Some Theorizing on Hair

11:17 PM

In France, the chicest thing you can do with your hair is wear it in a bun, called a chignon. It is sleek, elegant, the height of style and sophistication. In America, on the other hand, the height of beauty is to wear the hair down. Even here in North Carolina, on the most unbearably hot and humid day in July, I will see girls walking around with their hair down (when I personally don't understand how anyone can bear to have their hair down in all that humid heat, although to be fair I do have a lot of hair). So, why the disconnect?

My theory, and please remember that this is just a theory, is that this has to do with the cultural foundations that form the basis of each countries mythological* identity.

For centuries, France was a highly structured society. The court of Versailles in the 18th century is a great example of this. You wore certain things at certain times, social rank was of the utmost importance, and every day was filled with various long-standing rituals and traditions. Everything was structured and formal, and France took a great deal of pride in this glamor and sophistication.

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Here Louis XIV, painted by Hyacinthe Rigaud, embodies these values. The long-standing tradition of the French monarchy is emphasized in his 16th century costume (itself a highly complex and structured affair, which is mostly obscured by the robe but just take my word for it). The high style and formality is shown off in his fabulous hairstyle and the lavish drapery. He looks strong, powerful, a force to be reckoned with.

America began it's life as a variety of colonies. During the American Revolution, the newly independent country of America forged a new national identity, separating themselves from Europe. And the opposite of the formality and structure of European society was relaxed simplicity. Americans loved to show that they were simple, hardworking people whose lives had nothing to do with the fancy-schmancy, super formal, rigidly structured European world. Another thing Americans love to emphasize is equality. How it doesn't matter who you are, anyone can make it in America. This was vastly different from Europe, where there was very little mobility between the classes. While the American Dream said that a poor farmer could grow up to be president, in Europe a poor farmer was a poor farmer and was going to stay that way. Thus structure was irrelevant in America, while in Europe it was everything.

Compare the portrait of Louis XIV to this John Singleton Copley portrait of famous American patriot Paul Revere.

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Revere doesn't wear a coat, his waistcoat hangs loosely and his shirt is unbuttoned. His sleeves are pushed up and his hair casually drawn back. A silversmith by trade, Revere thoughtfully considers his work. And there's no fancy drapery, just a simple table and a black background. This is a huge contrast to the rigid formality of Louis XIV's portrait. Revere is relaxed, not even bothering to be fully dressed for his portrait. He is saying to the world, "Yes, I am rich/important enough to have my portrait done, but really I'm just a simple silversmith, I work hard and am just like anybody else".

France's mythological identity revolves around this structure and formality. It's glamorous, the height of traditional European society. The chignon hairstyle reflects this. The hair is molded into a tight structure and stays that way. America's mythological identity revolves around simplicity. It's relaxed, equal, and the opposite of highly structured French glamor. To wear the hair down reflects this. The hair isn't put into any sort of fancy style. It's loose, simple, free to blow in the wind and do as it pleases (in my case that means frizz out).

So perhaps these stylistic differences reflect these mythological identities with which each country has come to be associated.

*Mythological identity here means the social ideas that have come to be associated with each country. Based a lot on actual fact, but also based on what each country liked to promote itself as (I don't know a lot about contemporary French politics but I know Americans still LOVE to promote themselves as simple, hardworking people).

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