Tracing History’s Obsession with the Bob

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Cleopatra (1963)Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

From ancient Egypt to the Hollywood blow-dry, we chart our longtime preoccupation with a chin-grazing cut

There are hairstyles that have a fleeting moment in the spotlight – the perm; the mullet; the ombré colour phase. Then, there are those which reign supreme era after era and, once adopted, become a timeless trademark that can last a lifetime. The classic bob belongs in the latter camp. It’s taken on many different guises over the years, from the architectural style of Vidal Sassoon in the 1960s to the unwavering auburn crop favoured by Anna Wintour – and of course the haircut that launched a thousand replica styles, Victoria Beckham’s 2006 ‘Pob’. 

To this day, the decision to chop one’s hair to an earlobe-brushing length seems a bold alternative to a traditional mane of flowing locks. But whether due to the host of powerful women who have spearheaded the style, or the sheer feeling of liberation that comes with committing to it, the bob is steadfast in its appeal. Here, we chart some of the most coveted champions of the style from years gone by.

1. Cleopatra

Throughout history rulers have had their trademark appearance preserved in paintings, carvings and the pages of history books, and the fearsome Queen of the Nile is no exceptionCleopatra’s original raven-coloured block of braids was in fact a wig, worn by the gentry of ancient Egypt as a regal status symbol. Heads were shaved for cleanliness and the freshly cut hair was woven into an angular bob before being decorated with turquoise beads and ornate gold pieces. 

The Cleopatra wig gained a slightly more glamorous reimagining at the hands of British wig-maker Stanley Hall, who crafted the three wigs worn by Elizabeth Taylor in the eponymous 1963 epic. The film sparked the beginning of Taylor and Richard Burton’s tumultuous romance and is still one of the most expensive of all time, almost bankrupting 20th Century Fox, who spent a reported $31.3 million making it. After Taylor’s death in 2011 Hall put his expansive wig collection up for auction; Taylor’s, unsurprisingly, sold for the sum of $16,000.

2. Louise Brooks

Described by F. Scott Fitzgerald as “the most expensive orgy in history”, 1920s New York was a hotbed of post-war hedonism, sparking a surge of independence and abandonment of the constraints of traditional femininity for the women of the era. Alongside the right to vote, raised hemlines and a new-found appreciation for cocktails, an undeniable symbol of their sudden liberation was the terrifyingly short ‘flapper’ haircut. Actress Louise Brooks’ early jet black incarnation of the style led to her to becoming a poster girl for the era. Cut high above the jawline and framed with an almost impossibly straight fringe, the obsession caused queues outside barber shops – regular hair salons were somewhat reluctant to comply with the trend – following her silver screen debut.

3. Kitty Garman

The larger than life gaze and cropped curls of the late Kitty Garman served as inspiration to more than one artist in her lifetime. Born to sculptor Jacob Epstein, she was a child of bohemian London and spent a substantial amount of her early years sitting for drawings for her father. Her best-known artistic turn however was as wife-turned-muse for Lucian Freud, forever immortalised in a series of his early oil masterpieces. Throughout their five-year marriage, Kitty’s wide-eyed stare and soft bob (in a variety of muted shades) appeared in eight of what are now Freud’s most famous works, including Girl With a White Dog, Girl with Kitten and Portrait of Kitty – which remains one of Freud’s only works to name his subject.

4. Natassja Kinski

When film director Wim Wenders’ wife discovered a 12-year-old Nastassja Kinski dancing in a Munich disco, she was yet to sport the famous peroxide blonde crop that would later appear on many a Pinterest board. Her original chestnut shade far from stifled the film world’s interest in the her, and by the time she was 21 she had already worked with the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Roman Polanski – the latter of whom it was rumoured she embarked on an affair with when she was just 15.

Her most famous role is in Wenders’ cult ode to Americana, Paris, Texas, in which she plays Jane Henderson, the long-missing wife of the late Harry Dean Stanton’s Travis. The pivotal moment sees Kinski come face to face with her estranged husband via a two way mirror in a Texas strip club. Offset by an oversized pink mohair sweater, her bob is one of voluminous perfection, curled under around her chin and framing her face as she unwittingly talks with Travis in the mesmerising scene.

5. Lois Lane 

Before Teri Hatcher’s stint as the loveably hapless Susan Mayer in Desperate Housewives she played the role of part-time reporter, part-time damsel in distress Lois Lane in the 90s TV adaptation of the Superman comic series, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Alongside a sassy attitude and a plethora of 90s power suits, her perhaps most notable feature was her enviably perfect bob. Impossibly shiny, in a rich espresso shade with a neat side sweep, Lane’s bob survived all manner of dramatic run-ins - from alien landings to being held hostage by a host of super villains – with not a strand out of place. Inspirational.