Category Archives: White and Not White

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?

The Beautiful Author over at FWSA

Zadie Smith


The kind folk over at the FWSA blog (Feminist and Women’s Studies Association) have published my piece on The Beautiful Author here. Whatever would the publishing industry have done without Zadie Smith?

21st-Century Venus

Photoshop seems to be indispensable nowadays, not only to the production of beauty but also to the discussion of it. And here it is again: Anna Utopia Giordano’s Venus project photoshops classic nudes such as Titian’s Venus of Urbino below, into contemporary standards of naked beauty.

But what I can’t help wondering, with all sincerity, is why?


Some of the altered paintings look (to me) more attractive, some look weird. Yes, our standards of beauty have become more exacting and less realistic, but we know this already. Glancing through the comments on the page, this seems to be the general reaction.

After all, the reworking of a traditional image is hardly new: Titian’s painting has already been reimagined in a variety of ways, Manet’s Olympia and Gauguin’s Te Arii Vahine (The King’s Wife) being only two examples.


Edouard Manet, Olympia, the Venus of Paris, 1863 (


Paul Gauguin, Te Arii Vahine (The King’s Wife), 1896 (

Manet’s Venus, with her defiant gaze at the audience and the boldly outlined, textured rendering of her body, force us to question the nature of the sexuality being represented. Gauguin’s placing of a black nude in the traditional attitude of Venus offers a reminder that we still need, of the Western presumption that beauty is a white privilege – not to mention the fallen paradise references, with the serpent coiled round the tree.

Art has been questioning beauty for centuries, and sadly I think that Giordano’s contribution simply doesn’t stand up to the richness and provocation of its predecessors. But her Photoshopped Venuses do show us something important about 21st-century beauty. Giordano’s skinny, implausibly busty nudes have lost the dynamic relationship between flesh and fantasy that characterises the originals. The Renaissance paintings show a sublimation of honest, physical bodies into a realm of dreamlike beauty; because the Photoshopped bodies are already in the dimension of fantasy, the spark of reification is lost. The picture falls flat, having no connection to the flesh we are wrapped in, but floating free in the impossible. And that’s where the project falls flat too, as Giordano leaves it there without bringing it back to earth with some seriously critical questioning.

Nude Goes Native

The world just got very slightly better:


Jezebel have brought to my attention Christian Louboutin’s new range of nude shoes, which come in five different shades of ‘nude’ rather than the traditional ‘white-person nude’ shade that has dominated fashion… forever. Hurrah. This is the latest in an emerging trend of more inclusive fashion – foundation now comes in more than one non-white shade (though the split is still woefully unequal) and I swear the women’s magazines here in the UK (and their advertisers) have begun to use more non-white models. As in, more than one per issue.

My ‘hurrah’ didn’t quite get an exclamation mark because I am reluctant to whole-heartedly endorse shoes that cost £390.

Or shoes that don’t actually have diversity as their rationale, but instead are intended to elongate the wearer’s stumpy and inadequate legs by blending invisibly into them, according to the Daily Mail (I may have paraphrased).

The shades also have names like ‘Fair Blush’ and ‘Rich Chestnut’, which may not be surprising but continues to be offensive. These saccharine euphemisms always raise the question of why black people have to be ‘chocolate’ etc., either by their own definition or someone else’s, in order to embrace blackness as a good thing. Are we really still having to justify that black can be beautiful?

Finally, when I searched for ‘nude’ on Christian Louboutin’s website, I had to scroll through like, a million ‘white-person nude’ shoes before I found the three lonely brown ones.

Might have to replace that ‘hurrah’ with a small, wry smile.

… Or not so revolutionary?


There has been a lot of discussion about Rick Owen’s step-dancing runway show at Paris Fashion Week, and I particularly like Threadbared‘s take on it, even though they disagree with my last post (which was essentially a long-winded ‘Hurrah!’).

