It’s Time To Wear Your Heart In Your Hair: A Brief History of Hair Accessories

History of hair accessories rhinestone clips that say "anxiety", Nina Simone and Marie Antoinette

Like many of the fabulous things in contemporary popular culture, the current hair accessory fad can be broadly traced to a Knowles sister. The cover for Solange’s iconic first album A Seat at the Table (2016) shows the artist donning her natural hair, adorned with a variety of duckbill and butterfly clips. This image has inspired many black girls and women in America to love and protect their hair while singing along to one of the most popular songs off the album, “Don’t Touch My Hair.”

Over these last few years, there has been a growing adoration for hair accessories in day-to-day fashion as a way to celebrate identity. From bejeweled barrettes to the classic snap clip, this trend is currently dominating in the hottest streetstyle and runway fashion. While its rotation back into what’s “a la mode” feels fresh, hair accessories are one of humanity’s oldest forms of fashion. From archeological research to the written archive, expressions of hair and hair accessories indicate they have been an essential method  of conveying wealth, sexuality, health, and spirituality throughout the centuries.

Historical Foundations

For thousands of years, hair bands, ribbons, bows, hairpins, combs, barrettes, beads, threads, sticks, and other various materials have been used in the hair for both aesthetic and cultural value to express identity. The first reference to human hair accessories happens to also be what many historians have dubbed the first relic of human art. Found in modern Austria, the Venus of Willendorf  dates to between 24,000-22,000 B.C.E. The limestone statuette is called “Venus” to discern it as a depiction of the original female form.

feminine shaped stone carving
The “Venus of Willendorf”

Despite being distinctly feminine in shape, the statue strikingly lacks the details of other defining attributes such as limbs and a face. In the absence of eyes, a nose, or mouth, the horizontal bands that cover her head are the only distinctive characteristics. The texture given to these bands suggest Venus’s hair is either braided or beaded; this provides the only clues of identity that we have as onlookers of this piece thousands of years later. In our global imagination, how one wears their hair has also been an important marker of gender, sexuality, and class.

Many ancient civilizations valued the hair accessory as something both beautiful and functional. And while almost everyone in these historical contexts had  access to some sort of hair accessory for everyday purposes, the difference in material often worked to mark class distinctions. Found in Wales in 2015, archaeologists discovered gold rings dating back to 1000-800 BCE that were most likely used by the wealthiest women to fasten their hair.

close up of an ornate wooden hair stick
Hair Dressing Tool (Kogai), ca. 1615-1868
Japanese, Edo period

According to Julianne Trautmann in her essay, “Hair Accessories as Fashion Statements,” extravagant materials such as gold, pearls, and emeralds were used by the aristocratic women in China during the Qin (221-207 BCE) and Han (206-7 BCE) dynasties to symbolize wealth and abundance. During Japan’s Jomon Period (14,000 to 300 BCE) hair ornaments started coming into fashion. As Christine Drozdowski notes in her “The History Of Hair Accessories, Summed Up With The 7 Most Important Moments” Japanese royalty donned tortoiseshell jeweled kushi combs and kogai pins, whereas common women would wear a single stick in their bun because they believed it would ward off evil spirits. But not all past societies used hair accessories as class markers. In the pre-colonial indigenous cultures of North America, hair accessories from the natural world were used as symbols of strength and blessings. Feathers, beaks, and bones were used in bridal ceremonies, tied to the back of the bride’s head. The Minnesota Chippewa men wore skins of birds as part of their “war bonnets.” During wartime, the bird was associated with spiritual powers and were attached to the heads of warriors for protection.

For European trends in the 1700s, the most intricate and grandiose hair arrangements were created to express femininity, grace, and gaud. During France’s Rococo Period in the 1770s, large flowers and dyed feathers known as pompon would be fixed in the towering hair of wealthy women. At the same time in Spain, according to Trautmann, glow worms were fixed by threads in hair to bring a jewel-like luminous effect. These efforts were made to assert social status and garner gossip as the ‘talk of the town.’

A Modern Shift

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From the nineteenth century onward, what had been a Euro-American emphasis on hair extravagance lost its significance as strong Christian beliefs called for modest wear as an expression of piety. In just a century, the cultural milieu had shifted to shame many adornments as unnecessary and vain. Even throughout most of the 1900s, Western culture valued simplicity and tidiness in hair fashion, relying on haircuts and dye instead of elaborate decorations for statements of identity. In the 1980s, there was a significant resurgence in hair accessories, which transformed into the quintessential butterfly clips, rhinestone barrettes, snap clips, and mini tiaras of the 90s. By the year 2000, however, hair fashion reverted back to plainer adornment, with self expression coming through in edgy haircuts and neon hair.

Now, nearly twenty years later, the end-of-the-century accessory-enthusiasm is back. But instead of the diva and grunge vibes of the 80s and 90s, this renaissance is something more like “Nouveau-Rococo.” During the Chanel fall 2019 show at Paris Fashion Week, hair stylist Sam McKnight adorned every single model with hair accessories as an homage to the late Karl Lagerfeld. McKnight claims, Karl loved “camellias, bows, brooches in the hair.” Ashley Williams creates my personal favorite hair pieces shown during fashion week: diamond barrettes with slogans ranging from the rhetorical to critical. Worn as the centerpiece of any outfit, Williams’ clips donning terms such as “paranoia,” “sorry,” “anxiety,” and “sex” are a means for femmes to express their feelings and personality.

Wearing your heart on your sleeve is so Shakespearean era; now it’s time to wear your heart in your hair. Founded on inclusivity and self-expression, as this trend continues to accelerate, postmodern versions of Marie Antoinette can rewrite the script and don extravagance not as an expression of wealth and power, but as something to be shared and appreciated.

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