Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

History revisited – bobbed hair & the start of a revolution

When I first studied history at school, it was all about war, politics, kings and battles. There was very little about domestic life or, indeed, life in general. Now, fortunately, the historical canvas is painted in much broader terms.

Don’t get me wrong, I actually like war, politics, kings and battles and even economics! However, the details of life are not just interesting, but set a basic context that helps explain other things.

Take, as an example, the rise of the women’s bobbed hair cut.

Traditionally, women wore their hair long. “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair” really only makes sense if you know that women wore their hair long. The modern miss would have to say “I’m sorry, I can’t, but here’s a rope.” Practical, but not quite as romantic!

To my mind, bobbed hair is a symbol of the changes that have taken place in women’s life over the twentieth century. Shorter hair became necessary during the First World War when women started working in factories. It was practical. When, to the shock of the traditionalists, it became a fashion statement during the 1920s, it was again in part because it was practical.

The long and complex clothing worn by women in the last part of the 19th century may have been fashionable and attractive, but it could be an absolute pain. Quite literally, in fact. The high necked dresses with their multiple buttons stretching up to the back of the neck caught hair that had to be painfully and carefully untangled.

I had enough problems with my daughters getting knots out as I brushed their hair. I hate to think how I would have gone with a wife or partner with hair caught in her high-necked dress.

Today, we think of women’s liberation in political or gender relation terms. That’s true, but it’s also very misleading.

In the nineteenth century, being a wife and mother was hard and sometimes dangerous work.

It was hard because of the absence of any form of labour saving device. With the man of the house often absent for extended period, women had to undertake hard physical labour including sawing wood so that it could be chopped. Hard labour continued even when the man was home in washing, cooking and cleaning.

It was dangerous, too. It wasn’t just the dangers of childbirth at a time when so many women had very large numbers of children with limited medical knowledge or support. Open fires, fuel stoves, moving heavy pots or kerosene lamps all provided their own dangers and challenges. Severe burns were common.

Is it any wonder that women formed powerful support networks, that men were judged first and foremost by a single rule, is he a good provider? In my next column, I will look at some of the basic changes that have taken place in women’s life over the last century and a half.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 25 June 2014. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014.

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