Hair accessories are functional or ornamental objects wrapped, tied, twisted, inserted, or otherwise attached to the hair. Throughout history, types of ornamentation and the materials from which they were made indicated religious significance, social class, age group, and level of fashion awareness. Infinitely varied in shapes, sizes, and materials, examples of hair accessories include: hair rings or bands, ribbons and bows, hairpins, hair combs, barrettes, beads, thread or string, hair spikes and sticks, and other affixed miscellaneous objects (shells, jewels, coins, flowers, feathers) perceived to have aesthetic or social and cultural value. Hair accessories have been worn by people of all ages and by both genders.
Ancient Hair Accessories
Hair rings and hair bands are cylindrically shaped hair accessories wound around the hair, designed to hold hair away from the face, or otherwise confine strands of hair. Some of the earliest hair rings were found in Great Britain, France, and Belgium at the end of the Bronze Age. These objects were solid gold or gold-plated clay, bronze, or lead. Ancient Egyptians wore similar rings during the New Kingdom Dynasties 18-20. Examples have been found in Egyptian tombs. Worn in wigs rather than hair, these hair rings were made of alabaster, white glazed pottery, or jasper, and were a sign of social ranking or authority (Antiquity 1997). In North America, hair binders were made of pliable materials such as silk or cotton covering lead wire (Cox 1966). In the twentieth century, the use of rubber and other manufactured elastomeric fibers made hair rings (now called hair bands or ponytail holders) more flexible. They were covered with thread or fibers to make them less likely to break strands of hair. “Scrunchies” were some of the most popular hair bands during the 1980s. These fabric-covered elastic decorative bands were used to create ponytails in the hair of young girls and women (Tortora and Eubank 1998).
Fabric in Hair
Ribbons and bows are narrow fabric strips of closely woven yarns or braid wrapped and knotted around the hair, also used to bind the hair. They were especially popular during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe. In the 1600s in France, ribbons were worn by women of all ages, from young girls to elderly dowager duchesses, and were specifically chosen to color coordinate with their dresses (Trasko 1994). Fashionable men also adorned their long tresses with ribbons and bows. A “love lock” was a lock of a man’s hair grown longer than the rest, and then accentuated with a ribbon (Tortora and Eubank 1998). During the 1700s in France and England, both a man’s queue (a lock or pigtail on a wig) and women’s elaborate coiffures were decorated with ribbons and bows. In Mexico in the early 2000s, women in Venustiano Carranza and San Pablito inter-twine their hair with brilliantly colored rayon ribbons, woolen cords with pom-poms and beading, and hand-woven tapes (Sayer 1985).
Hairpins and Updos
Hairpins are single-pointed pins used to dress or fasten the hair. They serve both a functional and decorative purpose, as in central Africa where copper, wood, ivory, and bone hairpins are used to fasten the hair (Sagay 1983). The elaborate hairstyles worn by ancient Roman women were often set with long hairpins hollow enough to double as containers for perfume or even poison. In Japan, during the seventeenth century, hair ornaments of lacquered wood or tortoiseshell began to be used. The kanzashi (a hairpin with a decorative knob, tassel, or bead on the end) was worn by fashionable courtesans. In fact, a conspicuous mark of a courtesan during this time was her “dazzling array of hair ornaments, radiating like a halo from an often dramatically sculptured coiffure” (Goodwin 1986, Introduction). Other Japanese women wore hairstyles decorated much more simply, perhaps with a floral or pendant hairpin (Goodwin 1986). Hairpins were also necessary for maintaining a fastidious appearance in France during the late 1600s. The large “periwigs” worn by men required them to shave their head or pin their hair tightly to the head. The use of bobbing pins included both large, straight pins and U-shaped hairpins. The “bobbed” hair then allowed the wig to be donned more easily, as well as confined the underlying hair to present a neat, well-groomed appearance (Trasko 1994). Hairpins continued in popularity as a means of fastening long hair into chignons. According to Trasko (1994), it was considered indecent for Victorian women to be seen with an abundance of loose, streaming hair. She states, “Hairstyles continued to be as constrained as women’s lives” (p. 102). In the early twentieth century, hairpins were also necessary for creating waves in the hair (marcel waves during the 1920s) and pin curls in the 1940s. During the 1920s the bobby pin, with its tight spring clip, replaced the older style (open hairpins) allowing women to bob their hair more effectively under tight-fitting cloche hats (Tortora and Eubank 1998).
