In an April 1927 issue of Pictorial Review, a well-known opera singer of the 1920s named Mary Garden (1874–1967) wrote an article titled "Why I Bobbed My Hair" explaining to her fans why she cut off her long hair. She said, "Bobbed hair is a state of mind and not merely a new manner of dressing my head.… I consider getting rid of our long hair one of the many little shackles that women have cast aside in their passage to freedom." This statement expresses the underlying reason behind the 1920s fad of short hair for women. While until World War I (1914–18) long and carefully styled hair had been a symbol of elegant femininity, never cut except in times of serious illness, during the Roaring Twenties, a time of rebellion and newfound freedoms following the calamities of World War I, short hair on women became a symbol of liberation, fun, and daring.
There is a legend that the imaginative French fashion designer Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (1883–1971) started the short hair fad one night when she was about to go out to the opera. The gas heater in Chanel's apartment exploded, burning off most of her long hair. The spirited designer supposedly trimmed off the burnt ends into a sassy short hairdo, then continued with her evening out, starting a fashion that swept much of the Western world. Though this story is probably fictional, it captures the spirit of the short-haired flapper of the 1920s, creative and bold young women, determined to get on with their lives.
However it began, the short hair trend spread quickly as women discovered the pleasure of a haircut that was easy to maintain. During the 1920s the number of haircutting salons rose from five thousand to twenty-three thousand, with some women even going to men's barbershops for their haircuts. Hair became shorter and shorter, ranging from the bob, which was chin-length, to the boyish Eton crop. Some women curled their hair in small spitcurls, using bobby pins, a newly invented hairpin that was named after bobbed hair. Hot irons were used to make Marcel waves, named after Marcel Grateau (1852–1936), the French hair stylist who invented them. Soon only the old or the very conservative had long hair.
However, those who did not like to see the changes either in fashion or in the status of women fought against the new styles. Conservative, or old-fashioned, clergymen preached against bobbed hair, while some doctors claimed that cutting their hair would cause women to go bald. Many shop owners fired saleswomen who cut their hair.
After the U.S. stock market crash in 1929, the general mood of society became much more somber. The excitement and confidence of the 1920s ended, and women returned to a softer look, which included longer hair.
Blackman, Cally. The 20s & 30s: Flappers & Vamps. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens Incorporated, 2000.
Garden, Mary. "Why I Bobbed My Hair." Pictorial Review (April 1927): 8.
Hoobler, Dorothy, and Thomas Hoobler. Vanity Rules: A History of American Fashion and Beauty. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books, 2000.
[ See also Volume 4, 1919–29: Flappers box on p. 732 ]