellious women decades before, many historians track the start of the trend to a well-known American dancer named Irene Castle, who lopped off her hair for convenience before entering the hospital for an appendectomy in 1914. An article in Vogue from January 1915 mentions that Castle, "did the newest thing in coiffures when she bobbed her hair," but went on to state that, "there is little likelihood of its general adoption." [1] Oh, Vogue! How wrong you were. 

By May 1915, the same magazine was featuring advertisements for hair "transformers" that would allow women to try this "latest fad" by providing the visual effect of bobbed hair without permanently sacrificing their long locks. [2] Years before the emergence of the jazz-age flapper, bobbed hair had already started to gain mainstream popularity. Still, most hair dressers were ill-equipped and unwilling to do such a daring chop, and sources indicate that women often resorted to heading to barbershops since barbers were more willing to do such a dreadful deed. [4]

[Left]: Louise Brooks, 1927, Photo: Wikimedia Commons; [Right]: Clara Bow, date unknown, Photo: Wikimedia Commons

[Left]: Louise Brooks, 1927, Photo: Wikimedia Commons; [Right]: Clara Bow, date unknown, Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Regardless of when it originated, bobbed hair was certainly ideal for the lives of rebellious young women in the 1920s. For one thing, the simple bob haircut perfectly complemented the sleek, tubular silhouettes that dominated women's fashion during much of the decade, and the length ensured that hair wouldn’t interfere with any wild dancing. The distinguishable 'do also helped to fuel publicity for actresses like Clara Bow and Louise Brooks, who is perhaps best known for her razor-sharp cut. By the start of the 1920s, the bob had become desired by millions of women across all ages and social classes.

However, the trend for short hair was certainly met with its fair share of controversy. For many conservatives, the appearance of bobbed hair signified that women were — gasp! — trying to "act like men" by going against traditional gender roles and beauty standards. Bobbed hair became associated with the "shocking" behavior of the young women who drank alcohol, wore makeup and bared their knees. Bobbed hair was a permanent signifier of a woman's rebellious nature. Despite the controversy, many women were happy to embrace the haircut's perceived connection to feminism. In 1927, actress Mary Gordon told Pictorial Review: "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 worth while." [4]

Meanwhile, those who wanted women to maintain their traditional roles as well-behaved daughters and wives did whatever they could to discourage the trend for bobbed hair. Preachers conducted sermons against it, schools banned it and pamphlets warned young women that short hair would lead to a variety of undesirable health conditions. [4] A New York Times article from 1920 says that young women with disapproving parents went so far as to go to their doctors' offices to be diagnosed with falling hair in order to receive a "prescription" for a bob haircut. The article also claims that even conservative society matrons were wearing bobbed wigs to mimic the look, indicating that there really was no way of stopping the trend from spreading across America. [5]   

The Supremes in 1968. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Supremes in 1968. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

While bobbed haircuts were specifically mentioned in almost every issue of Vogue from the late 1910s through the end of the 1920s, the magazine only mentioned it by name a very small number of times throughout all of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Of course, plenty of women still sported bobs in various styles throughout these decades, but the once-revolutionary style became less newsworthy in Western fashion, until it became associated with rule-breaking style once again in the 1960s.

It makes sense that short haircuts (including the bob) would rise in popularity during the "Swinging Sixties." The gradual transformation between the conservative fashions and hairstyles of the 1950s into the younger, sportier looks of the 1960s is somewhat similar to the changes in fashion during the 1920s. In addition to hemlines rising and waistlines become looser, changes in the social and political views of the 1960s also echoed life in the 1920s. The modern, youthful looks and haircuts worn by Twiggy, Mary Quant and other style icons also seem to mirror the rebellious looks and lifestyles embraced during the flapper era. The classic bob was given a modern makeover in 1965 by legendary hair stylist Vidal Sassoon, who debuted a more angular version known as the "five-point cut."

