The Politics of Hair

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The oldest picture of Grandmother Antonina shows her with her hair close to her head, pulled back, with no parting, and delicate pencil-thick waves going all the way to the neckline, which she most likely made with heated scissor irons. This photo has no date, but I can assume it was taken before Grandmother turned twenty-four. I can make an educated guess because she bobbed her hair soon after moving to Warsaw in 1931. She’d gotten married a year earlier and lived for a while with her husband’s family in a small town near the capital, where women still wore their hair long, just as in the village she came from. In Warsaw, though, short hair was all the rage. On her first visit home, when she proudly displayed the new style to her family, she had to listen to her mother’s lengthy harangue on the evils that accompanied such an unnatural deed. Her three sisters—even the eldest—would never have thought of doing away with their braids. Their hair went down below their buttocks and they could easily sit on it. My future grandmother no longer had the protection against germs that long hair provided and could fall prey to all and sundry ailments, developing anemia, experiencing debilitating headaches, even becoming infertile.

While city attitudes toward women cutting their tresses had by then become more liberal, in small towns and villages the daring ones were branded morally delinquent and sentenced a priori to eternal damnation.

While city attitudes toward women cutting their tresses had by then become more liberal, in small towns and villages the daring ones were branded morally delinquent and sentenced a priori to eternal damnation. A popular saying: “Short hair, short on brains” expressed prevalent attitudes. No wonder my great-grandmother was upset and begged her headstrong daughter to put on a scarf when she went out. Grandmother agreed to spare her mother public disgrace: the next photo I have of her shows her in front of the family house—her head covered with a white scarf—holding my mother, who couldn’t have been more than a few months old. That was the only compromise my grandmother agreed to and she ignored her mother’s pleas that she grow her hair out again.

When my grandmother committed what to her mother was an unthinkable act, short haircuts had already been in vogue for quite a while. It started in the 1920s, when the fashion had begun to spread like a “plague” (the term used by its most implacable opponents). Women had worn their hair short before, but the cut had never become as popular as in the 1920s. During the French Revolution, for example, women had their locks cut off in back before they were led to the guillotine. This spurred a short-lived, gruesome fad, a haircut called à la victime. Many fashionable women chose that style to honor the victims and had their hair shorn high up at the nape of the neck with long strands on the sides of their faces. Unlike other fashions that originated in France, that one didn’t catch on anywhere else.  About a century later, suffragettes cut their hair shoulder length, but few others were ready to challenge the tradition and show off cropped hairdos.

Though many stylists had laid claim to “inventing” the short haircut, the man who played the greatest role in launching it was Antoni Cierplikowski. Born in 1884 in Sieradz, Poland, the son of a shoemaker, Cierplikowski  left for Paris in 1901, and there his career took off as he became Monsieur Antoine, world-famous stylist and author of the coupe à la Jeanne d’Arc. In 1909, the story goes, Eve Lavallière, the famous French actress, forty at the time, was offered the role of an eighteen-year old heroine in the comedy Buridan’s Ass. She wanted to accept it, but was concerned she would end up ridiculed because of her age. When she turned to Antoine for help, he decided that the way to make a woman look younger was to cut her hair. That’s how the famous cut was born, whose variants came to be known under numerous monikers: the bob, the Joan of Arc, the Eton crop, or most popular in Europe, à la garconne. After the première of the play, Paris was abuzz. Eve Lavallière looked the juvenile character, and the play was a success. At first only women from Bohemian circles followed the actress’s example. But in about ten years what had once been marginal turned into a trend, and short haircuts began to be seen on the streets of the French capital. Coco Chanel, Antoine’s friend and neighbor, championed the new hairstyle just as she championed simplicity in women’s clothes. A revolution that began in fashion and hair spread to women’s attitudes, lifestyles, social and sexual norms, redefining and challenging traditional gender roles.

Literature provided succor. In 1921, a novel titled La garçonne by Victor Margueritte appeared in France. It became a bestseller, enjoyed multiple editions and was translated into many languages. It caused a scandal too, with its heroine, Monique, being the innocent daughter of wealthy parents who plan to marry her off to a young man who doesn’t love her. Before the wedding, she finds out that her future husband has a lover and no intention of breaking up with her. Marriage for him is a business deal. Monique rebels, leaves her family, works as an interior designer. She cuts her hair, dresses like a man, smokes, uses drugs, takes lovers, and has lesbian mistresses. When the book was published in Poland, it bore the title “Chłopczyca,” which can be translated into English as Tomboy or Flapper.

