Styling modernity: the 1920s bob

The Art Deco era ushered in a new, modern taste for the streamlined and geometric, evident in all areas of design from architecture and furnishing to fashion and transport. Hair was no exception and the 1920s saw women across the western world abandoning long tresses for simpler, cropped styles variously known as the bob (cut in a blunt line just below the ears), the shingle (tapered in a v-shape at the back to expose the hairline), the bingle (a shorter version of the bob, cut above the nape of the neck) and the Eton crop (the shortest of the styles, slicked close to the scalp and otherwise known as the ‘boyish bob’).

Throughout the 1920s, Queensland newspapers were filled with columns advising women how to select the most flattering cut for their figure and face and how to style hair, whether straight, curly, limp or luxuriant, into the most up-to-date looks. The ever-growing popularity of cropped hair was captured by The Queensland Figaro which, in 1924, remarked, ‘To bob or not to bob, that isn’t the question. It is rather to bob and how to bob.’ Where once the haircutting salon was a male domain, barbers and hairdresser shops were suddenly overrun with women seeking the latest vogue. So marked was the demand that in 1926 the Board of Trade, under the Profiteering Prevention Act, set maximum prices for a shingle and a bob in Brisbane and Ipswich salons – 3 shillings for cutting off the hair and 1 shilling 6 pence for trims.

Morning Bulletin, 30 July 1925, p.14

So why did this craze for cropped hair become so pervasive? During a stop-over in Brisbane in 1928, when visiting family as part of a world tour, acclaimed French columnist and fashion authority, Marceline d’Alroy, told The Brisbane Courier, ‘bobbed hair [is] the outward sign of the way in which modern women are thinking and acting.’ Indeed, many middle class women in the 1920s experienced greater economic and social independence and enjoyed a more visible presence in public life. As a mark of this emancipation, they freed themselves from layers of fabric and long tresses of hair associated with restrictive Edwardian conformity.

In its place emerged the new, thoroughly modern subjectivity of the Flapper, whose visual hallmarks included tube dresses, cloche hats and the bob. The active life of the Flapper – typecast as a woman who worked during the day and danced by night, played sport and rode in automobiles open to the wind – demanded short, neat, practical hair. In 1925, The Longreach Leader adroitly observed the fashion for cropped hair was part of a ‘wave of abbreviation’ as women ‘cut off the tops of shoes, cut off the bottoms of skirts, cut off the tops of corsets [and] cut off the brims of hats’. Drawing on historian Jill Jilius Matthews’ reflection that modernity was lived through bodies and inscribed on bodies, the bob can be seen as a corporeal sign of the rapid cultural changes that characterised the 1920s.

These cultural changes did not take place without controversy, however, and the bob and its many variations became the source of widespread debate in the Queensland press, as they did worldwide. It was a point of interest for several Queensland commentators that bobbed hair had originated in America, with actress and dancer Irene Castle. Australians in this period were often suspicious of American cultural imports, believing the appeal of modernity, epitomised by Hollywood cinema and jazz music, would weaken long-held cultural allegiances to Britain. Moreover, modernity was associated with the metropolis and was thus regarded a threat to the ‘bush ideal’ that underpinned Australian mythology, particularly in Queensland with its strong agricultural identity. The way in which the bob came to signify this perceived urban/country divide is illustrated in the following ‘joke’ published by the Maryborough Chronicle in 1927:

Mother had come in from the farm to visit her daughter in the city. After a kiss of greeting she noticed her daughter’s bobbed hair. Her eyes opened wide with astonishment. ‘Well, for pity’s sake, Lizzy!’ she exclaimed, ‘You never writ me you had the typhoid.’

The Queenslander, 29 March 1928

Running through such commentary was the construction of the metropolis as the domain of the modern woman who disrupted accepted codes of gender. The short hair of the Flapper held a deeper signification beyond fashion, representing rebelliousness and, according to some, immorality. In 1923, The Longreach Leader reported that a popular evangelist in England had advised young men never to marry girls with bobbed hair. The paper continued:

Curious as it may be, the average man regards ‘bobbed’ hair as a sign of irresponsibility – charming enough when the possessor is a lawn tennis partner, but unthinkable if she is to be a partner in the serious game of life.

The Queenslander, 1 September 1927

Queensland papers in the 1920s reported on the crimes of American women whose digressions and choice of hairstyle were conflated, such as the ‘bobbed hair murderers’ of Chicago or the ‘bobbed hair bandit’ of New York. Another ‘warning’ story that circulated widely through the Queensland press was that of Miss Ruth Evans of New York, who was said to have suicided from grief after bobbing her waist-length locks.

For some, the acceptability or otherwise of cropped hair depended on the particular style a woman sported. One commentator in The Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton) in 1926 promoted shingling as ‘quite the smartest way of having your hair cut’ but the Eton crop, ‘cut exactly like a man’, as risking a loss of ‘feminine grace’. A South Brisbane resident, quite accepting of the bob and the shingle, regarded the shortness of the bingle one step too far, ending his letter to The Brisbane Courier by marvelling in verse at what ‘madness’ might follow next:

When others combed their tresses long,

I bobbed, and then I shingled;

When shingling in its turn seemed wrong

I bingled, yes I bingled.

And now I wait for the decree

Of Fashion, quite new-fangled;

They tell me it will likely be –

‘All hair must now be mangled.’

