Throughout human history, hairstyling has been a meaningful way to express identity. In paleolithic times, humans removed bodily hair using rudimentary tools. Ancient Egyptians shaved their heads and wore wigs, while Romans tinted their hair to indicate their social class.
The art of hairdressing has evolved, but our fascination with popular styles and daring cuts hasn't changed. Take a stroll through the last 100 years of hairstyles, and you'll see there's no end to creativity and novelty when it comes to the human head.
Before the 1920s, women almost always wore their hair long or swept into updos. As the Jazz Age kicked off and social conventions changed, so did hairstyles. The bob came in different variations, but one thing always stayed the same: It was short. Bobs were initially cut to the jawline or above. The look wasn't just about fashion, though. The short style was also convenient for women entering the workforce in factories and other physically demanding jobs.
The invention of the bob is credited to Polish hairdresser Antoine Cierplikowski. He created the style in 1911 for a loyal client who needed to look younger for a stage role. It was initially called the Joan of Arc thanks to its resemblance to the heroine's cropped look.
The bob wasn't the only short hairstyle popular during the 1920s. Some women opted for even shorter styles that were smoothed down on their heads with pomade. Dancer Josephine Baker popularized the ultra-slick look on stage in the early 20s. The style was a significant departure from the buns and updos that characterized Western dance at the time. Baker was a style icon known around the world round who influenced women in both Europe and America to adopt short, sleek hairstyles.
Other women adopted the same sleek style as Baker but added waves. Initially, most women used their fingers and styling products to create texture. Later in the decade, some opted for a "Marcel wave" style with the world's first electric curling iron. However they were created, the waves were covered in product and plastered down. Even aviator Amelia Earhart adopted the sleek tresses.
The tight, short waves of the 1920s gave way to a softer waved look in the 1930s. Fay Wray was one of the first actresses to popularize loose curls when she appeared in King Kong in 1933. Wray's messy, undone hair hit a note with women struggling to keep things together during the Great Depression. Soon, women were copying her style at home by letting their hair down and playing with its natural shape.
Actresses like Jean Harlow and Katherine Hepburn adopted the loose-and-wavy look throughout the 30s. Harlow's platinum blond hair served as inspiration for another twist on the style, which saw women bleaching their hair with hazardous household chemicals to achieve her glamorous look. Platinum was likely a popular color choice because of its bright appearance on black-and-white film.
There's no doubt that World War II was the defining event of the 1940s. Women in America and Europe poured into the workforce to fill the production jobs left by deployed men. Both celebrities and working women in the 40s favored pinned-up hairdos that didn't get in the way at work. Actress Veronica Lake was instrumental in popularizing the style. Pinned-up rolls struck a balance between practicality and femininity that spoke to the changing social conditions of the era.
Another popular style was the bouffant. These poofy dos were created by pinning up long hair as high as possible. Some were worn half-up, half-down, with the bottom portion of hair falling in loose curls over the back. To get an even poofier look, some women shaped their hair around voluminous foam forms before pinning it up.
The 1950s are often considered the height of Hollywood's golden era. Actresses like Marilyn Monroe popularized sculptured, professionally set curls that were swept up and away from their faces. Women who wanted the look often visited the beauty parlor weekly to get it—glamor has never been easy to come by.
Short hairdos also enjoyed a resurgence in popularity during the 50s. Singers Patti Page and Dinah Shore both wore their hair in short, curled styles. These low-fuss hairdos were popular in the postwar period as life in American cities returned to its normal pace.
During the heyday of Motown Records in the 1960s, groups like the Supremes and Ronettes sported statement hairdos that set the world abuzz. One of the most popular statement styles was the beehive. This big 'do was created by forming natural hair into a hive shape or wrapping it around a pre-shaped form. Everyone from Audrey Hepburn to Aretha Franklin sported this style at some point in the early 60s.
Everyone knows the name, Vidal Sassoon. The iconic hairdresser was a celebrity favorite from the 1960s until he stopped working in the late 70s. Hairstylists know Sassoon as a revolutionary force who changed how people thought about hair. He insisted that every haircut should be personalized for the woman wearing it. Sassoon created geometric, wash-and-wear looks designed to fall naturally around a woman's face.
The 1960s were a period of social upheaval and progress. Fashion changed rapidly during this period, with many younger people rejecting the carefully coiffed hairstyles that had been popular during the 40s and 50s. Instead, they wore their hair long and natural. Known as hippies, these social progressives eschewed hair products and time-consuming styling techniques in favor of letting their hair flow.
The popularity of natural hairstyles during the 60s went beyond hippies. During the 1960s, black women and men began wearing their hair in high-volume styles that showed off and celebrated their natural hair texture. The Afro was more than just a hairstyle, though—it was also a political statement. Activists like Huey P. Newton and Angela Davis wore their hair in these picked styles that celebrated bold, black-centric beauty. Afros remained popular throughout the 70s and enjoyed a resurgence in the 90s and early 00s.
