Spotlight: Julia Morrow On ‘Hairstyle as Text’ and Her Very Hairy Thesis On American Culture and Identity

Things are getting hairy! In this week’s Spotlight we turn our attention to the research and history of America’s female hairstyles through the early and mid twentieth century. A braid? A bob? A messy bun? What does it all mean? Salted’s Alejandra Perez connected with Penn State American Studies graduate student Julia Morrow to chat about her “American Hair” and a very interesting master’s thesis on the very hairy business of American culture and identity.



Your Master’s thesis has to do with the history of female hairstyles. Why did you choose that as your focus and what’s your research process like?

My current research agenda focuses on the hairstyles of white American females in the early to mid twentieth century. I call my research method “hairstyle as text.” Hair has long been used by humans as a personally constructed indicator of an individual’s social identity. Hairstyle is a powerful symbol of individual and group identity due to its nature being both private and public. Hairstyle becomes the means of controlling the symbolic meaning conveyed by the hair; it provokes social reaction and informs social conduct.

Essentially, I watch a lot of old movies, read books, study photographs and read the featured hairstyles as a text to get a greater understanding of American culture and female identity at specific points in twentieth century history.

What inspired you to learn more about the the context of hairstyles? And more specifically of white American females in the early to mid twentieth century?

I’ve been a history nerd from a very young age, and one thing I have always loved about historical photographs and film was the awesome hairstyles. Coincidentally, I was also a theater nerd and, as a result, I learned how to recreate my favorite vintage styles for costume purposes. When I began my graduate program in American Studies, I realized that the academic discipline allows for students to study unconventional texts, so why not make hair a text?

The relationship between hairstyle, identity, and culture of African Americans has long been the subject of academic study. However, very little scholarly writing looks at the relationship between hairstyle, identity, and culture of white American women.

Why do you think that is?

There are two answers to this question, and they both have to do with the culture of academics. There has been a trend in modern academia that encourages academics to be a specialist, which has created a slight negative connotation around studying a broad topic. In addition, there is nothing exceptional about white American women; most academics study cultures that deviate from the norm, and white American women are the “norm” in twentieth century America.

Though they’re considered the “norm,” has there been a hairstyle worn by white American women that was deemed scandalous for its time?

I can think of quite a few hairstyles that caused some big splashes, but I’m currently writing a paper about The Bob so I’m going to go with The Bob. All throughout the 1800s and into the 1910s long hair was the ideal. Women even purchased hair pads and hair extensions to provide the bulk needed to create the popular hairstyles. So-called ‘Bohemian’ artists bobbed their hair in the 1910s. However, once the short, light, and simple style caught on amongst dancer starlets in the 1920s it soon dominated the youth culture much to the dismay of their Victorian-era parents.

How has the perception of hair changed from the early twentieth century to now?

Some things have remained the same – hairstyle is still extremely important to our cultural identity and Hollywood remains a major source of inspiration for the masses. In the early twentieth century, hair was constantly styled or covered with a hat or other headwear to appear styled. The beauty salon was a weekly appointment for a permanent wave and hair was put up in curlers to set overnight. Women today feel absolutely no shame (nor should they) in running errands with their hair swept up into a messy bun or basic pony-tail. In everyday culture hair seems to belong more to the individual than the community; in most cases you are doing your hair the way you like it, not to fit in or because you feel that society dictates it must be styled in a specific way.

True! I have no shame walking around with a messy bun. So, from the early to mid-twentieth century, which are your top 3 favorite hairstyles?

1. 1920s bob
2. 1940s victory rolls
3. 1960s bouffant

What current hair trend stands out to you and what do you think it says about the women who wear it?

I really love the braiding trend from the last few years that started with the resurgence of the four strand ‘fishtail’ braid which was actually quite popular in Ancient Greece. Braiding is so creative and it really shows individualism. I love looking on tumblr or Pinterest at the crazy-awesome braided styles people think up!

A celebrity whose hairstyles you admire is…

There is no way I can only choose one so I’m going to rattle off a few defined by era. For old Hollywood I would have to say Grace Kelly and Ginger Rogers, in the 1960s, Barbra Streisand, Cyndi Lauper for the 80′s, and my current celebrity hair crush is Aubrey Plaza.

Natural or dyed?

Personally, I go back and forth. Once or twice a year I will get bored and go buy a boxed dye kit, but mainly I keep my natural hair color. I love being able to non-permanently change the way I look. Like length, the question of to dye or not to dye is a personal choice. Historically hair dye was quite popular in the late 1800s and throughout the twentieth century, with the exception of peroxide blonde, dyed hair attempted to look natural. What I love about modern style is that women and men have the pastel purple/grey hair that is so popular right now and it’s no big deal.


Julia Morrow graduated from Fairfield University in 2013 with a Bachelors degree in History, and is currently in the final year of the American Studies Master’s Program at Pennsylvania State University Harrisburg. Julia is an avid reader and watcher of television who drinks too much coffee and posts pictures of classic American Hairstyles on her tumblr “American Hair.”



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