Broiled Over Bobs: Society’s Reaction to the Shorn Woman of the 1920s


For cheeks scarlet and brow alabaster,
She laid on cosmetics like plaster,
And she hennaed her hair,
And bobbed it off square,
Till she looked like a frightful disaster.

–An Artistic Pupil, Mary Meade Jones, 1923

 

After World War I, women increasingly began to bob off their hair. For centuries, wives and daughters had retained long locks in the name of religion, morality, or mere public decency; but in the late Teens and Twenties of the Twentieth Century, “modern” women, concerned about social reform, stripped off the symbol of submission and servitude and donned the short haircut of a man. The style, characteristic of flappers, Hollywood vamps, and feminists, was completely controversial and met with a good deal of both pulpit and popular resistance before being widely adopted by women.

 

It is difficult to mark the moment when women began bobbing their hair in America. As early as 1908, Clara Tice and Frances Gifford, residents of Greenwich Village, a center of bohemianism and sexual freedom, cropped off their hair in imitation of Russian intellectuals (“Vogue of Bobbed Hair” 71). Certainly, Irene Castle, an American dancer, popularized the style when she cut her short, purportedly following an illness. Photographs of Mrs. Castle appeared in popular fashion magazines, and many American women adopted the “Castle Bob”, which inspired a song entitled “Everybody Copies Me.” (“Down with the Bob . . . ” 14). In Felix Grendon’s 1919 novel, Nixola of Wall Street, he writes: “Bobbed hair was permissible, especially since Irene Castle and other stage celebrities had given it a certain vogue. But cropped hair! It was ultra or mannish or inhuman-he didn’t know the exact adjective, but it was something bad” (61).

By 1920, bobbing had become a national trend. A June 1920 New York Times article predicted “More girls than ever are going to bob their hair this Summer.” A month earlier, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. The protagonist, Bernice, decides to cut off her hair in order to gain attention and popularity during a visit to her cousin’s home. Admitting she believes bobbed hair to be “unmoral”, Bernice proceeds to have the haircut with disastrous results:

. . . She flinched at the damage that had been wrought. Her hair was not curly, and now it lay in lank, lifeless blocks on both sides of suddenly pale face. It was ugly as sin-she had known it would be ugly as sin. Her face’s charm had been a Madonna-like simplicity. Now that was gone and she was-well, frightfully mediocre-not stagy; only ridiculous, like a Greenwich Villager who had left her spectacles at home. (Fitzgerald 176, 187)

In the end, she is completely dull and a social pariah. In his story, Fitzgerald aptly captures the unfortunate transformation of so many women who were lopping off their locks.

While many Christian denominations of the period still held to the Pauline teachings on the glory of women’s hair, society also viewed long hair on women as an important totem of social order and general seemliness. It was widely considered unprofessional for women to cut their hair. Miss Helen Criswell, a Long Island City school teacher wanted to bob her hair but intentionally waited until she resigned from Bryant High School to crop her hair in order to avoid controversy (“Vogue of Bobbed Hair” 71). In 1921, F.K. Daniels, president of Aetna Insurance Company, posited that bobbed hair females were “no business women.” Fellow businessman Jerome Apple said: “I would be prejudiced against employing any bobbed-hair young women in this office.” Two women in charge of employment at typewriter companies in Baltimore, Maryland also declared that women with bobs were “not thinking much about business” (“South Draws Hair Line” 8). Marshall Fields, Chicago’s largest department store, dismissed one Miss Helen Armstrong in August 1921 for refusing to wear a hairnet over her bobbed hair until it “grew out.” One sales girl who complied with the new policy said, “They told us bobbed hair was not dignified, and we are supposed to let it grow out” (“Bobbed Hair Barred . . . ” 9). Incidentally, within the week, the department store further disallowed excess powder, rouge, and rolled stockings on female employees (“Rouge, Low Stockings . . .” 2). In 1922, the Eastern Teachers’ Association spoke similarly: “We do not encourage the bobbed-hair applicant for a teacher’s position, nor the one who uses make-up or dresses conspicuously when she tries to register with us. School superintendents will not employ them” (“‘Giddy’ Teachers Taboo . . . ” 5).

