Hair has long been a core part of women’s fashion. Social and religious conventions, as well as individual taste and age, guide its length, colour and style. How a woman wears her hair reveals much about the society in which she lives.
Women in the 19th century generally had elaborate hairstyles. New Zealand women followed fashions set in Europe or North America that were featured in local newspapers.
Hair was long. It was sometimes worn loose by girls, but adult Pākehā women almost never wore theirs down. To give it more volume, hair was plaited or crimped with hot tongs, piled onto the head in the style of the day, and then secured with pins and ribbons. Such styles were time-consuming to assemble and not always practical for women in paid work or without domestic help.
The permanent wave, developed in the early 20th century, became fashionable from the 1920s. It enabled women to have their locks curled and waved by chemicals and heat. It was a lengthy – three to four hours initially – and expensive procedure, and the combination of gas-powered wave machines, heat and chemicals meant it was not always safe. Some women claimed damages from hairdressers for burns sustained during perm treatments. Electric machines and, from the 1940s, cold waves improved the process and made the curls more natural in appearance. Perms became fashionable again with the ‘big hair’ look of the 1980s.
The ‘new woman’
As more women took up work outside the home, hairstyles became less intricate and shorter. The First World War hastened this process, and in the 1920s many women cut their hair into the short ‘bob’ (above the shoulder). It was an easy-care and boyish look that complemented the streamlined fashions of the period, and enabled women easily to take part in a wide range of sports and leisure activities. The style was a visible sign of the so-called ‘new woman’ of the 20th century who led a more active and independent life than her predecessors.
Between the 1930s and 1950s Hollywood glamour influenced New Zealand women’s hairstyles. Hair curled softly around the shoulders, neck and head, or was pulled back gently from the face in styles that copied the looks of movie stars. These styles – simple to create and maintain – also suited the paid work that many women took up during the Second World War.
Women’s hairstyles have changed repeatedly since the 1950s, and new hair products such as lacquers, dyes and gels came onto the market. A range of looks co-existed and no one style dominated for long. Hairstyle became an obvious marker of age and social group.
An American movie-star look influenced younger women’s hairstyles in the 1950s. The shorter look was more edgy than glamorous, modelled on the tougher young women seen in ‘gang culture’ films such as The wild one and Rebel without a cause. Along with clothing, hairstyles demonstrated the beginning of a clear generation gap between older and younger women.
The development of hair lacquer helped make possible – and popular – new styles. Prominent among these was the beehive style of the 1960s – a large bouffant that needed copious amounts of hairspray and backcombing. At the same time other New Zealand women adopted the bobbed and cropped ‘mod’ looks from Britain – short hair to match short skirts. Through the 1970s younger women – and men – wore their hair long, picking up North American hippie culture. From that time, long loose hair has been a common style for women.
Cropped and shaggy looks, dyed and spiky ‘punk’ styles, and big permed hair all featured through the 1980s, while some older women still took part in the weekly shampoo and set. In the 1990s and 2000s women have worn their hair short or long, dreadlocked or braided, their own colour, bleached, or dyed in all the colours of the rainbow.