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.
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.
Since New Zealand was colonised by Europeans, short styles have dominated men’s hair fashions. Some mid-19th-century styles were longer, with hair brushing the collar, but most men have worn their hair short.
The 1950s saw the first major changes in men’s styles. The overwhelmingly dominant style in the mid-20th century was a short back and sides. Some teenagers and young men had adopted crew cuts (short all over), which were first seen on United States’ servicemen stationed in New Zealand in the 1940s. Others copied film and rock-and-roll stars, growing their hair longer. In the 1960s some men styled their hair to match the look of bands such as the Beatles – initially short ‘mod-look’ cuts, and then a longer, more unkempt style. Although these styles were short compared to what was to come, they were seen as radical at the time.
In the 1970s a unisex look arrived with the ‘hippie’ era. Men (and women) rebelled against carefully groomed styles and grew their hair long and straight. An alternative look was the bushy, frizzy style of the ‘Afro’. Longer hair remained fashionable for men through the 1970s and 1980s, but since then men’s hair has typically become shorter. Some men in the 1990s and 2000s took it to the extreme by shaving their heads or getting a ‘number 2’, short-all-over style.
In some parts of New Zealand Friday night was known as ‘hair-cut night’. This was the night when men trimmed their hair to maintain the short-back-and-sides look that was popular through most of the 20th century. The look was immortalised in Peter Cape’s 1958 folksong ‘Down the hall on Saturday night’:
I got a real Kiwi haircut,
Bit off the top and short back and sides.
Beards, sideburns and moustaches were an important and changing part of men’s fashion in the 19th century. New Zealand men followed trends set in Europe and the United Kingdom. Beards were long and lush in the mid-19th century, often worn with full sideburns and sometimes seen as a sign of virility.
As beards became shorter during the century, sideburns and moustaches came into their own. Sideburns could be elaborate – bushy ‘mutton chops’ or flowing ‘Dundrearies’. Moustaches could be neat or droopy, such as the ‘walrus’, or needing frequent maintenance, such as the waxed and moulded ‘handlebar’ moustache.
A clean-shaven look has reigned since about 1900 – a visible sign that a tidy, clean appearance is the marker of ‘modern men’. Changes in technology made the look easy to get and keep: safety razors were developed near the end of the 19th century and electric razors were available from the mid-20th century.
The ‘mo’ rules in November when some Kiwi men – ‘mo bros’ – grow a moustache for the month as a way to raise awareness about prostate cancer and other issues affecting men’s health. ‘Movember’ started in Australia in 1999 and now occurs in several countries. ‘Movember’ has also been credited with the renewed popularity of the beard among some men.
Facial hair came back into vogue with the ‘hippie’ period of the 1970s and, for a time, shaggy beards and moustaches were sported by men bucking what they saw as the conservative look of their fathers. Moustaches especially remained fashionable through the 1980s.
Despite the prevalence of the clean-shaven look, from the 1990s younger New Zealand men have experimented with facial hair as a fashion statement. Beards especially became popular in the early 21st century, worn by sportsmen and musicians. There is even a self-selected national ‘beard’ team, the All Beards, who compete in the biennial World Beard and Moustache Championship.
Women did their hair at home in the 19th century. Men dominated the hairdressing industry, and most establishments catered only for men. A few mixed-sex salons operated, sometimes in conjunction with baths, at a time when not every home had the convenience of running water.
When women chose radical new hairstyles such as the bob, a visit to a professional was required – in this case, the barber. The bob created a brief female ‘invasion’ of barber shops in the 1920s. Some barbers expanded to make room for women, but more salons specifically for women (and with women hairdressers) opened from the 1920s. By the 1940s women’s salons specialised in cuts, perms, the weekly wash and set and, later, the cut and blow wave. Unisex salons appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, and after that most salons catered for both women and men.
The clean-shaven, short-haired look worn by men was a boon for barbers until the mid-20th century. Haircuts and wet shaves were available at barbershops, and some men visited weekly, or even daily, for their shave or clip to their short back and sides.
Changing technology and fashions led to the demise of barbers. The safety razor, developed early in the 20th century, became widespread from the 1920s, so more men shaved themselves at home. A trend towards longer hair meant fewer trips to the barber and from the 1950s barbershops steadily closed down.