Cropped hair was also debated from a medical perspective, consistent with a general post-war interest in health, fitness and hygiene. In particular, such commentary took on a pseudo-scientific flavour, reflecting ideas of modernity and progress. Dr Woods Hutchinson, for example, was quoted in The Longreach Leader in 1925 as an advocate of short styles, having studied hair under a microscope:

From a biological and hygiene point of view, long hair is useless … It tends to shut out the air and keep the scalp soft, flabby and moist …. Its tenacious mesh and flying cloud of streamers form a magnificent net for germs, and a far better trap for dust, soot and flying particles than sticky paper is for flies.

However, he also cautioned that bobbed hair could be overdone, and if cut too short at the neck was not only ‘positively crude’ in appearance, but also risked infection with the skin ‘suddenly deprived of its normal covering’. A year earlier, Charles Nestle, vice president of the Wholesale Beauty Trade Association in New York, had a much more dire warning for women, reported by the Queensland Times in Ipswich:

Bobbed hair, if persisted in for several generations, will evolve a race of bearded women, according to Mr Charles Nestle of New York … ‘Bobbed hair today, bearded women tomorrow … Baldness will become as common among [women] as men. In every human being there is a chemical laboratory that is constantly manufacturing hair. If the hair is not permitted to grow on the head, it will grow on the face and body.’

The Queenslander, 26 August 1922, p.4

Despite the naysayers, Queensland women continued to crop their hair as an outward display of their newfound modern status. While long hair did not come back into vogue until the 1960s, however, the conservatism of the Depression years saw a shift to a fuller, softer bob that covered more of the neck. The Capricornian in Rockhampton published this farewell to the more daring styles of the 1920s, hinting that for all the cultural changes modernity had brought, newly emerging codes of gender would continue to be contested:

The rust is on the shingle.

The ban is on the bob;

To find a natty bingle,

Is now a tedious job.

But still we men won’t worry

We’re glad their day is done

In fact we’re in a hurry

To welcome back the bun.

 

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Image acknowledgements

Gallery: (L) Alice Hawthorne, 1929; (R) Actress Margery Hickling, 1927. Courtesy of State Library of Queensland.

‘Pointers on Choosing a Becoming Bob.’ Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 30 July 1925, p.4. Accessed via Trove.

Gallery: (L) Byrne sisters, Sandy Cape, 1910-1920; (R) Miss Kate Fitzgerald, ca. 1920. Courtesy of State Library of Queensland.

The Queenslander, 29 March 1928. Courtesy of State Library of Queensland.

The Queenslander, 1 September 1927. Courtesy of State Library of Queensland.

Gallery: (L) Mrs T.H. Goldsmith, Queensland Women’s Electoral League president, 1928; (R) Win and Marg Bristow, 1924. Courtesy of State Library of Queensland.

The Queenslander, 26 August 1922, p.4. Accessed via Trove.

Gallery: (L) The Queenslander, 12 September 1935; (R) Dulcie Dunlop, Christmas, 1929. Courtesy of State Library of Queensland.

References

‘Bob and Shingle Prices.’ Daily Telegraph (Launceston). 29 March 1926, p.4.

‘Bobbed Hair.’ The Longreach Leader. 2 February 1923, p.19.

‘Bobbed Hair Causes Suicide.’ Daily Mercury (Mackay). 27 September 1922, p.9.

‘Bobbed Hair Desperado.’ Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton). 8 September 1924, p.6.

‘Bobbed Hair Murderers.’ The Longreach Leader. 31 October 1924, p.32.

‘Bobbing Hair.’ The Brisbane Courier. 18 June 1925, p.12.

Connor, Liz. The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s. Indiana University Press, Indiana, 2004.

Cox, Caroline and Lee Widdows. Hair and Fashion. V&A Publications, London, 2005.

‘Cropped Hair.’ Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton). 23 January 1926, p.14.

‘Equality of the Sexes.’ Daily Mercury (Mackay). 1 January 1925, p.2.

‘Fashions and Figures. National Types Compared.’ The Brisbane Courier. 30 June 1928, p.24.

‘Jokes.’ Maryborough Chronicle. 29 December 1927, p.2.

Matthews, Jill Jilius. ‘Dancing Modernity.’ In Transitions: New Australian Feminisms, edited by Barbara Caine and Rosemary Pringle, p.74-87. Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1995.

‘Perils of Bobbed Hair.’ Queensland Times (Ipswich). 1 December 1924, p.3.

‘Pointers on Choosing a Becoming Bob.’ Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton). 30 July 1925, p.14.

‘The Lady Fashion.’ Queensland Figaro. 25 October 1924, p.2.

‘The Poet’s Corner.’ The Capricornian. 31 October 1929, p.5.

‘Woman’s Page: The Hygiene of Hair Bobbing.’ The Longreach Leader. 27 March 1925, p.6.



Categories: Fashion

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3 replies

  1. How fascinating! So much at stake in the hair-do. I love the idea of the ‘wave of abbreviation’ – how sensible discarding that which is no longer useful. Great post, Iona.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Can we bring back price regulation for haircuts?! Such an interesting post! Was hair dyeing a big thing? Another angle on fear of ‘Americanisation’ too… hadn’t known how conservative it was. Fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Marina. Yes I believe hair dyeing was quite common – with mixed views about it, like everything else! The other thing that started to trend was the permanent wave (perm) to achieve those curls. The 1920s have a lot to answer for!

    Like

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