A brief history of the hair accessory
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A brief history of the hair accessory

Jun 01, 2023

Welcome to Beauty School, the corner of Dazed Beauty dedicated to learning. From guides to histories, this is where we shed light on past subcultural movements and educate our readers on current trends and various goings-on.

We've officially reached peak hair accessory. Scrolling through photos of street style stars during last month’s fashion month marathon, it’s nearly impossible to not see women everywhere decking their hair out in marbled barattes, pearl embellished clips or chunky, padded headbands from Prada’s spring 2019 collection or glittering crystalized versions from the label’s sister, Miu Miu. It’s become a similar situation on Instagram, where chic hair clips have replaced pretty vanity items like gilded tubes of lipstick or dainty earrings in flat lay photos.

Earlier this month, hairstylist Sam McKnight topped off every single model at Chanel’s fall 2019 show in Paris with some form of hair accessory – be it a bow, camellias flower, logo clip or chunky brooch, solidifying the trend for the unforeseeable future. McKnight attributed his inspiration to the late great Karl Lagerfeld, saying: “It was a celebration of Karl today at Chanel, in his last collection. I gave him all the things he loved: camellias, bows, brooches in the hair.” Simone Rocha followed suit, with pearl encrusted hair bands and beaded tiaras. Ashley Williams added to her library of slogan diamonte hair clips, with polemical words like "emo" "Europe" "ocean" and "problem"- that reflect the current political and social mood. And Jawara covered models' entire hair with strands of crystals at Area.

On the runway and in real life, it’s as if hair accessories have momentarily replaced jewellery. Today’s headbands, bows and clips are statement-making. And it’s no wonder why – hair accessories themselves have had an extremely interesting and even political undertone to their history. In fact, one of the earliest examples of a hair accessory of sorts can be seen on the Venus of Willendorf, the infamous female figurine, thought to be a symbol of femininity and fertility in its most raw form, which is estimated to be made during 30,000 BCE. Scholars, such as Dr. Bryan Zygmont, have suggested that the markings on the figures head are either beaded accessories or pins, proving just how far back hair accessories go.

Despite the more maximalist hair accessories of choice right now, the humble, simple metal pin is perhaps the hair accessory with the most interesting history. “Both the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City include variations on the hair pin in their collections, dating as far back as circa 1295–1070 B.C. from Egypt,” explains fashion historian Jaclyn Marcus, who is pursuing her PHD at Ryerson University in fashion studies. “According to M.E. Pilou Miller in the essay “The Bobby Pin Revealed” published through New York University, the U-shaped hair pin began to be mass-produced in the nineteenth century in the United States. Miller also explains that the hairpin is considered one of the most ancient of human accessories, and could be made of bone, wood, or precious metals.”

The bobby pin, of course, has had its own starring role in shaping hair, whether into structural finger waves in the 1940s, or used to hold back long strands during Victorian times when the style was to keep all loose ends up and tucked in. It was actually considered “immodest” or “sinful” to not have hair pinned up. Photos of women with their long hair worn down without any pins were even considered erotic!

It’s interesting to note that the humble hair pin is also having a major resurgence but in a very different form. Just look at Ashley Williams’ work. The London based designer has become extremely well-known for her slogan hair pins, made out of hyper sparkly crystals. With words like “sex” “anxiety” “fragile” “baby” “pagan” and “misery” among others, wearing one (or a bunch at once, which is how she styles them on the runway) is one of the most beautifully juxtaposed beauty statements you can make. The clips themselves are intrinsically feminine and pretty, but the words add that undertone of irony that transforms them and brings them into the modern era of powerfully expressive hair accessories.

The scrunchie, a rather polarizing accessory, is having somewhat of a comeback too. Balenciaga, in fact, released scrunchies for its resort 2018 collection and put a spin on them by rendering them in chic lambskin and selling them at $200 a pop. Contemporary brands ranging from Urban Outfitters to American Apparel and the more upscale cool brand Nanushka now show more scrunchies than any other thin hair bands in their brand messaging and campaigns.

"Hair accessories are taking on the role of being a proactive focus of beauty and fashion rather than taking a backseat"

In terms of history, the headband, too, has a vast legacy. It’s an accessory that’s been worn by all genders and a powerful signifier of class throughout the ages. If you think the trendy padded Prada headbands look a little bit like crowns, what with their metal studded embellishments and sequins, you’re not entirely wrong.

“Over the years the limited jewellery forms of prehistoric times multiplied until they included ornaments for every part of the body. For the head, there were crowns, diadems, tiaras, hairpins and combs,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Headbands back then were basically armour for facing the world, just like metal breastplates and heavy belts were just as decorative as they were protective, physically and spiritually, which is interesting to consider in conjunction with today’s news headlines and how our expression of beauty can be based on this. Both women and men in the Mesopotamia later took a liking to headbands to hold back hair, and during the 1920’s flappers proudly wore headbands around their newly cropped hair cuts as a statement of rebellion.

The biggest historical moment of all might be right now however when hair accessories are taking on the role of being a proactive focus of beauty and fashion rather than taking a backseat. “As we know, today the hair pin’s ornamental nature has shifted towards being made predominantly of metal, and is plain in its appearance,” explains Marcus. “In my research, I found that the hair pin’s representation across the twentieth century remain limited to mentions of patents, redesigns, or manufacturing processes, but were scarce when considered as a fashion accessory or as a part of fashion editorials. In this way, the hair pin is representative of the manner in which the labour surrounding appearances is too-often disregarded, or made invisible.”

Clearly, we’ve come a long way for the spotlight to shine on an accessory that was once so humble and functional. In the past, hair accessories may have communicated class, femininity and even restraint. But today, they’re one of the most expressive ways to experiment with our hair without any lasting impacts, like a cut or colour change might imply. It’s easily accessible - you can buy the Prada headband or pick up a similar option for a fraction of the price on Etsy. You can try the Chanel clips off the runway or you can wear a plastic clip from your childhood. It sends the same message, really. And that’s the beauty of it.