 

I don’t believe that Monsieur Antoine, Coco Chanel, or Victor Margueritte’s novel could have had any direct influence on my grandmother’s decision to crop her hair. The cut it when she saw women in Warsaw sporting short styles. For most who decided to follow the craze, short hair meant more than a fashion statement. It indicated you were independent and modern. Grandmother wasn’t really independent in today’s sense of the word—she was a young mother whose husband worked and supported her. Yet I know that she aspired to be a modern woman, even though it took many years before she could truly claim the adjective for herself. Her decision to bob her hair, which others deemed a superficial gesture, was to her a deeply symbolic act that marked a watershed in her life.

In all the stories Grandmother told me about her childhood and adolescence, one detail consistently came up: her deep dislike of village life and farming.

In all the stories Grandmother told me about her childhood and adolescence, one detail consistently came up: her deep dislike of village life and farming.

She was one of six siblings—four sisters and two brothers—and from the start she was the most rebellious. After they reached a certain age, all country children were expected to work: first in the house, then in the yard, and eventually in the fields. From the instant she was sent to join her brother and her two older sisters to hoe sugar beets, she had hated working the soil, hated how dirt got in her eyes and under her fingernails. She’d rather do any kind of housework, scrub the floors, wash everyone’s clothes, slop the hogs, or even clean the pigsty. But no amount of pleading would convince her parents to let her off.  She was old enough, and they needed an extra pair of hands. So she had no choice but to get up at dawn and spend most of the day hoeing weeds, making haystacks, digging potatoes. Farming was backbreaking toil, and early on she began to harbor dreams of escape. A village school afforded her something of a respite: during the school year she was sent to the fields only after she had returned from her lessons. Her father had trained to be a teacher—I don’t know if he ever worked as one, or even if he completed his training—but that made him do what his illiterate neighbors thought foolish: he sent his children to school even when there was work to be done in the fields.  Grandmother quickly learned to read and write and enjoyed every moment she spent studying. She attended that school for four years, and then, after a two-year break due to political turmoil—in which the First World War concluded and Poland regained its independence—she finished the final years in a bigger school four kilometers away from home. She was sixteen. There was never any talk of her continuing her education, even though one of her brothers finished agricultural school and the other one became a teacher. She was a girl, and her father, progressive as he was, wasn’t progressive enough to see the need for that.

She met my grandfather when she was twenty-one, but I know nothing else about their meeting or courtship. Village girls usually married when they were much younger than Grandmother, so her parents must have worried she’d be an old maid. Not that she lacked suitors. Plenty of eligible bachelors in the village tried to woo her, but she wasn’t interested because they had the manners and looks of country bumpkins. Grandfather was different. Born in a nearby town, he had finished gymnasium, taken some accounting courses, played the accordion. He had a warm baritone, and on top of everything was drop-dead handsome. But to my grandmother the most important thing about him was that he wasn’t from the countryside. Within a year of their getting married, the couple moved to Warsaw, which for her meant a clear break with peasant life, the change she had been dreaming of.

To emphasize that break, she had her hair cut. Now when she went shopping or took her daughter for a stroll in the park, she looked like other young Warsaw mothers. Although she wanted to belong in the city, she never denied her peasant origins, pretended to be someone she wasn’t or put on airs. If she was vain, her vanity was limited to trying to look like a city person, but being a snob or a social climber wasn’t in her blood. I have a later photo of her taken a few years before the war in which my mother, maybe four or five years old, is sitting on a donkey, Grandmother standing next to her, holding her hand. She wears a smart dark coat and a wide-brimmed hat cocked over her right brow.  A bit of her hair shows and I can see it’s short. My mother is wearing a beret and her hair is also short, a simple bob with bangs reaching her eyebrows.  No one looking at this picture would ever think that Grandmother hadn’t lived in the city all her life.

 

During the war years, having no money for a professional cut, she kept her hair short by asking a friend to trim it. Early in the war Grandfather was seized in a roundup. He managed to escape from the train carrying him to Germany for forced labor but was in hiding for some time before returning home. By then he already had a reputation as a ladies’ man.  He also never refused a drink. The harsh conditions of life and his irresponsible behavior turned my grandmother into the self-reliant and independent woman she had always wanted to be. She provided for her two daughters, the younger of whom had been born during the war.  Because of permanent food shortages and rationing, she often went to the country and smuggled provisions to Warsaw, an exceedingly risky enterprise. Right before the Warsaw Uprising, Grandfather disappeared only to find his family much later, after the surviving civilians had already been deported from Warsaw to a camp in Pruszków and then taken in by peasants in nearby villages.  A single photo remains from the war period: my grandmother, her hair short and wavy, is holding her bald baby daughter.

The war ended with most of Warsaw razed to the ground. Grandmother loved her city but didn’t see how she could piece her life back together among the ruins.

