Anon, the Italian artist, Lorenzo Vatalaro Antiques, Milan, IT
Haircuts are, of course, subject to changes in fashion just like all other aspects of our appearance. Hairstyles come and go, and sometimes come back, and back again. Fashionarchaeology has been reflecting on one particular haircut for a while now, the male “bob” (or rather: same length hair worn long to the neck and cut straight across). This style has a cyclical reoccurrence in the history of western men’s hairdressing and today’s post will investigate when and why men chose this style over the ages.
If anyone has ever worn a bob they will know it is not the easiest of hairstyles to cope with. It’s ‘high maintenance’ and requires constant care and upkeep. This is the first clue to understanding just why men in Europe in the middle ages began to adopt this style in the early 13th Century
French, illuminated manuscript, 1250c, Bibliotheque National, Paris, Fr
In the rapidly evolving society of medieval Europe wealth and prestige was flaunted through appearance and the use of luxury objects. Quality clothing, textiles, jewellery all needed suitably groomed hair to go with it. Kings and their male courtiers began to wear their hair in a bob. In the above image the young man (his clothing tells us he ‘belongs’ to a court) wears his hair not only cut straight across below his ears, but obviously curled up or “set” as old-fashioned hairdressers would still say today. Hot metal tongs were used for this purpose – also just like today. This “setting” of the hair is what distinguished aristocrats from commoners
Benedetto Antelami, the months (September), 1210-15c, the baptistery of Parma, Italy
In the rural scene above we see two men working in a vineyard. The smaller figure has the fashionable haircut but it has not been “set” in the style of a gentleman. The larger figure also wears a bob, but since he is doing physical work he needs to keep his hair out of his face and hence the linen cap. These caps will be worn all over Europe by those men who could not afford to spend their day at the hands of a hairdresser but had to work for a living.
Fast-forward to the next great bob craze: the early 1500s
By the year 1500 the bob was back. Long to mid neck and with just one difference between north and south Europe: In Italy it was worn all the same length whereas in France, Germany, Austria etc. it was worn with a much more practical, short, squared-off fringe. Italians were at the height of their Renaissance and extremely conscious of their self-generated culture as well as their appearance. The explosion of the art of portraiture reveals a very self-engrossed Italian male who took the greatest care over his looks
Raffaello, Pietro Bembo, 1520, M.F.A. Budapest, Hungary
The intellectual (image above), the artist (see below) and all who shared contemporary fashion codes adopted this hairstyle
Raffaello, self-portrait with a friend, 1518-19, Louvre, Paris, FR
The next time the bob becomes seriously fashionable again is exactly 300 years later. By the 1820s romantic young men chose the fringeless bob to represent their wildly sentimental characters. Significantly – in this time of historical revival – the new hairstyle was called “a la Raffaello”. A reference for the initiated in the marvels of Italy, the Grand Tour, the Old Masters and the sheer intoxicating romance of it all
Auguste de Chatillon, Theophile Gautier, 1820s
In Paris, London, Milan – it was a shared fashion for Romantics across Europe. It lasted a couple of decades but some artists, such as the composer Liszt, stuck to it for the rest of their life so significant had it become to them.
H.Lehmann, Franz Liszt, 1839, Carnevalet Museum, Paris, Fr
In London the young Charles Dickens cut a fine figure (also wearing total black like Liszt) in a wavey bob
D. Maclise, Charles Dickens, 1839, N.P.G. London, Uk
By 1850 a new sobriety was setting in and the wild bob gives way to increasingly layered and short hairstyles. Some artists however maintained at least something of that extravagance of the earlier generation, even if it was only with a wisp of a fringe or a wild curl not conforming to domestication
Giovanni Fattori, self-portrait, Pitti Gallery, Florence, It
Today it takes a seriously stylish and confident man to wear what is ( for the time being) seen as a totally eccentric hairstyle.