As the tumultuous 60s gave way to a new decade, tensions calmed down, and hairstyles got breezy. No one represented this new style trend more than Farrah Fawcett. The Charlie's Angels star became synonymous with the relaxed, layered style that her character wore. Feathered styles represented a new balance between the tightly controlled styles of the 50s and the free love styles of the 60s.
The 1980s were a decade of big, bold fashions. Stiletto heels, neon colors, and red nails were all the rage. It was only fitting for these over-the-top fashions to be complemented by sizable hairstyles. Enter the perm. Modern perms were invented in the 1930s. They can turn stick-straight hair into a headful of bouncing curls. Brooke Shields, Dolly Parton, and Whitney Houston all wore sky-high perms during the Me Decade.
You might associate mullets with redneck men in the 1980s, but plenty of women got in on this hairstyle too. Mullets are cut short in front and long in back—just think of early 80s Cher or Liza Minelli. Some celebrities dared to marry perms and mullets into a unique style with a sleek top and big, fluffy back. The mullet and styles derived from it, like the faux shag, enjoyed another surge in popularity during the late 2010s.
One of the most popular hairstyles of the 1990s, the Rachel is a medium-length cut with choppy layers that are blown out. It was named for Jennifer Aniston's character on the sitcom Friends, Rachel Green. Aniston sometimes wore the cut with chunky blonde highlights accentuating individual layers.
Hairstylist Chris McMillan created the look in an effort to give Aniston a fresh, lively hairdo that suited the personality of her on-screen character. More than 25 years later, the style is still popular with fans of Friends and a younger generation just discovering the look. Rumor has it that Aniston loved the look at first but later came to hate it.
The late 90s and early 2000s saw a mood of excitement and discovery in the world of fashion and beauty. Happy-go-lucky, California-inspired looks dominated the first part of the decade. Fittingly, long hair with beachy waves was a major trend. Beach waves are loose, boisterous curls that look as if they've been tossed by salty oceanfront air. To achieve the look, stylists pull curled hair into looser chunks. The messy look was a departure from the tightly coiffed perms of the 80s. Celebrities such as Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts, and Mariah Carey opted for this style.
The first few years of the aughts were big on beach waves, but a totally opposite trend took the decade by storm too. Ultra-straight, sleek hair was popularized by celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera, and Avril Lavigne. Achieved with a flat iron and smoothing products, stick-straight hair harkened back to the sleek looks of the 1930s. Unlike the 30s, though, these straight styles were worn long.
The 2010s saw the return of the 60s trend of women wearing their hair naturally. Prominent in the African-American community, the natural hair movement encourages women to move away from products like relaxers and heat styling tools that cause damage to hair. As in the 60s, some women opt for natural hair as a social statement. For many, wearing their hair natural is a way of expressing cultural identity and breaking free of white-centric beauty norms that demand smooth, contained hair.
Chunky highlights and platinum whisps were popular for decades, but the late 2000s said goodbye to these old trends. Old-fashioned highlights were replaced by ombré and balayage looks. No one knows who first perfected the ombré technique, but cultural historians are sure that the singer Aaliyah first popularized the look in 2000. Ombré refers to a dye technique where color subtly fades from lighter at the top to darker at the bottom.
The similar balayage style also became popular during the late 2000s, but it dates to 1970s France. A stylist named Yvan, who worked at the Carita salon in Paris, was the first person to perfect the technique of painting a thinned highlight formula on hair. Balayage means "sweep" in French, so the idea was that the hair looked as if it had been randomly swept by color. Reality TV icon Khloe Kardashian was one of the first celebrities to popularize this style.
Rainbow hair—and the closely related unicorn and mermaid styles—use bright hues to turn boring tresses into an explosion of color. Stylist Guy Tang was one of the first to popularize these ultra-bright hairdos. Influencers quickly adopted the trend, flooding their feeds with photos of rainbow-style hair in every shade possible. These styles can be bad for hair health, but they did help drive greater social acceptance of brightly colored hair in businesses and schools.
Social media sites like Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube were behind major 2010 hair trends, like the curly girl movement and rainbow hair fad. But they also—unintentionally—popularized another prominent hairstyle from the decade. Known as the Karen, this cut features a wedged back cut in chunky layers with a longer front that falls in angled pieces along the jawline. Hairdressers know it as an inverted bob or A-line cut.
Reality star Kate Gosselin originally popularized the look on her show John & Kate Plus 8 in the late 2000s. But the style isn't one of the most recognizable of the decade because of Kate Gosselin. Thanks to viral videos of women with a similar haircut harassing store employees and people of color in public, the wedge cut that Gosselin's fans loved became synonymous with whiny, entitled women in the 2010s.
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