Inside the Brown Bag

Duck’s Ass and Beehives—Elements of nature? Nope—hairstyles.

By Peg Brown

While we don’t often think about hairstyles as being anything but a trend, the truth is that hairstyles through the ages (even in ancient history), were more often indications of status, wealth, marital status, or religious affiliation then they were of personal preference. Hairstyles could also indicate one’s political views, attitudes toward social issues, ethnic pride and just plain practical issues of hygiene. One thing has remained constant, however. We can all look back at family pictures and identify the era by looking no further than the tops of the eyebrows.

Most of us grew up without showers. Bathtubs were the order of the day and there were two ways to get those locks clean—soap up in the tub, dunk you head a few times, and then take a tin pan and continue to pour water over your head, hoping you got all the bubbles out. The second way was to turn a chair around, kneel on the seat, and stick your head under the faucet of the kitchen sink, complaining bitterly to your Mother about soap in your eyes.

I don’t remember any hand held hair dryers during my earliest years. The first hair dryer I received was as a Christmas present from my aunt when I was in junior high. It was light blue, shaped like a modern day drill, and had one speed. Hair dryers of my high school years were advanced technology—they often came in hat-box like cases (mine was faux white ostrich). Inside the case was a white hose, ribbed like those we use as venting devices on clothes dryers, attached to a bulbous large plastic bonnet much like a shower cap. I remember often setting my hair in torturous brush rollers, turning on the dryer and falling asleep for the night, only to awaken when the smell of singed hair interrupted my dreams.

History is filled with stories of ironing hair to remove any hint of curl or undergoing harsh chemical treatments to ensure that curls would last for several weeks. It is well documented that in the 1940s most women only washed their hair once a week so that the curls would last longer. Although once a week probably sounds outrageous to the modern woman, in Elizabethan times the elaborate hairstyles were expected to last for weeks. It’s little wonder that heavy perfumes and wide collars were the order of the day.

Fast forward to the 1950s and 1960s.

In the 1950s, Mother controlled the styles. We often wore our long hair in braids, tied with matching ribbons on the ends. When our hair was shorter, it was rolled in rags and tied up to encourage curls, or fitted into slim brown and pink rubber curlers, about four inches long, split in the middle, rolled up tightly, and secured. Other tools of the trade were the improved pink sponge rollers, Spoolies, bobbie pins for those pin curls and, for the really adventurous, tin cans with the ends removed used as rollers to create the penultimate bouffant look.

Most young men of the 1950s wore the crew cut; a trend started in the 1920s by the members of Yale’s rowing team and carried on through World War II as soldiers in the field often fought off head lice. However, the emerging world of rock ‘n roll and movie stars was about to change the hair scape. Both James Dean and Elvis Presley wore what was then called a pompadour—short on the sides, long on top, combed forward, and flipped back in one big wave. The Duck’s Ass or DA was a variation on this theme and was worn by both men and women. The sides were left long and combed straight back. The DA designation resulted from taking your comb or your finger and dragging it down the back of your head where the hair came together—imitating—you guessed it. The style, with or without sideburns (a word coined during the Civil War after Rhode Island native General Ambrose Burnside), often suggested the bad boy image of Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.” A scan of my 1964 yearbook indicates we had a few who liked that image.

Hairstyles for both men and women in the 1960s were a bit schizophrenic, not unlike the times themselves. Boys had the Beatles and hard rock stars to emulate. Most of our male classmates retained the more traditional short style. What we thought of, as long hair worn by those British rock groups was only a hint of what was to come with the “flower children”.

Music, television and movie stars also influenced the girls. The girl groups, made so popular by Motown, set the tone for “big hair”. For most of us, the look could only be achieved with teasing (a method that required backcombing until your hair stuck up straight, then smoothing a thin top layer over the rat’s nest, using lots of Aqua Net in the process.) At the other extreme, we had the pixie, very short cuts popularized by models like Twiggy.

Most of us rarely visited a hair salon. Bangs were trimmed in the kitchen, with a towel draped around the shoulders to catch the cuttings. When there was a prom in the offing, we did go to one of the very few professional hairdressers in town. We were advised by the hairdresser that we could retain our style for a few days if we wrapped our highly lacquered hair in toilet paper before we went to bed. I am going to admit I did that—probably looking like the prototype for the cone heads of Saturday Night Live.

Hair challenges still remain—with more expensive remedies. The desire to avoid skunk lines propels me to the hairdresser about every five weeks for color. I often ask when would be a good time to just admit to having grey hair and grow it out. “Never,” is the answer I always get. “It wouldn’t be pretty. You’d be better off just shaving your head and starting over.” Spoken like a man who wants to make sure I keep contributing to his retirement plan.