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The New Woman of the 1920s: Debating Bobbed-Hair

The “new woman” of the 1910s and 1920s rejected the pieties (and often the politics) of the older generation, smoked and drank in public, celebrated the sexual revolution, and embraced consumer culture. While earlier generations had debated suffrage, political discussions of feminism were seldom the stuff of popular media in the 1920s. Instead, magazines such as Ladies Home Journal and Pictorial Review presented readers with the debate: “To Bob or Not to Bob?” The short, sculpted hair of the “bob” marked a startling visual departure from the upswept and carefully dressed hair of the early twentieth-century Gibson Girl. Dancer Irene Castle (Treman) inadvertently helped set the fashion when she cut her hair for convenience before entering the hospital for an appendectomy. In these magazine excerpts, Castle, singer Mary Garden, and film star Mary Pickford (known as “America’s Sweetheart”), described their decisions to adopt, or not adopt, the new style.

I Bobbed My Hair and Then—

by Irene Castle Treman

There has been so much controversy over the bobbed-hair craze that I feel I ought to put some of the world right, as to my side of it at least. I do not claim to be the first person to wear bobbed hair; in fact, I believe there are a number of people who, like myself, picture Joan of Arc with shorn locks! There have been several periods in history when women wore short hair. It is easier to be the first person to do a thing than the first to introduce it, and I believe I am largely blamed for the homes wrecked and engagements broken because of clipped tresses. I do not wish to take the blame, because in a great number of case I find the responsibility a serious one and the results a “chamber of horrors.”

Don’t Bob Fine Hair

Don’t think I am knocking those who may have followed in my footsteps; I am indeed honored, and in four cases at least that I know of it has been the making of a very individual and even beautiful person out of one who would not have attracted attention before. To start with, one must have the right sort of hair; and rather small features also help to bring about satisfactory results. There is, however, no hard and fast rule to be followed, for I have often been fooled myself and delightfully surprised. The girl with coarse and straight hair, however, is likely to ruin a perfectly good disposition by cutting it.

I first cut off my hair while at boarding school—too many years ago to tell!—so that I could go swimming during a vacant forty-minute period and appear in my next class without visible proof that I had been frolicking around on a springboard when I should have been growing wiser and better fitted to become an interesting dinner partner.

In a very few days I was shocked to see the outcome of my “sacrifice of convenience.” New bobbed heads popped up regularly each morning at breakfast, and, as the truth leaked home, irate parents wrote indignant letters to the principal, so that the joy and comfort I had found in my short hair became short-lived. I was sent for and the style of my coiffure made very plain to me. As a result, I went through a very trying period, with no knot at the back of my head and hairpins, since they could find no place to cling, falling like hailstones around me. What was still more serious, I had to get up at least fifteen minutes earlier to get to breakfast, for I could no longer shake my head like a puppy after a bath and called it a day.

The next time I heard the call of the scissors was just before I was going into the hospital to be operated on for appendicitis. I never liked having anyone comb my hair, so, to assure as little combing as possible, I cut it all off. I say all; it never fell much below my shoulders.

After I came out of the hospital I tried to cover up my clipped head by wearing, whenever I appeared in public, a tight turban or toque under which I tucked every spear of hair except some little square sideburns. Those of my friends who saw me in the country without a hat begged me to wear my short hair in public, and so one night when we were going to town to dinner I wore it down, and in order to keep it in place wrapped a flat seed-pearl necklace around my forehead—which was, I think, the beginning of what they afterwards called the “Castle Band.”

The Disadvantages

I want to let my hair grow, but lack the courage to face that dreadful in-between stage. I have started many times, but always weakened when my hair looked too long and straggly to wear down and was not long enough to put up. Then, too, I cannot resist the scissors, I love to cut other people’s hair, and have bobbed at least twenty heads. I have often thought I should like a little shop of my own, where I could snip to my heart’s content. It must have started with my early desire to cut up the curtains or anything else I could lay my hands on.

There are wonderful advantages in short hair, of which I need not tell you—too many of you have tried it; but these are, to me at least, some of the disadvantages: There are so few ways to dress short hair that one is practically limited to parting it on the side or in the middle. And then, can one grow old and gray, still with short hair? Gray hair is charming short, but during the in-between years, will it not seem a bit kittenish and not quite dignified?


Why I Bobbed My Hair

by Mary Garden

Why did I bob my hair? For several reasons. I did it because I wanted to, for one thing; because I found it easier to take care of; because I thought it more becoming; and because I felt freer without long, entangling tresses. But above and beyond these and several other reasons I had my hair cut short because, to me, it typified a progressive step, in keeping with the inner spirit that animates my whole existence.

In one way, whether I wear my hair short or not is of little importance. But viewed in another way, bobbed hair is not just a trivial, independent act of hair-dressing separate and apart from my life itself. It is part and parcel of life—one of the myriad things which by themselves may apparently mean nothing, but which in the aggregate help to form that particular complexity of expression which is myself.