The simple bob also inspired the super-voluminous and sculpted hairstyle, known as the bouffant, that was sported by Jackie Kennedy, Mary Tyler Moore, The Supremes and millions of suburban American housewives. Although it may have required a bit of work (and even more hairspray), the bouffant hairstyle helped to make short hair acceptable in Western fashion for all women during the 1960s. By the start of the 1970s, the classic bob had transformed into the longish, sleek bob made famous by Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, as well as the messier version that Debbie Harry rocked in the early years of her career. 

However, it’s probably safe to say that the most iconic bob of the 1970s belonged to figure skater Dorothy Hamill. After showing off her especially short, rounded bob (and amazing athletic skills) at the 1976 Winter Olympics, the "pageboy" bob became in-demand, and was in turn worn by celebrities like Cher and Kate Jackson from Charlie's Angels.

Dorothy Hamill (center) wins the gold medal at the 1976 Olympics. Photo: Tony Duffy/Getty Images

Dorothy Hamill (center) wins the gold medal at the 1976 Olympics. Photo: Tony Duffy/Getty Images

The bob had another great renaissance in the late 1980s, when celebrities and supermodels like Linda Evangelista made it on-trend once again. In 1988, Jody Shields, a former editor at Vogue, published an article titled "Call Me Garçonne" that recounts the bob's history as a symbol of feminism. Shields attributes the short hair comeback of the late 1980s to the theory that hair tends to change with changes in clothing silhouettes. As the voluminous pouf skirts and shoulder pads of the early 1980s gradually deflated, sleek bobbed hair became the natural choice to go along with the minimal fashions that continued into the early 1990s. [3]

From Courtney Love to Posh Spice, various versions of the bob were worn by rebellious female celebrities during the '90s and early 2000s. Actresses like Jennifer Aniston and Winona Rider helped to boost its popularity, but the bob's real claim to fame during this period came from fierce fictional characters, such as Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction and Gwyneth Paltrow as Margot in The Royal Tenenbaums

While the popularity of the hairstyle has come and gone in mainstream fashion over the past few decades, it's never really disappeared, and somehow it's never lost its strong connection with high style and female empowerment. Despite the fact that the general public has become accustomed to seeing women with short hair, a newly shorn bob still manages to make headlines each year, especially when linked to a celebrity known for having flowing locks. Case in point: Kim Kardashian's "daring" jump to the long bob, or lob, in 2015, also known as the chop heard 'round the (internet) world.  

Anna Wintour at Paris Fashion Week, 2016. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Anna Wintour at Paris Fashion Week, 2016. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

While it's easy to imagine that we're well past the period when men were threatened by the sight of short hair, the days of anti-bob sermons and pamphlets perhaps aren't so distant as we'd like to believe. But sexism persists in 2017, as do men who think they should for some reason have a say in how women choose to wear their hair. According to a writer from Return of Kings, a "neomasculinity" website, “Short hair is a near-guarantee that a girl will be more abrasive, more masculine and more deranged." Worse still, infamous blogger and "pickup artist" known as Roosh V went as far as to claim: "A woman cutting off healthy hair is one step away from literal cutting of her skin with a sharp object, because both behaviors denote a likely mental illness […] She must be monitored by state authorities so she doesn't continue to hurt herself."

Given that certain controlling men seem so threatened by women with short hair, it's clear that there's still an element of empowerment that comes with bob haircuts, and more broadly, with the notion of a woman being able to claim ownership over her own physical form. Although scores of women have adopted bobbed haircuts throughout history, the style still manages to disrupt mainstream, patriarchal beauty ideals in Western society in a way that makes it one of the quintessential symbols of feminist fashion. And one thing that has persisted as long as the bob haircut itself is that whether the discussion is about hair color, length or hijabs, women are too often judged by what covers their head rather than what's inside it.

Sources not linked:

[1] “A Manhattan Cocktail.” Vogue. February 1, 1915: 16.

[2] “Advertisement for A. Simonson.” Vogue. May 1, 1915: 90.

[3] Shields, Jody. “Call Me Garçonne.” Vogue. December 1988: 342.

[4] Victoria Sherrow, Victoria. Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History. Westport, CT, London: Greenwood Press, 2006.

[5] “Vogue of Bobbed Hair.” New York Times. June 27, 1920: 71.