Barrettes are metal pins approximately three inches long with a beaded head and guard cap, used to secure the hair. Some of the first barrettes were used during the mid-nineteenth century. This bar-shaped hair accessory typically has a decorative face with an underlying spring clip to fasten to the hair (Cox 1966). Often made of metal or plastic in a variety of colors, this hair clip could be viewed as a modified version of the bobby pin, combining the pin’s functionality with a more decorative outer appearance. And the appeal is not solely Western. In Mexico, Totonac and Tzelta girls who live near Papantla and Ocosingo, wear a colorful array of plastic slides and ornamental hair combs (Sayer 1985).
Headbands from Ancient Roots
Headbands are hair accessories that also go back to ancient times, and combine aesthetics and functionality. As early as 3500 B.C.E., Mesopotamian men and women wore fillets or headbands to hold their hair in place. These circlets were placed on the crown of the head. In the Middle Ages, royal European ladies wore fillets of metal in the shape of a crown or cornet with various types of veils. Metal fillets gradually lost favor and were replaced by strips or bands of fabric (Tortura and Eubank 1998). During the neoclassical revival of the early 1800s, women imitated ancient Greek hairstyles by holding back their hair with fabric bands. As hats and bonnets became more fashionable in the mid-to-late 1800s, headbands lost popularity (Trasko 1994). It was not until the 1920s that headbands reappeared, when women began wearing headache bands for evening events. These bands were often ornamented with jewels or had tall feathers attached to them. Contemporary headbands often have a plastic U-shaped core covered in foam or fabric. These head-bands fit closely over the top of the head and behind the ears. They emerged onto the fashion scene once again in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the First Lady Hillary Clinton began wearing them during and after her husband’s election in 1992 (Tortora and Eubank 1998).
Men as well as women wore headbands. During the Jin Dynasty (1139-1163 C.E.), Chinese men tied their long hair up with a silk band (Xun and Chunming 1987). In Mexico during the sixteenth century, priests on the Yucatan Peninsula wore bark cloth headbands. The practice continues in present-day ceremonies. Red bark cloth headbands, known as “god-hats,” are wrapped around the heads of worshipers (Sayer 1985). For everyday purposes, hair adornments are rare among male Mexicans, who have followed the Western lead for “civilized” haircuts (Sayer 1985, p. 204). However, there are exceptions. Older men from Amatenango occasionally wear factory-made bandanna handkerchiefs (known as paliacates) to tie back their hair from their faces. The Huichol wear a headband of purchased cotton cloth called a coyera to fasten their hair-style in place. The narrow folded headband is wrapped about the head with the ends trailing and is often wound with ribbons or decorated with safety pins (Sayer 1985).