In urban centres especially, barbershops underwent a late 20th-century mini revival as they catered for a younger clientele. Some rebranded themselves as places where ‘blokes could be blokes’, offering sports channels on the television and men’s magazines; others reintroduced the wet shave.
Changing fashions and ideals about femininity shifted social attitudes to body hair. Through the 20th century many women increasingly removed more of their body hair: from armpits, legs, face and the pubic area. Conversely, some women retained their body hair as a protest against what they saw as excessive ideals of femininity.
Plucking, shaving and depilatory creams were the most common methods of hair removal. From the 1960s and 1970s, waxing (either at home or in salons) became widespread as wax strips and hot and cold waxes entered the market. Electrolysis became available in New Zealand in the early 1970s and laser hair removal in 1996.
By the end of the 20th century there were beauty salons specialising in hair removal, often by waxing. Salons reported a younger clientele, and of pre-teens as young as 10 having their legs waxed. ‘Brazilians’ (and their variants) were increasingly common, and by 2011 some doctors reported that pubic hair removal was the norm for women under 30.
In the 2000s one Auckland firm, Off Wax, coined the term ‘bro-zilian’ for a man’s pubic hair wax. According to one of the staff, New Zealand men were more ‘wussy’ (fearful) than their female counterparts: ‘they seem more precious about their private parts but I just tell them to grunt up.’1
Male sportsmen often removed their body hair in order to achieve a smooth look or aerodynamic effect. By the 1990s some men were removing their body hair in response to changing ideals about masculinity that emphasised a sleek, muscular and urbane appearance.
Before the 1920s the use of make-up – mainly face powder and lipstick – was generally considered unsuitable for ‘respectable’ women. Changes in fashion in the 1920s made make-up more acceptable, especially for younger women. New products were more readily available, such as lipstick in tubes, and new products emerged, including mascara and nail polish.
Too much make-up was still considered risqué. Fresh, clear complexions were valued as a sign of good health and good character, with soap and water considered as beneficial as the new skin-care products and moisturisers on the market.
New Zealanders spend up large on beauty products: $30 million in 1972, $50 million in 1975, $74 million in 2003 (including $22 million just on lipstick and lip products) and $700 million in 2009. Not surprisingly, the government’s decision in 1975 to impose an additional 20% tax on cosmetics met with consumer uproar.
Hollywood style affected cosmetic fashions in the 1940s. During the Second World War, looking glamorous with carefully applied make-up was seen as patriotic service – one lipstick was marketed as Victory Red.
From the 1950s the use of make-up gradually became more widespread and acceptable, although the style and amount were often used to make fashion statements, particularly among young women. Some young women of the 1960s adopted the heavy-rimmed or ‘panda’ eye look; in the 1980s dramatic punk or gothic styles were favoured by some.
Until the late 20th century, New Zealand men did not use cosmetics. The use of hair lotions and aftershaves (sometimes one and the same) was the closest they came to beauty products. Macassar Oil, first advertised in the 1840s, was used to dress hair and was supposed to prevent or cure baldness and darken grey or red hair. It prompted the making of ‘anti-macassers’ – decorative covers that sat along the top of sofas and armchairs – to soak up the excess that would otherwise stain upholstery.
Bay Rum, used from the 1850s, was less messy. Usually splashed on as an aftershave and hairdressing lotion, it was advertised from the late 19th century as a cure-all that would prevent dandruff, cure baldness, restore colour to grey hair and help soothe sore feet if they were soaked in it. Brylcream, an alternative hair product, was available from the 1930s and became widely used. In the mid-20th century another aftershave, Old Spice, became popular, and the range of men’s grooming products expanded.
In the late 20th century more men began to use skin-care products, and some also wore make-up. A 2001 survey suggested that 17% of men wore make-up. Beauty clinics and stores began to report the growing number of men buying products for themselves or getting treatments.
Brookes, Barbara, and Catherine Smith. ‘Technology and gender: barbers and hairdressers in New Zealand, 1900–1970.’ History and Technology 25, no.4 (2009): 365–386.
Dalley, Bronwyn. Living in the 20th century: New Zealand history in photographs, 1900–1980. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books; Nelson: Craig Potton, 2000.
Lassig, Angela. ‘Hair piece.’ New Zealand Memories 26 (Oct/Nov 2000): 12–13.
Wolfe, Richard. The way we wore: the clothes New Zealanders have loved. Auckland: Penguin, 2001.