The search for the perfect hairdo may have profound meaning
Hair today, gone tomorrow
The search for the perfect hairdo may have profound meaning
Any woman who has ever been reduced to tears by a bad perm, take heart. Anthropologist Grant McCracken can justify that anguish, and his new book, Big Hair: A Journey into the Transformation of Self would support a lawsuit against the offending stylist. For McCracken, hair matters. A curator in the department of ethnology at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, he believes that pop culture sums up society’s values— and that hair is a crucial element in how women define themselves. Take blonds, for example. In Big Hair (Viking, $25), McCracken maintains that there are six basic types: the bombshell blond (Marilyn Monroe, “the mother of all blonds”), the dangerous blond (Sharon Stone), the sunny blond (Doris Day), the brassy blond (Cybill Shepherd), the society blond (Ivana Trump) and the cool blond (Grace Kelly).
And then there are blond anomalies such as Madonna, who troubles McCracken: for him, pop’s “material girl” sets a poor example as a throwback to the bad-girl sexuality of Mae West.
The state of blond is important in McCracken’s universe, where hair acts as an indicator of what the future may hold. He carefully documents supermodel Linda Evangelista’s nine-month flirtation with blondness, how she “pulled the meanings out of it that were useful and jettisoned the rest.” McCracken writes that for St.
Catharines, Ont.-born Evangelista,
“blondness becomes a resource, an opportunity for self-exploration.” In conversation, McCracken is willing to go one step further and declare ^ that the model’s ability to stay at the 2 top of her profession while exploring o blond, brunette and redhead styles | in recent years proves that “Evangejü lista is the future of hair. Evangelista says, ‘I change all the time, that’s why I am interesting.’ ”
The much-photographed Evangelista and other celebrities, McCracken contends, “are like test pilots, they are testing personalities and possibilities that we all come to adopt.” The stars provide a social road map that others can follow, and McCracken sees North American society crying out for this sort of guidance during a period of constant social upheaval. That leads to the big—and highly debatable-message at the conclusion of the book: that hair “may be our best chance to prepare for the cataclysmic changes that await us.” Hair, says McCracken, also marks the cycles of life. Among teenagers’ biggest decisions is a hairstyle, and McCracken writes that a young woman may wear her hair up for the first time at high-school graduation, marking her move into adulthood. But at the end of the prom, teenage girls may also let their hair down—“Long, wild hair stands for their new sexual licence and other adult freedoms.” Later on in life, a woman will show her acceptance of middle age by opting for a mature bob; McCracken writes that the women he interviewed in their 40s and 50s were cutting their hair so as not to appear “frivo-
lous, or vain, or aging badly.” He notes that some beauty salons will even celebrate this event with a party, “a kind of a wake, a sad farewell to youth.”
Big Hair is also about big business. McCracken estimates that North Americans spend $22.4 billion a year on their hair. And he insists that more than a few of the women he interviewed are closer to their stylists than to their husbands or children. Meanwhile, some women have made a career out of great hair. In the late 1970s, thanks in large part to her luxurious mane, Farrah Fawcett won fame as one of three crime-fighting babes in TV’s Charlie’s Angels. Fawcett defined a style that has continued right up to Murphy Brown, a coif that “combines sex, sweetness and authority.” Adds McCracken: “Fawcett created a look that captured the fitness, exuberance and energy of California.” That look sold three million posters and countless cans of hairspray.
McCracken occasionally attempts to widen his thesis to the rest of the world. The author writes that women in China are adding a dash of blond to their hair because they want to look like the lighter-haired females of the Philippines, whom they perceive as having more personality and spark. But McCracken’s work is defined by North American pop culture. § Among the many Hollywood films I that he cites is Working Girl (1988), in which the lowly secretary played by Melanie Griffith decides to blunt-cut her voluminous tresses because, in the character’s words: “If you want to be taken seriously, you need serious hair.”
By illustrating his study with
such populist examples, McCracken has created an eminently accessible book. Big Hair is big fun, lively and filled with amusing descriptions-a woman growing out her short style has "hair that is under construction, sorry for any inconvenience." The author says that he expects to get trashed by university reviewers for that light touch. "Given the choice between the applause of academics and the applause of a general audience, it is definitely the latter that I'm
after,” he told Maclean’s. Big Hair is a rebellion against an academic establishment that McCracken sees as dismissive of pop culture.
There is a streak of defiance in McCracken’s past. A native of Vancouver, he confesses to “kicking around” at three universities before getting his BA in anthropology from Antioch University in Ohio. He also found himself in some rather odd jobs, including a stint as a chauffeur on a Vancouver-area film set for actress Julie Christie (who would later, coincidentally, star in the film Shampoo). McCracken went on to get his PhD at the University of Chicago. He says that he focused on Elizabethan culture because a thesis on anything more modern “wouldn’t fly. I had to work on something that was far away from pop culture to be taken seriously.” He wrote two serious academic books and taught anthropology at the University of Guelph in Ontario before joining the Royal Ontario Museum in 1990. Then, three years ago, he took an indefinite leave from the ROM, although he still volunteers time to the museum’s marketing campaigns and keeps an office there.
In the past few years, McCracken has concentrated on writing Big Hair and supplying his expertise to corporations in need of marketing strategies. He showed Eastman Kodak of Rochester, N.Y., how people felt about the pictures they snap, a study that led to new advertising campaigns stressing photos as a way to preserve family memories. He studied how pop drinkers would react to Coca-Cola’s réintroduction of the contoured bottle—the Atlanta-based company liked it, and the old Coke bottle made a comeback.
The preoccupation with hair does not spill over into McCracken’s personal look. At age 43 and clearly comfortable with his receding hairline, he jokes that “every day is a bad hair day.” McCracken had never actually heard of “big hair” until his sister used the phrase three years ago during a car ride in Vancouver, the event that inspired the book. “I started sitting down with hairdressers,” he says, “and I realized this was a wonderfully rich element of our culture that was almost untouched.” He went on to interview 100 women, including his wife, from whom he recently separated, and female friends.
Men were not a part of McCracken’s research. And they do not fare well in Big Hair. McCracken says that several male editors turned down his study before it was embraced by Penguin Books Canada Ltd. mar-
keting director Karen Cossar and editor Jackie Kaiser. In his book, McCracken claims that men “have declared hair a trivial matter and mocked women for caring about it. They have used hair as a way to control and belittle women. They can’t expect to be included
when hair is taken seriously.” The author points an accusing figure at male hair villains such as Orson Welles, who personally supervised the shearing and blond coloring of his wife, Rita Hayworth, a redhead. But the book also pays tribute to hair heroes, including Vidal Sassoon, who revolutionized hairstyling in the early 1960s with cuts that actually related to a woman’s head, a break from the 1950s hairsprayed bouffants that McCracken terms “a symbol of servitude.”
Just because McCracken has successfully documented the meaning of hair for women does not mean that he has figured everybody out. The bald dome of singer Sinéad O’Connor gives him pause, and he is stumped by leading feminist author Naomi Wolf, who has written about the tyranny of gender roles yet favors long voluptuous locks—what he calls “the single most sexual and stereotyped haircut in the stylistic envelope.” Adds McCracken: “Either Ms. Wolf is not paying attention to the cultural significance of her haircut, or she means to transform its significance.” This struggle with Wolfs message—she embraces the ideal of beauty while objecting to artificial standards—points to the book’s limits. While it is an entertaining chronicle of where hairstyles have been. Big Hair just doesn’t gel when it tries to fully define an evolving, complex society simply on the basis of bangs, curls, shape and color.
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