The Dress Code: How Short Hair Became a “Rule” for Older Women

close up of Annette Bening with short hair
Annette Bening sporting perfect older woman short hair in Captain Marvel. Screenshot/Marvel Studios

Dear Dismantlers,

I am a woman in my late 50s, and I’ve always worn my hair long — I’m talking middle of my back. Recently an acquaintance (an older man, of course) told me it was inappropriate for me to have long hair at my age. Is that still true? Was it ever? Where did this idea come from?!

This is a fascinating question! The usual response at this point is to say that while older hair is prone to thinning and breakage, “Do what feels good girlfriend! The only rule is B True 2 U! Hashtag feminism!” But 1. You’re obviously already doing all that (and we’re sure you look great). 2. We’re not fans of advice that pretends appearance isn’t structured unevenly in relation to power. Depending on your job or other social factors, not following norms can have real repercussions. It’s up to you to weigh how weird short hair would feel if you’ve never had it against the potential costs of looking “out of place.” 

What’s really interesting to us is where the notion that older women should have short hair comes from in the first place. We grew up hearing it too, but it just seems to float around like an urban legend. The section on hair in Genevieve Darioux’s 1964 guide to “elegance” is an older example, although for her, long hair was inappropriate after 20! She wrote, “After that age you should adopt a neat and simple style: either short, or pinned up in a French roll or chignon; but never in any case long, glamorous tresses hanging down to your shoulders.” However, while we’ve found hundreds of other references to this “rule,” we couldn’t find any solid sources indicating where it got started. 

Luckily, we have some theories. 

painting of Louis XiV and male family, all wearing large wigs
Luscious locks and sexy legs were peak masculinity at the court of Louis XIV (ca. 1710).

First, let’s think about long hair on a longer timeline. While hairstyles and ornaments have been used to display status all over the world for centuries, in Europe and the places Europeans colonized, prior to the 19th century hair length didn’t denote age except perhaps to generally say “adult.” It didn’t even really mark gender. For example, in the 17th and 18th centuries, wealthier women and men wore wigs, and while they were styled differently, quantity was a status — more than gender — marker. The term “big wig” is still used to describe an important person; usually a man. 

Men’s wigs shrunk over time and eventually went out of fashion altogether. By the 19th century, that era of industrialization, of separate spheres ideology, of obsession with categorizing humans, long hair became widely seen as a distinctly feminine trait. Men were too practical! They had to go forth from home and earn wages! Sit in desks or make things in factories! Of course, many women also did all these things and still found time to brush their hair. But material realities mattered less than what long hair signified: leisure, vanity, fecundity, purity — depending on the kind of woman you were, or the mood of the person looking (the Victorian obsession with Ophelia exemplifies these contradictions. She was sexy, innocent, beautiful, dead….and always depicted with masses of flowing hair. See the image from 1865 at right.) What’s important here is that long hair signified “woman,” but not a particular age of woman. It was a big deal for young women to get old enough to wear their hair “up.” After that? It was assumed all women, old and young, rich and poor, would wear their hair long if they could. 

Enter the 1920s! A generation of men had died in WWI, motorcars and movies became common features of American life, white women got the vote, and more of them entered the workforce. And along with those changes came The Bob! The 1920s was really the first period to see a widespread obsession with being modern and youthful, and to see the development of a distinct “youth culture.” Short hair was part of that culture: modern girls wore bobs, which was also a way of claiming the privileges of masculinity. 

ad for short hair depicting various bobs 1920s

So, starting in the 1920s long hair started to signify not just “feminine” but also old-fashioned, traditional, prudish. And some of those connotations carry through to this day. Look at the “old lady” emoji on your phone for evidence. 

But…Twist! Starting in the 1960s and 70s, the implications flipped! As more “natural” styles became popular, and once again our culture became youth-obsessed, flowing long hair started to be associated with the younger boomers, while older women stuck to more processed do’s from the previous decades.

black and white photo of two women with short hair. Both are blonde and teased.
I think this is a hair styling contest in Poland in 1961. Whatever is happening, it’s amazing.

Now, here’s our theory about the short hair for older women rule: In the 1920s through 50s fashionable women put their hair through some wild treatments. Various forms of hot tongs for curling had been around for centuries, but in the 1910s, chemicals were invented to make those curls “permanent.” By the late 1920s permanent waves were extremely popular (Fun fact: according to The State Museum of Pennsylvania, “The first U.S. patent for a permanent wave machine was given to Marjorie Joyner in 1928. Joyner, an African-American woman who graduated from a predominantly Caucasian beauty school, lived in Chicago and owned a beauty salon.”) Permanent waves, harsh dyes, weekly trips to the salon to get curled and set were bound to take their toll. It seems logical that by the time they were in their 50s, our mid-century foremothers’ hair was brittle and unable to handle much length. Whereas you, our boomer friend, say you’ve always had long hair and we’re guessing haven’t had as many chemical encounters (on your head, that is). At the same time, we think as a rule it’s not so much about looking “age appropriate” as it is a holdover from a time when long hair meant looking old, because heaven forbid a woman look old.

Does the rule still have any meaning then? Again, it depends who and where you are. But given how the internet recently lost its mind when they found out Keanu Reeves’ girlfriend — Alexandra Grant — was a 46-year-old artist who showed up to a gala with her silver hair rolled into a bun like some kind of artsy, smoking hot grandma emoji, our guess is its days are numbered.

[Editors’ Note: We had so many great topics this month that we decided to split this edition of The Dress Code into two parts. Look for the second part next week, when we’ll talk about body anxieties and the holidays.]

Do you have a fashion-related question for The Dismantlers? Send it to dismantlemedia at gmail dot com.

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