For as long as humans have existed grooming has been a part of life. But when did maintaining our hair and even styling, evolve from a necessity into a form of expression, identity, and culture?
Well, we are going to journey back and explore the history and evolution of hairstyling and answer those burning questions. How did they curl hair before electricity? When did people start dying their hair? And, who invented hairspray?
Strap yourselves in and get ready, as we journey through time!
Thanks to archaeologists, the uncovering of the “Statues Of Venus” has traced evidence of hairstyling to as far back as 30,000 years ago1. The statues of women from that time period depicted what appears to be braiding of the hair, or possible headdresses. While tools and remains dating back to 10,000B.C suggest cavemen would cut their hair using flint2.
Although rather primitive compared to today’s styling standards, it was often done out of necessity to avoid freezing during the Ice age3. But it wasn’t long before hairstyling began to develop as a way to show status, pledge allegiance, and follow custom. So let’s take a look at hair styling through the ages.
Let’s start our history of hairstyling with the Egyptians. In 1300B.C. the fad for both men and women was to shave the head due to the extreme temperatures of the region. During ceremonies, intricate black wigs were worn, both braided and decorated with jewels. The most recognizable being that of Cleopatra, whose ceremonial black wig remains iconic4.
From the Egyptian queens’ sleek, sharp edges, come the beautifully curled locks of the ancient greeks. As depicted in the intricate Greek statues displayed in museums, creating curls became a part of their styling routine. I know you are wondering how they managed to achieve such defined curls without electricity, stick around as we explore this in more depth further down!
Both braiding and curling continued to develop through the middle ages until the Renaissance period saw an interesting new hair trend. Women of the upper class would pluck away the entire front of their hairline to give the appearance of a larger forehead! During the 1400s this was thought to be an attractive feature, which continued into the Elizabethan period.
Queen Elizabeth the 1st sported the exposed forehead in the 1500s5 and the craze for red hair began. Her extravagant auburn wigs became a fad that progressed for centuries. By the 1700s wigs had become taller, heavier, and decorated with jewels, feathers, and scented powders. Until a bizarre tax on wig powder in an effort to fund the Napoleonic war saw the demise of this trend.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, advancements in technology saw the evolution of hair styling tools which we now take for granted in modern-day society. Hairdressing became a trained profession and primped and polished hair grew to be accessible for all and not just a luxury for the rich.
The roaring 1920s saw the craze of short hair and pin curls take women by storm, Hollywood stars became a big influence on styling trends of the era. But, as women became more liberated stylist Vidal Sassoon introduced “wash and wear” cuts that working women of the 1960s could wear with less maintenance. Cutting out hours sat under a hairdryer.
Today we are lucky to live in a world filled with modern conveniences that make hairstyling a breeze. We can express our individuality through different styles, colors and accessories as easily as switching up our outfits. But exactly when did hairstyling tools become commonplace in homes worldwide?
Using henna to dye hair, a technique still used today, dates all the way back to 1500B.C., being used by the Egyptians. Fast forward to 300B.C. and the Romans also adopted this technique, along with some interesting methods of their own. In order to dye the hair black a mixture of leeches and vinegar was used6, thankfully we don’t still use this today.
In the 1800s an English chemist called William Henry Perkin made an accidental discovery while searching for a cure for malaria. He developed a synthesized dye, from which chemistry professor August Hoffman derived the color-changing molecule para-phenylenediamine. To this day most permanent hair dyes use this molecule within their foundation7.
By 1907 Eugene Schueller created a dye that could be used commercially, founding the company we know now as L’Oréal. By the 1970s home hair coloring was commonplace and the slogan “Because you’re worth it” encouraged the normalization of hair dying which was previously something women did with discretion.
The beginnings of what is now a commonplace hair product on most women’s shelves started in the 1790s when France introduced self-pressurized carbonated drinks. From this, the idea of aerosol spray cans was developed during World War 2 and by 1953 a clog-free valve was invented by Robert Abplanal making the production of hairspray aerosol cans popular8.
