Her beautiful golden hair was gone. Pa had shaved it close because of the fever, and her poor shorn head looked like a boy’s. Her blue eyes were still beautiful, but they did not know what was before them, and Mary herself could never look through them again to tell Laura what she was thinking without saying a word. – Laura Ingalls Wilder “By the Shores of Silver Lake”
This image of a shorn Mary Ingalls stayed with me for years. In a lot of Victorian-era novels, you read of girls with a fever having their hair cut, as their hair was ‘draining their strength’. Anna Karenina has her hair cut while she has a fever, and it marks the change in her fortunes from respectable woman to ‘hysterical’ mad woman. There is the dramatic hair cutting scene in Jane Eyre, with poor Julia made to cut off her natural curls. The various types of symbology relating hair is a goldmine for a writer.
Because long hair was the fashion for the 19th century, the cutting of a woman’s hair was a big deal. It was shocking to see a woman with short hair, as glorious long hair symbolised a woman’s youthfulness, femininity, and health. It would only be cut off for illness, including ‘brain fever’ or madness, or as a terrible punishment, because it was physically destroying her beauty and femininity. It could have a greater impact as seeing a woman today with her head shaved bald. This was why Anne Shirley, from Anne of Green Gables, was kept at home after she cut her hair after the dreadful dye experiment. This was why Jo from Little Women was making such a great sacrifice when she cut her hair to make money for her mother’s trip to see Jo’s father. Both Anne and Jo regretted the loss of their hair, their ‘one beauty’.
As she spoke, Jo took off her bonnet, and a general outcry arose, for all her abundant hair was cut short.
Your hair! Your beautiful hair! Oh, Jo, how could you? Your one beauty. My dear girl, there was no need of this. She doesn’t look like my Jo any more, but I love her dearly for it!
As everyone exclaimed, and Beth hugged the cropped head tenderly, Jo assumed an indifferent air, which did not deceive anyone a particle, and said, rumpling up the brown bush and trying to look as if she liked it, “It doesn’t affect the fate of the nation, so don’t wail, Beth. It will be good for my vanity, I getting too proud of my wig. It will do my brains good to have that mop taken off. My head feels deliciously light and cool, and the barber said I could soon have a curly crop, which will be boyish, becoming, and easy to keep in order. I’m satisfied, so please take the money and let’s have supper.”
“Tell me all about it, Jo. I am not quite satisfied, but I can’t blame you, for I know how willingly you sacrificed your vanity, as you call it, to your love. But, my dear, it was not necessary, and I’m afraid you will regret it one of these days,” said Mrs. March. – Louisa May Alcott
With hair seen as a woman’s ‘crowning glory, it isn’t hard to imagine that hair was something of a Victorian obsession. I’ve mentioned hair jewellery before, but it is worth mentioning again. Hair was often used to create keepsakes, particularly of the deceased. Locks of hair were given out for friends and family to treasure, often at the request of the dearly departed. Or the living would give up a precious lock to create a love token.
Hair was a large part of a woman’s public persona, which was another reason why cutting it short was so shocking. When women started bobbing their hair in the 1920s, it was a public signal of their freedom from the restrictions society had placed them in. When Victorian women criminals entered prison, their hair was shorn, it was claimed for reasons of ‘cleanliness’, but it was also the quickest way of shearing away a woman’s confidence, making her docile and compliant to the prison’s discipline. Women fraternizing with the enemy had their head shorn as punishment, ruining their allure and making their shame public. Shorn hair was a very public way of highlighting a statement (or showing you were a bit over enthusiastic with the curling iron and have burnt off all your hair).
In my own Steampunk narrative, my main character has unfashionable red hair … and a calm and rational temperament. Alice is a deliberate break from the stereotype of the short-fused Scottish redhead, but her hair is long and glossy. I am toying with the idea of her deliberately cutting her own hair as part of a disguise. It will need to be a much more emotional scene than if a girl was to cut her hair today. But I can use the cutting of her hair as a symbol of cutting away her restrictions within a Patriarchal society.
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