The history of hairdressing

Gilly Pickup 4 April 2022

We’ve all heard of John Frieda, Vidal Sassoon and Nicky Clarke, but Monsieur Champagne doesn’t ring many bells, although he was the world’s first hairdresser

Swing back to the days of the Ancient Egyptians and you might be surprised to find they were busy styling and accessorising their hair, even using henna to cover unwanted greys. They moisturised their locks too, using almond and castor oil, favouring Frankincense to strengthen strands.

Later down the line, Ancient Roman women turned to plant extracts to colour hair—though not always successfully, as combinations of lead oxide and calcium hydroxide caused illness. It must have been a relief when someone came up with a non-toxic idea to dye hair black; a rather ghastly potion made from leeches left to rot in wine. Ancient Romans loved intricate hairstyles—the more elaborate the better. It was a definite no-no to sport a simple style; that suggested you were too poor or uncultured to create a look-at-me fancy coiffure.

Fast forward to the late 1700s, and it was all about huge hairstyles—some lavishly adorned with jewels and stuffed animals. Lard was the go-to preparation to hold styles in place. Pretty innocuous you may think, except the smell sometimes attracted rats, so women resorted to sleeping with a nightcap on, or, even—a tad extreme perhaps—putting cages over their heads to keep the creatures at bay.

Things improved as time went on and in 1863, when scientist William Henry Perkins was working on a cure for Malaria, he accidentally created the first permanent hair dye. Unfortunately, it was an unattractive purply mauve colour. However, chemistry professor August Wilhelm von Hofmann came to the rescue and managed to turn the purply dye into PPD, a colour-changing molecule, still the basis for many hair dye formulas today.

"Later down the line, Ancient Roman women turned to plant extracts to colour hair—though not always successfully, as combinations of lead oxide and calcium hydroxide caused illness"

In the 1870s, French hairdresser Marcel Grateau had the bright idea of how to create the perfect wave. At that time, it was the done thing for women to wear their hair long, and Marcel used a type of heated curling iron to get the wave effect, a fashionable alternative to the curls which had previously adorned trendy heads. Marcel’s invention became known as the Marcel Wave and remained popular for years.

Another French stylist, Alexander Godefroy, invented the first hairdryer in 1890. He called it a “hair dressing device” and it was a strange looking contraption—essentially a bonnet attached to a giant hose, connected to a heat source. It wasn’t an appliance for home use, only for use in salons.

Nowadays, we take hairdryers for granted, but until portable dryers came into our lives, women sometimes resorted to attaching a hose to the back of their vacuum cleaner to dry their tresses.

When handheld dryers came into being, they were heavy and had poor air flow, so it took a long for women to dry their hair. Another problem with early handheld hair drying devices was truly serious, they had a tendency to electrocute the unfortunate user.

The 1930s saw women opt for longer bobs, hair partings either middle or swept to one side. Femininity was key. It was also ultra-important that the hairstyle would be able to accommodate the latest hat style.

During the Second World War, women wore practical, shorter hair styles, partly because those working in war industries had to keep their hair off their faces and above the shoulder for safety. The Victory Roll hairstyle became popular then. Rolls swept hair away from the face at the top and sides of the head, sometimes resembling wings.

The Fifties and early Sixties were the time of the bouffant and beehive—these styles were about sheer drama. They were backcombed to the nth degree with an obscene amount of hairspray to hold it in place. Some women, particularly those with naturally curly hair, preferred the “poodle” or “bubble” cut—a short, tightly curled style.

"The Fifties and early Sixties were the time of the bouffant and beehive—these styles were about sheer drama"

Raymond Bessone better known as “Mr Teasy-Weasy” was a hairdressing icon of the day. The first “celebrity” hairdresser, he often appeared on television. He didn’t reach Vidal Sassoon’s giddy heights of fame though. More architect than hairdresser, Vidal’s sleek, sharp geometric and asymmetrical cuts popularised short hair, changing hairdressing completely. He brought out all that was best in a face, emphasising cheekbones and eyes and was loved by style icons of the day including Mary Quant.

Fast forward to the Nineties, there was the Blunt Cut (ideally needs pairing with lip gloss and frosty eyeshadow) messy bun, pixie cuts and perhaps tops was “The Rachel” from tv programme Friends—a highlighted and layered shoulder length style which flattered almost everyone, increasing its popularity.

The 2000s saw spiky curls, ponytails and chunky highlights while now, post covid, we’re seeing good hair days fall into many different categories - whimsical, natural, retro, updos, straight and wavy with hair colours that are—literally—every colour of the rainbow. 

Leonardo da Vinci said, “Hair is essential to a face as a frame is to a picture.” Do you know?  He is spot on.

Read more: The funny history of female clowns

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