Cleopatra was a Redhead: A History of Hair

Thanks to a conversation with fellow blogger Vivienne of Bluestocking Blue (on this post), I have been doing some research. Vivienne asked about the beauty politics of hair: what is it about long hair that makes it central to our ideas of beauty, and what roles do gender and economics play in this? Good question.


Artwork by Jamie Fales (

To start with, we could ask the Bible. I admit that I’m reluctant to do so, but I Corinthians says this:

“I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man praying or prophesying with anything down over his head dishonours his head, 5 but every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered dishonours her head – it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 For if a woman will not be covered, then let her be shorn! But since it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. 7 For indeed a man ought not to cover his head, being the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.”

So there’s that. Interestingly, the Quran does not say that women should cover their heads, only that they should dress modestly (7:26) and covers their chests (24:31). The Muslim veil was adopted from Christianity. In both religions we see the idea that a woman’s hair is her crowning glory, and that it is related to her sexuality and should therefore be covered. It’s astonishing how squeamish we still are – two thousand years later – about female hair, and how it is policed from head to toe.

So hair is related to sex. But what about money?

Vivienne raised the possibility that long hair is prized as beautiful partly because it is a status symbol: long hair is impractical, so having it implies that you are rich enough not to do physical work. Could this also be why is has been gendered feminine, since women have historically been kept in the house?

My first thought is that while there must be truth in this, it’s also true that women have always worked physically – just not all of them. Women of the forgotten working classes worked physically inside the house and outside, and just tied their hair up. It may not have been practical, but long hair was too tightly bound up with the idea of femininity to be given up: cropping a woman’s hair was a used as a punishment (albeit under the veil of practicality) in prisons and asylums, and also charity schools if Charlotte Brontë is to be believed in Jane Eyre.

Long hair was, however, very much a status symbol when it came to the trend for long powdered wigs (a.k.a. the peruke) in the mid-1600s. Wigs had not been fashionable, but at this time a syphilis epidemic swept Europe (those naughty Europeans!) and an awful lot of people were losing their hair to the disease. When the young French King Louis XIV started wearing a wig to cover his thinning hair, shortly followed by his cousin Charles II, King of England, wigs became a bit of a craze. They got bigger and more elaborate, and could cost more than the annual salary of most workers. And this, Vivienne, is where the term ‘bigwig’ came from. But the peruke was killed off along with the aristocrats in the French Revolution of 1789: the final blow in England came when Prime Minister William Pitt introduced a tax on hair powder in 1795. Trés amusant.

louis xiv

Louis XIV (

The relation of hair, sex and economics only got more complex as the centuries wore on, and hair colour became far more important than it deserved to be. Victorian novelists such as George Eliot and Charles Dickens used hair to symbolise their characters’ qualities: blonde hair was given to a “sweet, gentle and submissive” woman (Galia Ofek, p.103), while “dark hair signified fallen or dangerous female sexuality”. The golden hair of a virtuous woman is placed centre stage in Christina Rossetti’s 1862 poem ‘Goblin Market’ (read it here), a surreal and sensual fairy tale in which sisters Laura and Lizzie are tempted with fruit by strange “goblin men”. For fruit read sex, obviously (the poem was later published in Playboy, that well-known bastion of poetry). Laura buys some fruit with a lock of her golden hair, but it doesn’t go well – only Lizzie’s strong virginal resistance can save her sister. Both blonde, the sexual and economic power of their golden curls is ambivalent: it can damn them or save them. I’m reminded of Rapunzel.

goblin market

Artwork by Arthur Rackham (

However, in the 1860s sensation fiction – melodramatic, gothic tales of murder and sexual deviance (I know, brilliant. Start with Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White) – challenged this norm by introducing the character of the “fair-haired demon” (Margaret Oliphant, quoted in Ofek p.103). She may look like the sweetest golden-haired angel, but this character is a ruthless manipulator with no morals at all. The public loved her.

Writing in Victorian Sensations: Essays on a Scandalous Genre (2006), Galia Ofek analyses the association of blonde hair with “gold and sexuality” (p.106) further, arguing that it connects to the “Woman Question” which was in constant public discussion at the time. In 1857 two important legal battles were being fought: the Divorce Act was passed, which made divorce quicker and easier; and the Petition for Married Woman’s Property Bill took place. This petition was part of the process by which married women were eventually given the right, quite simply, to own anything. Before that, once a woman married everything she owned became her husband’s property, as did she. Married women had the same legal status as children, criminals and the insane. Once this began to change, women became more threatening to the social status quo as their economic and legal power increased.