The war ended with most of Warsaw razed to the ground. Grandmother loved her city but didn’t see how she could piece her life back together among the ruins. So the family decided to seek its fortunes in Eastern Pomerania. The region’s former German residents fled before the approaching Red Army, leaving behind farmhouses, villas, single-family homes, apartments. The newcomers from other war-torn regions could have their pick as to where they wanted to settle. Many of those who, due to the shifting borders, had lost their family farms in the East decided to take over the deserted red-brick houses and barns with their adjoining fields. But returning to farming was out of the question for Grandmother.  Since she had to give up Warsaw, the family moved to a small town in the Masuria region where Grandfather had found a nice second-floor apartment. At that time there were still many unoccupied villas and houses with well-preserved gardens, fruit trees, shrubs, and flowers. Grandmother, however, refused to even consider living in a house. Many of these homes were elegant and spacious. The gardens, though, were the biggest stroke against them, since a garden meant you’d have to tend it and work the soil, something Grandmother had sworn off many years ago.

In 1951, she divorced Grandfather, the final step on her way to independence. She was never very religious, but she’d been raised in church and went to Sunday mass. Few people at that time got divorced, but Grandmother had suffered enough of the ordeal her marriage had become. A year or so before she made up her mind, she went to confession, where she told the priest about her husband’s unfaithfulness and drinking and added that she was thinking of divorcing him. The priest’s response infuriated her when he said that bad as her marriage sounded, it was her cross to bear. That encounter was enough to turn her anti-clerical. For many years afterwards, she only attended church for baptisms, weddings, and funerals. But her divorce didn’t only defy the precepts of the church; it also went against traditional ways of thinking and the social mores of the times. Even though the communists allowed civil marriage and divorce, the nascent political order exhibited extreme prudishness and puritanical orthodoxy when it came to family morals. Respectable people—and good communists—just didn’t file for divorce. A divorced woman was suspect: she might go after another woman’s husband, and that could be reason enough to ostracize her. Grandmother—fortunately—didn’t suffer such a fate. She was generous, helpful, and well liked by neighbors, co-workers, and whoever else crossed her path. And she must have loved her hard won autonomy and self-sufficiency so much that she never remarried.

 

When I was a few years old, Grandmother began to take me to a hair salon five minutes away from our apartment building. The shop was in a garden where its owner, Mr. Żebrowski, grew vegetables and fruit for his family. It had two rooms: a barber shop in the front where men congregated, and a room in back where women came and had their hair styled. Because Grandmother believed in no-nonsense haircuts, she herself frequented the barber shop, and we never entered the women’s section. I was seated on a padded board placed across the arms of a chair, dangling my legs. It would be some time before I would be tall enough to occupy the leather-covered seat reserved for adults. Mr. Żebrowski, who always cut my hair, wrapped me in what looked like a white sheet and pinned it at my neck. He then looked at my grandmother occupying a bench against the wall. “How will we cut the young lady’s hair today?” he asked her each time, even though he knew the answer would be “Na garsonkę”–à la garconne.” My hair wasn’t long, but according to her, the curls had become unruly. I didn’t mind their being cut off.  Some would still remain. The part I hated was when the barber used the razor on the nape of my neck. It pinched and I cringed. He then brushed my neck to get the clippings off and sprayed cologne over my head, squeezing an egg-shaped brown rubber ball attached to a half-full glass bottle. The procedure was finished when he picked me up and set me on the floor. I was very proud of myself.  I had an elegant hairdo just like Grandmother’s. On the way home we always stopped at a small grocery store where I got my favorite chocolate-covered candy bar called Krymski—Crimean.

We repeated the same ritual about once every two months until I was old enough to go to Mr. Żebrowski’s on my own. Each time I went I was handed five złoty for a haircut and five to keep. The money replaced the candy bar. Years later it occurred to me that just like the chocolate bar the five złotys was a bribe Grandmother used to make sure I wore my hair short. My short hair wasn’t anything unusual. The photos I have from that time show most girls with bobs. In my preschool photo, there’s only one girl with a braid. In the group picture of my first grade I can see two girls wearing plaits. The reason most likely wasn’t so much the fashion of the time as the fact that many mothers and grandmothers had jobs, and there was no one at home to braid a little girl’s hair to make her look neat for school. This was the time when posters of women on tractors became ubiquitous, but the propaganda of the brave new world had little to do with women’s decision to find employment. Besides, only true believers could have been swayed by it. Since one income wasn’t enough to support a family, most women started to work for economic reasons.  Eventually, however, they decided that they liked the feeling of independence and the social interaction that came with it.  What began as a necessity turned into a boon that fired many women’s aspirations toward self-sufficiency and self-reliance.

