“When you’ve done an arts degree, you’re lucky to be exposed to so much cultural, social and art history. And people have always been interested in telling stories – or making a statement – through their hair,” says Rachael Gibson, the woman behind the visually enticing @thehairhistorian. From the bizarre horn-like cornettes that were all the rage in the 1400s to 60s bouffants captured by famed street photographer Joel Meyerowitz, it’s clear that she’s right. Why else would women adorn themselves with a garden’s worth of flowers and intricately place red bows in their locks if not to garner some sort of attention?
Over the past year, Gibson has scoured artistic archives – both IRL and online – to find the most alluring portraits of hair throughout history. A glimpse over her findings reveals that the hair on our heads has been the focus of art throughout the ages, with women painted side-on to show off their elaborate ’dos or depicted with fiery red strands over one eye as if to display their promiscuous side.
“I go to exhibitions most weeks and I follow loads of art galleries and historical resources online,” she explains. “Most galleries have really awesome online archives so I spend a lot of time digging around on there. I have a secret Pinterest board where I store the hundreds of things I’ve got saved for future posts.”
Gibson’s day-to-day life also involves experimenting with tresses. “I did a fashion degree, then an MA in Fashion Journalism but when I graduated, I fell into beauty. From there, I developed a weird ‘who knew this was a thing’ career in hair journalism. I started working for those little magazines that you get in a salon, then for the bible for hairstylists, Hairdressers Journal.”
As well as an appreciation for old-school creative minds such as Man Ray and Pablo Picasso, @thehairhistorian has worked alongside some of today’s greats – “I developed two courses for online education platform, Mastered, with hairstylists Sam McKnight and Guido Palau” – and continues to mentor hair students.
With her account demonstrating how the vision of women has changed over the centuries, it’s not a shock to hear that Gibson has “always been obsessed with fashion history. I love how closely it lies with cultural and social history and how you can discover so much about past eras just through what people were wearing and doing with their hair and make-up.”
Pre-Raphaelite artworks remain her treasured finds “because I see myself in them – mad, big, long red hair. That said, my favourites tend to be the really odd ones like the cornette hairstyle in the Arnolfini portrait, this Picasso high ponytail and a good Apollo knot. They all feel like looks that could work today. Even the cornettes had a mini appearance at Moschino last month!
“The main thing this project has confirmed for me is that hair has always been something people have played and experimented with. It’s always been the case that people have tried to change what they were born with, whether it’s through altering colour, length, texture or shape.”