Since a woman’s beauty was one of her only marketable assets, her seductive golden hair really could be the gateway to wealth and power, through marriage. And once her legal rights as a married woman allowed her to wield wealth and power herself, it suddenly felt more dangerous for a man to be tempted by that hair.

Then there were the redheads, like Cleopatra. Cleopatra? Yes, according to historian Joann Fletcher in Cleopatra the Great (2011). The evidence is not conclusive, but one particular portrait in the Herculaneum seems to show Cleopatra, identified by her royal diadem, with red hair. There were fair-haired Greeks in her family line, and red hair does show up in that part of the world, so it is possible. Maybe this explains her fiery and seductive disposition – oh wait, another cliché. Aren’t we humans simple-minded?


Rita Hayworth (

Although the association of blonde hair with virtue, dark hair with vice, and red hair with sex was constantly questioned throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, classic Hollywood was happy to make use of the old images. Mary Pickford and Doris Day were the blonde sweethearts, while Theda Bara and Hedy Lamarr turned things dark and Rita Hayworth tossed her flaming tresses. Then again, Mae West, Jean Harlow and later Marilyn Monroe shook things up as peroxide vamps – and just like the “fair-haired demon” of Victorian sensation fiction, the public liked it.

But Hollywood doesn’t stand still, and hair has a new starring role nowadays, in How to Win an Oscar. Just ask Anne Hathaway, and Natalie Portman (OK, she didn’t win an Oscar for V for Vendetta but it’s much more memorable than her winning role in Black Swan). A woman shaving her head is still seen as an incredible sacrifice of her crowning glory (oh hello, Bible). Hathaway and Portman are celebrated for shaving their heads because they managed the astonishing achievement of still being beautiful even without hair. Non-beautiful lady skinheads do not receive such adulation, unless I am much mistaken.

anne hathaway


Now, there is something notable about this whole history of hair – which of course is not exhaustive, but these points are the ones my library and internet research led me towards. Where’s the black hair? Sure, we’ve had dark hair and that had a bad enough rep, but we’re still missing a lot. The politics of the afro, hair relaxing and braids are weighty issues that are still in play – stories crop up about kids with cornrows being kicked out of school, and black models told that they won’t get work if they don’t have their hair relaxed. The best thing for me to do is direct you to bell hooks, and her famous 1988 essay “Straightening Our Hair” (scroll down a bit for the essay). There are also responses to hooks from Hannah Pool and Glenor Roberts in The Guardian, just for a start.

We each navigate our own personal hair politics all the time – should I go blonde, dare to get a fringe? – but the politics of hair are interwoven throughout social, sexual and economic history. Hair matters, far more than I’ve been able to describe here. How much do you think it should really matter – and have I missed any important hair stories?


16 responses to “Cleopatra was a Redhead: A History of Hair

  • Lanette

    How about the politics of going grey…even if the transition is well engineered?

    • carinaintheory

      Good point, that could be a whole post in itself! There seems to have been a small resurgence in people going proudly grey, but I don’t know how much influence it’s likely to have. I guess grey hair is a direct signifier of age – something which is just not OK to celebrate most of the time. Men can be ‘silver foxes’ though, but I don’t think I’ve heard of a woman called a ‘silver vixen’. How cool would that be?!

  • BroadBlogs

    Thanks for the rundown. Interesting stuff.

    Interestingly, many sex and beauty goddesses of the 40s and 50s had short hair: Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor for instance. Because you had tools to fashion it short and it became expensive and work intensive? And then in the 60s counterculture the mode was long, straight hair in rebellion. It does seem to go along with your theory of status– And countering status in the 60s.

    • carinaintheory

      That’s true: I think the first bobs in the 1920s were a direct rebellion against centuries of corsets and ringlets, but the 20s look still had quite rigorous beauty standards (just different ones). Novelty may have played a part in 20th century short hair fashions, as well as its high level of maintenance – Naomi Wolf might say that it was in the interests of the market to promote such fashions, to sell their hair products. Actually hair seems to be used as a rebellion quite often, I guess as a very visible sign of non-conformity – maybe we’re still rebelling against the hair police in the Bible 😉

  • sweetyshinde

    Such an unusual topic…and so well written.
    Our Indian literature Mahabharata’s fiery, fire-brand heroine Draupadi has fragrant blue-black hair. Her travails of life are deeply linked to her hair. She leaves her hair untied for 13 years until justice is done to her.

    Chanakya, Emperor Chandragupta’s wise counsellor , also left his plait untied till vengeance was seized.

    • carinaintheory

      That’s fascinating, I did feel that I was missing huge swathes of history and literature! Is leaving hair untied a form of self-induced suffering, or a symbol of rebellion against convention?