Hair combs have been used since the Stone Age to confine and decorate the hair. Boxwood combs, dating back to 10,000 B.C.E. have been found as some of the earliest hair ornaments (Antiquity 1997). Ancient Roman women set their hair with tortoiseshell combs. In China during the Tang Dynasty (621 C.E.-907 C.E.), women held their buns in place with decorative golden and emerald hairpins or combs made of rhinoceros horn (Xun and Chunming 1987). During the Song Dynasty (960-1279 C.E.), hairpins and combs were made into elaborate shapes of phoenixes, butterflies, birds, and flowers pinned on top of women’s buns. Around the twelfth year of the Republic, Chinese women began wearing an extremely elaborate hair accessory called a “coronet comb.” The coronet was made of painted yarn, gold, pearls, silver, or jade, and had two flaps hanging over the shoulders. A long comb, nearly one foot long and made of white horn, was placed on top. The arrangement required the wearer to turn her head sideways if passing through a door or entering a carriage (Xun and Chunming 1987). During the seventeenth century in Japan, tortoiseshell or lacquered wood combs embellished with gold or mother-of-pearl were worn by fashionable courtesans, who often combined them with kanzashi (decorative hairpins). During the nineteenth century, women often used hair combs decorated with gemstones or “paste” (imitation) jewels. The twentieth century saw the continued use of hair combs for long hair, made of a variety of new manufactured materials such as celluloid and plastics. Hair combs also were used to attach small hats and veils to the head during the 1950s. The 1980s created new forms of hair combs, including a circular-shaped hair comb that acts like a headband and the large double-sided comb called a “banana clip” that fastened women’s hair into a ponytail.
Beads for Hair Adornment
Beads used as a decorative means of accentuating plaited hair have long been worn by cultures in Africa. Cornrowing is a traditional West African method of arranging the hair into numerous small braids. It can take from two to six hours to arrange, depending on the complexity of the style. Beads were also used to accentuate the plaited strands (Sagay 1983). Used for hundreds of years in Africa, during the 1970s this African-inspired hairstyle penetrated the Western mass market when the movie actress Bo Derek wore her hair in cornrow braids in the movie 10 (Eubank and Tortora 1998). Decorating cornrow braids with beads is still an important part of West African hair traditions in the early 2000s.
Thread Wraps and Braiding
Thread may also be used to wrap hair and is a more recent method of braiding used by men and women in the tropical areas of West Africa. The thread-wrapped hair causes the strands to raise from the head like spikes, creating a decorative hairstyle as well as keeping the head cool (Sagay 1983). The “trees” hairstyle is one style popular in West and Central Africa. The hair is parted into five sections, secured with rubber bands, and braided into cornrows. Each center section is wrapped with thread, covering three-quarters of the entire hair’s length. Different colored threads are sometimes used for an even more decorative effect (Thoman 1973). String has a similar decorative, fastening history. During the Ming Dynasty (approximately 1393 C.E.), Chinese women laced up their hair with gold and silver strings, decorated with emeralds and pearls (Xun and Chunming 1987).
Thread or yarns that are assembled into an open, gauzelike fabric creates a netting. Netting was used during the ancient Roman Empire and again during medieval times in Western Europe as a means to bind hair. In the middle of the nineteenth century, nets called snoods were a fashionable way for women to confine long hair at the base of the neck. They were revived once again during the 1940s. Older Chinese women also used netting during the Song Dynasty (960 C.E.-1279 C.E.) A black hair net covered their buns, and then jade ornaments were pinned in a random arrangement onto the net. It became known as xiao yao jin or “random kerchief” (Xun and Chunming 1987, p. 130).
Hair Forks and Sticks
Hair forks, hair spikes, and hair sticks have been used in diverse cultures, from Native Americans to Far Eastern nations such as China and Japan. Long hair was wrapped and knotted around the head, and then held in place by long hair spikes, sticks, or sometimes forks. The Native American hair forks or sticks were made from a variety of materials, but were often elaborately carved or polished (Antiquity 1997). Japanese women during the seventeenth century often fastened their buns with kogai, a straight bar used to pierce a topknot and hold it in place. During the twentieth century, mostly geisha and courtesans wore hair sticks, as most Japanese women had begun to adopt European costumes, hairstyles, and attitudes (Goodwin 1986).
Other Hair Embellishments
Additional miscellaneous ornaments have been inserted into the hair over time and in numerous cultures, including (but not limited to): shells, coins, jewels, flowers, feathers, cow horns, bones, and sheepskin. In portions of North and West Africa, women would create intricate hairstyles that took three to four hours to decorate. If the woman’s husband was away from home, hair ornaments were omitted as unnecessary. In South and East Africa, cow horns, bones, and sheepskin was used to adorn hair. Many of these totemic ornaments were worn by men rather than women (Sagay 1983).