This sounds a bit cryptic; but let me elucidate a little. Whether we know it or not, every single thing we do has a relationship to our lives as a whole, for the simple reason that what we do is the expression of what we think—consciously or unconsciously. You may say that it matters very little whether a woman wears her hair long or has it cut short, but that is really not true.

Bobbed hair is a state of mind and not merely a new manner of dressing my head. It typifies growth, alertness, up-to-dateness, and is part of the expression of the élan vital! [spirit] It is not just a fad of the moment, either like mah jong or cross-word puzzles. At least I don’t think it is. I consider getting rid of our long hair one of the many little shackles that women have cast aside in their passage to freedom. Whatever helps their emancipation, however small it may seen, is well worth while.

Bobbing the hair is one of those things that show us whether or not we are abreast of the age in which we find ourselves. For instance, can you imagine any woman with a vivid consciousness of being alive, walking along the street in 1927 with skirts trailing on the ground, wearing elastic-side shoes, a shawl, and also a mid-Victorian bonnet? If you saw such a sight you would instantly put her down as one who had ceased to grow, as one who was passé [out of style] and very far from being an up-to-date woman.

Well, I carry that thought a little further in my whole scheme of things. I do my best to be constantly on the alert and up to the moment. On my toes, as the boys say. I could no more imaging myself wearing a long, trailing skirt in 1927 when all the world was wearing short skirts than I could wear long, trailing tresses when all the world (or nearly all of it) had wisely come to the conclusion that bobbed hair was more youthful, more chic, and, if I may say so, much more sanitary.

This attention to what is of the living present has a special application, I think, to those of us who are what the world designates as creative artists. We, of all people, must be very careful not to allow ourselves to stagnate in any manner whatsoever—mentally, artistically, or physically. To be an artist means to grow. An artist can not afford to do anything else. To stand still means, paradoxically enough, to go backward, and for an artist that is fatal. To keep on growing means the constant necessity for getting a correct perspective of ourselves. We must stand off, so to speak, and look at ourselves through very critical glasses. If we once lose our perspective we lose all.

Life itself is growth, and the minute we allow ourselves to stop growing we really stop being vitally alive. And it is so fatally easy for people to get into a rut, to bask in the noonday sun of self-satisfaction[,] to cease to grow. Take my own profession, for instance. In the realm of grand opera, ignoring precedent and striking out into new paths is one of the hardest things to achieve. How easy it is for the producers of opera to be content with age old traditions, to go on going the easy thing. The antiquated thing that has become so much a matter of habit that thinking about it becomes unnecessary!

And how deadening and monotonous a thing to the singer a continual round of roles of the old order can become! Did I say “Deadening and monotonous”? Stagnating rather, I would sooner pass into oblivion than to cease progressing and growing while I possessed the impetus to live and to work. And if I didn’t look at myself every now and then in perspective I too would stop growing.

As a concrete example of what I mean, last summer I paid a visit to the Opera House in Paris for the first time since I left it in 1906. I asked for this one and that one of my old associates, and in more instances than I care to think of they had all retired from active work. Not from old age either, be it said. They had simply stopped growing, and the inevitable sliding backward had taken place, until the positions they had once held were no longer theirs.

You may wonder what all this has to do with my having bobbed my hair, but as I said above, every seemingly single act we perform is really a small square in the whole mosaic of life, and when all the little pieces are put together they form the complete pattern of existence. Many of the trivial daily happenings of life are so subtle and so deceiving in their significance that very frequently we do not catch their meaning until long after they have occurred. Then, too late alas! We find that these petty affairs, so infinitesimal by themselves, have by accumulation assumed a most important influence in our lives.

When I consider the achievements of women in the past few years in the field of athletics I find it impossible to do so without taking into account the tremendous freedom-giving changes in fashion that have accompanied them. And enjoying the blessings of short hair is a necessary part of those fashion changes. To my way of thinking, long hair belongs to the age of general feminine helplessness. Bobbed hair belongs to the age of freedom, frankness, and progressiveness.

This is my view of the situation, but I should like to state most emphatically that I have no desire to lay down any fixed arbitrary rule for any one else to follow. Whether a woman wears her hair long or short, is her individual affair. I only know which I prefer. I can see nothing but what is progressive or beneficial in bobbed hair for women, altho I must admit there is one very tragic situation that is the direct result of women bobbing their hair, and that is, of course, the sorry plight of the hairpin manufacturers.


Why I Have Not Bobbed Mine

by Mary Pickford

In the epidemic of hair-cutting which has swept the country I am one of the few who have escaped. That does not mean that I have been inoculated by the germ, but that I have resisted valiantly. It has been a hard-fought battle, and the problem has occupied many of my waking and sleeping hours. I say “sleeping” because it often intrudes itself into my dreams.