  • diahannreyes

    Really enjoyed this and all the rich wisdom you share here. The hair can be so charged for women for sure. I remember having my dad cut my hair boy style as a girls and the guys at school laughing at me. It was pretty upsetting for my 7-year-old self.

    • carinaintheory

      Yep, gendering starts early! I actually had short hair as a kid and have always felt more comfortable with short hair since then – it’s amazing how long the influence of your childhood lasts. I wonder what would happen to gender if all children had the same length hair and wore the same style of clothes…

  • Vivienne

    Hi Carina,

    Congratulations on this interesting, well-researched and thought-provoking post. And many thanks indeed for the shout-out; you give me more credit than I deserve.

    Religion and hair do seem to be closely linked. I understand that Christian nuns were once compelled to have their hair cut short symbolically (though I think this is no longer practised), and I have met at least two Buddhist nuns with very closely-cropped hair, for what I presume is a similar reason: the abandonment of secular ideals in favour of a life of asceticism and contemplation.

    Still (shamefully) with religion, some inmates of Ireland’s Magdalene Asylums (they were all female) had their hair cropped as part of the strict and dehumanising regime imposed on them.

    On a marginally lighter note, there is the biblical scene where a woman anoints the feet of Jesus with perfumed oil, then wipes them clean with her hair. (This woman is often traditionally identified as Mary Magdalene, herself an enigmatic and obscure figure). To me this is a powerfully symbolic gesture, with erotic undertones which are (unsurprisingly) firmly downplayed by Christian commentators. On the Wikipedia page for Mary Magdalene there is a series of artistic depictions of her; one represents her apparently naked body being borne into heaven by angels, but her entire body right down to the ankles is concealed by tresses of long blonde hair.

    When I think of women with short hair, I think first of Sinead O’Connor, whose image has almost always included short hair, which she did deliberately as a statement against the traditional roles of women. I also think of some lesbian women, who deliberately crop their hair. Is this a symbolic rejection of the femininity associated with long hair? Or is there some other reason?

    It seems that, wherever you look, the notion of long hair is linked to femininity and sexual attraction. Whatever you do with your hair, whether growing it out or cropping it off, you do it very deliberately and with very powerful reasons in mind.

    What about long hair on men? Jesus is usually depicted with long hair; I don’t know my history well enough to know whether Jewish men of Jesus’ time would have worn their hair long in this manner (could we imagine a bald Jesus?). (Though orthodox Jews grow their hair long “at the temples” in accordance with Jewish Law). Sikh men traditionally don’t cut their hair or beards, and wear turbans to keep it tidily out of the way.

    And I guess my final comment (as a scientist) is why human head hair continues to grow throughout life. Our body hair doesn’t (thankfully!). I think among the great apes, hair doesn’t grow so long, although perhaps longer hairs are lost during normal activities like locomotion or grooming.

    I could go on all day!


  • carinaintheory

    I’m tickled by the idea of a bald Jesus… and have been thinking about long hair on men too. I don’t have any actual knowledge about it, but am under the impression that long hair on men is very often considered attractive – I guess practicality, fashion and gender difference account for the prevalence of short on men in this part of the world. A very simple view would be that long hair is just a sensual pleasure, glossy to look at and silky to touch, so that it’s usually appreciated on anyone (leaving aside social convention)? Perhaps that sensuality is why hair is so frequently connected with sexuality… I too could go on all day!

  • Wild Beauty | Beauty Bytes: April 4, 2014

    […] Cleopatra was a redhead. Carina of Beautiful in Theory dives into the sexual and economic politics of hair, starting with the Bible and leading all the way up to Natalie Portman and Anne Hathaway (who are still freakishly beautiful even with shaved heads.) But the best story is the 1860′s tale of the “fair-haired demon” – where the sweetest looks are used as a literary device to hide the most ruthless behavior. Beautiful in Theory. […]

  • Lovely Links: 4/4/14 - Already Pretty | Where style meets body image

    […] “We each navigate our own personal hair politics all the time – should I go blonde, dare to get a fringe? – but the politics of hair are interwoven throughout social, sexual and economic history.” […]

  • Link Love (2014-04-12) | Becky's Kaleidoscope

    […] Cleopatra was a Redhead: A History of Hair – Beautiful in Theory […]

  • Final Battle for Alexander the Great's Legacy concludes with Greece reaching deal with North Macedonia

    […] addition likely being a direct descendant from the same family as golden-haired Alexander, there is portraiture done in what would have been in the living memory of the Great […]

  • Final Battle for Alexander the Great’s Legacy concludes with Greece reaching deal with North Macedonia | TrumpsMinutemen

    […] addition likely being a direct descendant from the same family as golden-haired Alexander, there is portraiture done in what would have been in the living memory of the Great […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: