Wednesday, July 22, 2015

That Australian life - bobbed haircuts

The absence of women Archibald Prize Winners  led to a discussion in comments on Milsom wins the 2015 Archibald prize between kvd and AC that, in turn, lead to this post by AC: Feministic Observations.

AC's post is interesting. It includes her experiences growing up in communist Poland: "I was brought up in communist Poland and one positive aspect of the political system was that it considered everybody equal. Women were riding tractors, worked as bricklayers and moved up in business hierarchies with the same speed as men did." This comment struck a cord and sent my mind wandering.

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 an Australian 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? If he was, much could be forgiven. If not, there was much to forgive.

I may seem to have drifted away from AC's opening point. I have not. Gender roles are set in the social construct holding at the time. 

AC refers to communist Poland, but she also links this in with Virginia Wolf, Strachey, Carrington and the Bloomsbury set. The photo of Dora Carringtom posing comes from the Daily Mail.The link is worth visiting because of the archival photos. Note the bobbed hair, by the way.

I first started reading about the Bloomsbury set in a simpler past life. I found the complexities of their relationships and the relationship between them and the external world a little baffling. How did one make life so complicated?

I am a little more sympathetic now because of the evolved complexities in my own life. Still, I think of them very much as a period piece, as I suppose I am too, set within the context of their time.

I have actually written a fair bit on the texture of family, relationships and society, the actual detail of domestic life over time. It interests me as I seek to understand the changing patterns of human and especially Australian life. Perhaps time I shared more of that here.  


Anonymous said...

Short hair, less lice.

Also, fascination with the Bloomsbury set was/is a fascination with the 'other'. Not sure it means much more in the scheme of things. But I agree with DG that lice are remarkably important.

AC could read Neil Whitfield's (excellent) latest post about Ruqaiya Hasan for another view upon the achievements of women, despite...


Jim Belshaw said...

I'm sure that you are right on the other, kvd. Bloomsbury is an interesting case study for with so much written about what was, after all, a small group you get to see them as people. It's something I have noticed in my own writing on New England where there are certain groups and especially the pastoralists where the connections and interconnections are such that you can see the personal dynamics through multiple books.

I did read Neil's post. On lice, I haven't actually seen that referred to as a cause of shorter women's hair.

2 tanners said...

I've been meaning to write this piece forever and now I will, at least in brief. The girls and women here, almost without exception, wear their hair in a tight bun (sometimes two buns), often sticking up vertically. Rural and older women will wear it a little further back to assist carrying things on their heads. The bun conceals magnificent long hair. Forgive the cliche, but it truly is a crowning glory. And forgive the lack of pictures, but I am the world's worst photographer.

Younger women often flirt by undoing the hair, letting it fall, shaking it out and then immediately doing it up again. I'd guess that it most often reaches the small of the back. It's not trimmed. The longest hair I have seen was on a university student, whose hair fell to mid-calf.

The bun is practical. It allows work to be done, motor cycles to be ridden and exposes a minimum surface to the ever-present dust. Some women wear their hair cut short (to the collar bone), layered and dyed. These are almost always richer, high-status women or their children.

I don't even know if lice are a problem here, although there is a word for it in my dictionary.

I do know that the long hair, usually curly but sometimes straight, is devastatingly attractive. And I have thought so since my own youth.

Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting description, 2t. Pity about your camera abilities! I used to like long hair, too. Love the flirting bit.