We do not know the exact conception date of hairbrushes, but archeologists have unearthed Egyptian tombs containing combs and brushes9 buried with remains. Although grooming at the time was a necessity due to lice, the act of hair brushing was predominantly a luxury for the rich. As society developed to become more civilized, the need for hairbrushes increased.
The first manufacturer of hair brushes came in 1777 when William Kent set up the company Kent Brushes in Great Britain10. However, it took up to 12 people to hand-make one hairbrush! So when Mason Pearson invented the automatic brush-boring machine in 1885, the production of hairbrushes was revolutionized, with many of today’s brushes following Pearsons’ designs.
The hairdryer, now commonplace in 90% of US homes, began its evolution in France in 188811. Alexandre-Ferdinand Godefroy introduced his invention within his french salon. However, the large, overhead machine (resembling a vacuum cleaner) did not circulate air well enough to effectively speed up hairstyling time.
Thankfully the 1920s introduced the first handheld models of the hairdryer. Made predominantly of metal, they were quite tricky to use and around twenty times less powerful than today’s models. But by the sixties, plastic began to dominate consumer items and hair dryers were no exception, making them much lighter and easier to use.
Though luscious curls have dominated most of our hair history, the need for straight and frizz-free locks was still yearned for by many. Evidence of hot iron plates dates back to ancient Egypt, as women tried to tame their natural curls to mimic the styles worn by Egyptian royalty.
Despite the early desire to straighten out the natural curls in our hair, it wasn’t until 1872 that Frenchman Marcel Grateau invented his version of the straightening iron12. A design made of iron rods that were manually heated before being clamped onto the hair. Special styling creams were applied to the hair before straightening, but follicles still easily became damaged.
34 years later, the hot metal straightening comb was introduced by inventor Simon E. Monroe. Heated via a warming agent, the comb could then be brushed through the hair to create a straighter, sleeker look. However, although safer and kinder to the hair the Grateaus’ iron, Monroes’ comb could take several hours to achieve the desired finished style.
In 1909 came the first metal-plated straighteners, designed by Isaac Shero. Made to minimize damage, they would glide over the hair smoothly reducing friction. As the design and technology advanced, an electric version with ceramic plates and heat control settings was developed by Shero, paving the way for the various makes and models of flat irons we have today.
Today we are lucky to have an array of curling tongs and wands, with adjustable heat settings and interchangeable barrels, allowing for safe and easy styling. Yet beautifully styled curls can be seen right back to one of the oldest human civilizations, the Egyptians. But how did they achieve such defined results?
We now take electricity for granted, but it wasn’t until the end of the 1800s that Thomas Edison built the direct current electric generator and introduced America to the lightbulb. By 1925 around half of US homes had electric power, but how did women achieve such extravagant curls up until this point?16
Our Ancient ancestors once used to set their hair into curls using wet clay13, once dried in the sun it could be combed out to reveal the first styled curls of civilization.
Of course, human beings are resourceful, and it wasn’t long before a curling tool was developed. Before the curlers we know today, the Egyptians wrapped their hair around bronze rods14 heated over a fire to achieve a heat-styled curl.
Many more heat-free methods of curling evolved through the ages. Such as rag-curling in the Victorian era, the first recorded hair rollers of the 19th century, and the wartime method of pin-curling.
Heat styling using metal warmed over the fire, although effective, did often damage both the skin and the hair follicles. But it wasn’t until 1959 that Roger Lemoine and Rene Lelievre invented the first electric curling iron15.
Based on Marcel Grateau’s design in 1872, Lemoine and Lelievre created a way to control the heat being applied to the hair. Allowing for the technology we have today that not only curls the hair but leaves it looking soft, luscious, and healthy.
The history of hairstyling shows us just how much care and attention humans have given to their appearance for thousands of years. The evolution of hairstyling itself demonstrates how much of a significant role hair has played within society.
Once just a necessity to our earliest ancestors, civilizations’ creativity and resourcefulness paved the way for some of the iconic looks we can create today.