Hair Arranging Through the Ages
During Egypt’s New Kingdom, women typically plaited their hair rather than wearing wigs. These braids were then intertwined with colorful ribbons and flowers. The lotus flower was used frequently, as it symbolized abundance (Trasko 1994). In China during the Qin (221-207 B.C.E.) and Han (206 B.C.E.-7 C.E.) Dynasties, female dancers and aristocratic women alike adorned their buns with gold, pearls, and emeralds (Xun and Chunming 1987). In Western Europe during the medieval period, hairpieces and accessories were uncommon, due to strong Christian beliefs about covering women’s hair for modesty and to indicate one’s piety. Adornments for the hair were discouraged, as they indicated an “unhealthy regard for personal vanity” (Trasko 1994, p. 27). In contrast, the Renaissance period focused on humanism rather than Christianity, prompting a renewed interest in hair ornaments. Women often adorned their hair to indicate their social status or for aesthetic purposes. Some of the more famous examples are the wigs worn by Queen Elizabeth in 1558. In portraits from this period, the queen visually portrays her power by wearing wigs adorned with large emeralds and rubies set in gold, as well as chains of large pearls. Women of lesser economic means wove flowers in their hair as a means of decorative ornamentation.
Perhaps the most fantastical hair arrangements for women in France, England, Spain, and Russia were found in the 1700s. During the rococo period, pink roses were desirable as hair accessories as they exemplified the graceful, feminine curves found in furniture and other decorative arts. Hair was accented with a pompon, or the placement of a few flowers or a feather amidst a hair arrangement (Trasko 1994). In Spain, women “fixed glow worms by threads to their hair, which had a luminous effect” (Trasko 1994, p. 66). These elaborate coiffures were status symbols in courts throughout Europe’s fashionable cities, and were meant to be the “talk of the town” (Trasko 1994, p. 64). In the twenty-first century, most flower-adorned hairstyles for Westerners are worn only by brides on their wedding day. Real or artificial flowers may be used.
Native North American Indians often used feathers, as well as other parts of birds. In Mexico, colorfully feathered breasts of small birds were tied to the back of married Lacandon women’s heads (Sayer 1985). The Minnesota Chippewa male Indians in the 1830s wore skins of birds as part of their “war bonnets.” The bird was associated with spiritual powers during wartime, and the men attached them to the “top of their heads, letting the beak bounce up and down on their foreheads. All kinds of accessories trim it so as to produce a general effect of hideousness likely to terrify the enemy” (Penny 1992, p. 215). In 1868, the Lakota recognized Sitting Bull as “head-chief” by presenting him with an eagle-feathered bonnet. Consisting of a beaded brow band, ermine pendants, and a double tail of black and white eagle tail feathers trailing down the back, each one of the feathers was a reward of valor, representing a brave deed performed by the Northern Teton Sioux warrior who had contributed it (Penny 1992, p. 215).
Lack of hair ornamentation seems to be the overall trend for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. With the exception of the 1980s when hair accessories had a strong resurgence (Tortora and Eubank 1998), most modern styles seem to rely on haircuts and hair color to make visual statements rather than dressing coiffures with additional accessories. Perhaps this is best exemplified by the famous hairstylist Vidal Sassoon. In 1963, he told fashion press, “I’m going to cut hair like you cut material. No fuss. No ornamentation. Just a neat, clean, swinging line” (Trasko 1994, p. 129).
See also Costume Jewelry; Hairstyles; Jewelry.
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Antiquity. Vol. 71. Gloucester, England: Antiquity Publications, 1997, pp. 308-320.
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Penny, David W. Art of the American Indian Frontier. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992.
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