Sometimes it comes in a pleasant guise, where I gaze enraptured at the mirrored reflection of my sleek bobbed head, and sometimes it is a dreadful nightmare, when I feel the cold shears at the back of my neck and see my curls fall one by one at my feet, useless, lifeless things to be packed away in tissue-paper with other outworn treasures.

I suppose almost every woman in the world has had a moment of trepidation before she made the final and momentous decision to part with her crowning glory; but in my case there are, perhaps, more reasons for hesitation than in the case of most people.

In the first place, my curls have become so identified with me that they have become almost a trademark, and what old-established firm would change its trade-mark without giving considerable thought to the matter? Perhaps I am not quite fair to myself when I say “a trade-mark.” I think they mean more than that—in some strange way they have become a symbol—and I think shorn of them I should become almost as Samson after his unfortunate meeting with Delilah.

It seems, no matter what my desires, that I am dedicated to little-girl roles for the rest of my screen life, and the curls here, of course, are invaluable to me. Curls are the one distinctive attribute left to little girls. Their older sisters, mothers, and grandmothers have robbed them of everything else. It is true that there are many small girls with short hair, but where could you find a mother or grandmother with long curls?

I could give a lengthy and, I think, convincing discourse about long hair making a woman more feminine, but there is some doubt in my mind as to whether it does or not. Of one thing I am sure: she looks smarter with a bob, and smartness rather than beauty seems to be the goal of every woman these days.

Whenever I go to the theater and see the rows of heads in front of me, I send up a little prayer of thanksgiving that we no longer have to view great masses of false hair, curls and puffs of varying shades, and that dreadful abomination once known as the “rat.” But I can not confess to any liking for shaved necks. They are dreadful and take away all charm and femininity from the most attractive woman.

Some gray-haired women look well with a bob. I think it depends upon the shape of the head and the size of the woman. If she is large, bobbed hair will make her head seem disproportionately small and will cause her neck to look too large for the face above it. After all, there is nothing more feminine than a beautiful head of well-cared-for hair simply coiled. Men admire it. They like the Greek line which some women are able to achieve with their smooth, shining coils of hair.

Then, too, in spite of the great variety of hair-cuts, one can achieve many more effects with long hair. This is, to me, of vital importance. A wind-blown bob or boyish bob has to remain just what it is until the next visit to the barber or until nature repairs the damage, but long hair can be dressed according to mood or circumstance. For instance, there are days when it gives me great pleasure to part my hair in the center and wear it drawn back smoothly and demurely over my ears. This is usually when I am feeling rather subdued and that life is not treating me just as it should.

On the other hand, there are mornings when I waken feeling very frivolous, and nothing will express this mood as well as a myriad little nodding curls all over my head. A dozen different moods can be interpreted by the hair-dress, and for a woman to have a way of giving an outlet to her mood is very valuable indeed.

Of course, in doing a costume-picture, bobbed hair would be utterly out of place and would necessitate wearing a wig, which to my way of thinking, never looks entirely natural, and which certainly must be most uncomfortable. All the lovely ladies of history and romance have had long hair. Can you imagine a fairy princess with short, bobbed locks? It is unthinkable and almost shocking. Can you picture Elaine, the lily maid, floating down to Camelot on her barge without her golden curls over her shoulders? How could the prince have climbed to Rapunzel, “let down your hair”? And what a predicament Lady Godiva would have been in!

Then there is my family to consider. I think I should never be forgiven by my mother, my husband, or my maid if I should commit the indiscretion of cutting my hair. The last in particular seems to take a great personal pride in its length and texture, and her horror-stricken face whenever I mention the possibility of cutting it makes me pause and consider. Perhaps I have a little sentimental feeling for it myself. I have had my curls quite a while now and have become somewhat attached to them. Besides, there is no use denying the fact, no matter how much I should like to do so, that I am not a radical.

I am by nature conservative and even a bit old-fashioned, which is a dreadful thing to admit in this day and age.

But the real reason why I do not bob my hair is undoubtedly on account of the requests received in my “fan” mail. Every day letters come in from the children saying, “Please do not bob your hair.” "Please do not cut off your curls." I should feel that I was failing them if I ignored such an insistent plea. I haven’t the courage to fly in the face of their disapproval nor have I the wish. If I am a slave, at least I am a willing slave. For their love and affection and loyalty I owe them everything, and if curls are the price I shall pay it.

Now, after giving all these arguments against the bob, I feel the old irresistible urge, and it is quite likely that some day in frenzied haste casting all caution to the winds, forgetting fans and family, I shall go to a coiffeur and come out a shorn lamb to join the great army of the bobbed.

Source: Irene Castle Treman, “I Bobbed My Hair and Then—,” Ladies Home Journal, October 1921, 124; Mary Garden “Why I Bobbed My Hair,” Pictorial Review, April 1927, 8; Mary Pickford, “Why I Have Not Bobbed Mine,” Pictorial Review, April 1927, 9.

See Also:Bobbed Hair Blues: A Mexican-American Song Laments "Las Pelonas"