Threadbared were not so impressed with Owen’s show for a number of reasons, and expanded their argument to include the Diversity Coalition (founded by black models Naomi Campbell, Bethann Hardison and Chanel Iman) and their open letter to the fashion industry. Their piece is well worth reading in full, but here are some of the main points they raised:

  • Headline-grabbing shows like Owens’ still present black people as a spectacle
  • The ‘fierce’ and ‘curvy’ step dance team ain’t breaking any stereotypes
  • All the credit for the show goes to the white designer, not the dancers
  • The power relations and hierarchies of race therefore remain unchanged
  • Within these structures, race is still categorised in ridiculous ways, so that the Diversity Coalition fail to consider Asian models as black, although they aren’t white either. Threadbared call out the idea of Asian models as ‘honorary whites’ when they get pretty much the same number of castings as black models.

This is all true. Particularly the power structure in which a white designer gets credit for his ‘diversity’ when he uses black people as an exotic spectacle. But I’m not sure that takes all value away from Owens’ show. It might not be real diversity, but it does get people talking about it, and where that should eventually end up is with runways sprinkled evenly with models of various colours, and we can go back to talking about their weight (!).

What I really wonder is whether there is an alternative way of achieving this than shock tactics. OK, legislation would be a good start, but for that we need lots of people making noise about it… Which they have started doing.

Threadbared are absolutely right. It’s not good enough. Yet.

Black as the new black? Revolutionary!

Now this is more like it! At Paris Fashion Week designer Rick Owens actually did something interesting, and replaced the usual skinny white models on his runway with a team of step dancers.


Callie Beusman at Jezebel asks whether this is really a subversion of fashion’s norms, or is just another attempt at garnering publicity with shock tactics. But the fact that casting a whole fashion show with normal-sized black women is actually shocking in itself makes the point about diversity in fashion. It shouldn’t be shocking at all.

I’m all for this – who cares if it’s about publicity? It’s exactly the kind of publicity that is needed to get the question of race and beauty into the spotlight. And the clothes look so much cooler. I could almost be interested in fashion if it carries on this way.

The Art of Light(en)ing


In yesterday’s Guardian blog Bim Adewunmi asks, “So what if Beyoncé’s skin colour is looking lighter?”, a question which I think has many more answers than she cares to give.

In response to the furore surrounding Beyoncé’s new album cover, Adewunmi makes the perfectly valid point that, of course, black people’s skin colour “changes with the seasons” and so is sometimes simply lighter. Adewunmi puts the fact that Beyoncé is far whiter in this picture than could possibly be accounted for by a lack of sun, down to lighting and retouching, and then considers her case closed. But look at the picture: what Adewunmi has failed to observe is that in post-production the singer has been deliberately turned into a white woman. She is blonde. With pale skin and a heavily made-up face that bears no resemblance at all to any other images of Beyoncé.

The implication is that Beyoncé’s image was not acceptable in its original form, requiring a complete overhaul from black woman to white.

In countries all over the world there are centuries-old prejudices in favour of pale skin, usually signifying higher class and moral purity – the UK, US, India and China are a few examples. However, that cannot be the case for Beyoncé, considering the composition of the image: she is near-naked and draped over leopard skins. Moral purity is evidently not a concern.

My research addresses what happens when human flesh is turned into art. Here we have one example: what happens is that the model’s flesh is no longer their own, modified beyond recognition into a clearly established Western ideal of beauty (in this case very much conflated with sexiness). The philosophies of Plato and St Augustine argue that the more flesh is reified into an abstract ideal of beauty, the more moral that beauty is. The further we get from the actual, tempting flesh, the purer the image becomes. But oddly, in the case of Beyoncé, her post-production team have reified her image into an ideal in an effort to make her more tempting, discarding every hope of moral integrity in the process.

Is it simply racism? A rather archaic devotion to the Marilyn Monroe ideal of beauty? A direct consequence of the continuation of such attitudes is the popularity of products like skin lightening creams. What is most pertinent and worrying is that the image will certainly be aspirational for many.