Despite claims by feminists that long hair was “unsanitary,” the health profession scorned bobbed hair, and some even pronounced it unhealthy! As late as 1924, when the bob was nearly universal, nurses were not permitted to cut their hair, and an editorial in the American Journal of Nursing notes: “The most discussed question of today is, Shall the bobbed-hair young woman be admitted to the training schools?” (“Does Bobbed Hair Interfere . . . ” 836). Doctors and other medical professionals were convinced that shorn women would suffer health difficulties including backache and stiff-neck (“Down with the Bob . . . ” 14). Some physicians, taking an evolutionary view of haircutting, declared that women would eventually become prone to baldness. According to one theory, cutting the hair short decreased circulation of blood in the scalp, “starving” hair and inducing baldness (Fendick 37-38; 84).

One young woman, who grew her tresses, citing her husband’s prejudice, who was “hot against” the bobbing trend, revealed much about the masculine mimicry of haircutting when she remarked: “Our opponents never for a moment recognize the fact that they should burst with pride rather than scorn for we are really taking them as our models and slowly but surely their customs are becoming our own” (“Bobbed Heads Unbowed” 55). Ultimately, bobbed hair was an important and unfortunate watershed in the breakdown of biblical and moral gender distinction, paving the way for the adoption of masculine attire and deportment as well as the excessiveness of further “flappery” that crossed all boundaries of modesty and good taste.

Sources:

“Bobbed Hair Barred by Marshall Fields.” New York Times, 10 Aug 1921, pg. 9

“Bobbed Heads Unbowed.” New York Times, 4 Sept 1921, 55.

“Does Bobbed Hair Interfere with the Efficiency of the Student Nurse?” American Journal of Nursing 14 (10), July 1924, pg. 836.

“Down with the Bob, Out with the Ears.” New York Times, 27 Aug 1923, pg. 14.

Fendick, Madame. “Will Bobbed Hair Make Bald Women? Experts Say ‘Yes!'”. Physical Culture 52 (1), July 1924, pp. 37-38; 84.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.” Flappers and Philosophers. (New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons), 1920.

“‘Giddy’ Teachers Taboo: Boston Agency Bars Bobbed Hair, Rouge, and Short Skirts.” New York Times, 23 Feb 1922, pg. 5.

“Rouge, Low Stockings Banned for Girl Clerks.” New York Times, 13 Aug 1921, pg. 2.

“South Draws Hair Line: Find Bobbed Heads in Business not One Hundred Per Cent. Efficient.” New York Times, 9 Jul 1921, pg. 8.

“Vogue of Bobbed Hair, Of Course Greenwich Village Lassies Wear Short Locks, but Society’s Doing It Too.” New York Times, 27 Jun 1920, pg. 71.

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2 Responses to “Broiled Over Bobs: Society’s Reaction to the Shorn Woman of the 1920s”

  1. lanis Says:

    It is a fact that, a ‘spirit’ brings attack on God’s scantioned word. This ‘spirit’ chips away until it wears down peoples defenses; and that defense is holiness. Holiness is the persona/character of Jesus Chirst; our God. To loose holiness is to loose our power over the enemy and flesh. So many church entities have swapped roles, women cutting their hair, men wearing it long. How contrary to God’s word; He can no longer dwell within those compromises. Your article is well founded and I am fearful that; so many in Oneness/Apostolic churches will fall victem as we have already witnessed.

    Again, thank you so much for your hardwork/zeal for the truth!!
    May God bless your ministry.

  2. Janell Coskun Says:

    This is fascinating!!! Very informative, and a great resource. Thank you for posting this!

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