My grandmother was at home a lot because at that time she worked on different shifts as a receptionist at the hospital’s emergency room, but she was philosophically opposed to long hair and might have only reluctantly agreed to braid it. She wore her own hair short, not because she felt she still needed to affirm her city-ness but for its associations with independence and practicality. She also favored simply cut clothes that Coco Chanel would have liked, and she used only a lipstick and an eyebrow liner for makeup. It’s not that looks didn’t matter to her. She learned the ways of the world well enough to know that certain elegance was necessary if one wanted to communicate confidence. Since her program for women was anti-narcissistic, there was no place in it for long hair which played up feminine features and was bound to lead to undue focus on one’s looks. A woman could accomplish anything if she didn’t think too much about herself, worked hard, and took charge. Grandmother never heard of feminism, but she rejected wholesale the stereotype of the weaker sex.

I imbibed her lessons on hair and life, but when I was in fourth grade, I decided to grow my hair out, even though all my friends had bobs. I got interested in history, and all the famous queens, princesses, and duchesses had long hair. At first I wore pigtails, which in due time metamorphosed into two braids. Because my hair was longer then, it was more tangled than ever before, and I hated it when my mother combed it each morning. I also didn’t like it that I had to get up earlier so that it could be braided before school. I endured until early June. Three weeks before summer vacation I told Grandmother I needed to see Mr. Żebrowski. I didn’t want to go to a Girl Scouts’ camp with long hair.  It would be too much trouble. Grandmother didn’t show it, but as she handed me the ten złoty, I could tell she was elated at my newly acquired practical sense.

I continued to wear my hair short even when the hippie fashion, as we called it, arrived in our town and teenage girls tried to imitate the hairstyles of famous American female singers like Joan Baez and Janice Joplin. Grandmother didn’t approve of the fad. This was when she modified the saying “Short hair, short on brains” that had such a currency in her youth into “Long hair, short on brains.” My first year in college, though, I let my hair reach beneath my shoulders.  When I came home for Christmas, she shook her head.  “You look like a mermaid,” she said. I knew it wasn’t a compliment. I cut it again before the next fall semester began, not because my grandmother didn’t like it but simply because it dawned on me I had no patience for long hair. But come to think about it now, maybe Grandmother did have something to do with my decision. It couldn’t have been coincidental that all the women in our family–my mother, my aunt, and my sister–had always preferred short hair. As for Grandmother’s own style, it remained unchanged: à la garconne, with a parting on the side. She never bothered changing it, saying she was happy with what she had.

 

When she was in her mid-eighties, Grandmother developed an eczema that spread onto her scalp and was responsible for gradual hair loss. She had reddish-pinkish bald patches, with tufts of hair like a newborn’s surrounding them.

When she was in her mid-eighties, Grandmother developed an eczema that spread onto her scalp and was responsible for gradual hair loss. She had reddish-pinkish bald patches, with tufts of hair like a newborn’s surrounding them. She was prescribed different medications but none worked.

When I visited Grandmother with my American family, she would always put on a wig. She said she didn’t want our two daughters to think their great-grandmother was a bald witch. She also made everyone promise she would be buried in her wig. One summer I arrived in Poland ahead of the rest of my family and went to see her by myself. I expected to find her wearing her wig, but she had a scarf on. I had never seen her wearing scarves before since in her universe they were worn by country women. I figured it was gentler and easier on her scalp than a wig. But as long as she wore a wig, she looked like her old self because the wig mimicked her natural hair. A scarf, however, changed her appearance so much that she seemed a different person. It saddened me that she had to cover her head with a piece of fabric she wouldn’t have been caught dead in before. She used to have such beautiful hair, dark blond, naturally wavy, and she always wore hats or elegant caps.

When I embraced her, I could feel her bones. She seemed birdlike, smaller and frailer than during my last visit, but maybe I just hadn’t noticed it earlier. She had turned ninety-two the previous February, and until then she had been quite robust. I suddenly had the premonition that Grandmother wouldn’t be around much longer. My heart sank. She had always had an uncanny ability to read my mind and mood, and this time too she sensed that I was shaken. But she wouldn’t be herself if she had let that mood last. She squeezed my hand and asked me to hand her an old photo album. She leafed through it, found the page she wanted, and gave it back to me, pointing to a picture. It showed her standing in front of her family house, holding my mother and wearing a white scarf. She gestured toward her head. “I’m now back to my young days. My mother didn’t like my bob, so I covered it.” She gazed at the ceiling. “Mom must be having a good chuckle up there now. Her daughter is at last getting her deserts.” She laughed, and so did I. She displayed her usual panache and sense of humor. I was relieved that she still could slip so easily into her customary groove.

She died in 2001, the second week of November. She was buried in her wig, styled the way she liked—à la garconne

 

Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough is an essayist and translator. Her essays have appeared in Agni, The American Scholar, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, Threepenny Review, and elsewhere. One of them was selected for inclusion in The Best American Essays 2012; four others were listed among Notable Essays of 2011, 2013, 2014, and 2015.

Photo: Flapperettes May 1924 | Flickr
Published on January 12, 2017.

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