Magazine article The New Yorker

By A Hair

Magazine article The New Yorker

By A Hair

Article excerpt


Bernie Sanders recently complained when a Times Magazine reporter asked him about his hair. "When the media worries about what Hillary's hair looks like or what my hair looks like," he said, "that's a real problem."

Americans love to talk about hairdos. There are at least six hair-themed reality shows airing right now, including "Shear Genius" ("Hell Breaks Loose Over Hedge Clippers"), "Hair Battle Spectacular" ("The Final Hairdown"), and "Cutting It: In the ATL" ("The Tale of Two Weaves"). "Hair is a language," Penny Howell Jolly, a professor of art history at Skidmore, wrote in a 2010 Times piece, comparing the coiffures of U.S. Presidents. "It announces our gender, class and even our politics."

A Baltimore hairdresser named Janet Stephens has taken the national preoccupation farther--certainly farther back--than anyone. Stephens is fifty-seven and has red-violet hair with a metallic sheen ("I was born dishwater blond") that she wears shoulder length, with short bangs. "I've pretty much invented the field of ancient Roman hair-style re-creation," she said last week, before heading over to Studio 921 Salon & Day Spa, where she is a stylist. "I'm a hairdressing archeologist."

Stephens earned a B.A. in dramatic arts from Whitman College but has studied ancient hair styles on her own for fifteen years. A statue of the Roman empress Julia Domna, at a Baltimore museum, initially piqued her interest: the statue is crowned with a complex bun that, as Stephens tried to replicate it on mannequins, led her down a rabbit hole of scholarship.

Her sources: "surviving ancient literary and material evidence, including Roman portraiture, hairdressing artifacts, and epigraphy." Most of the texts are in translation. "I'm halfway through first-year Latin on CD," she said. Nevertheless, Stephens has published an article in the Journal of Roman Archaeology and was recently asked to write an entry on ancient hair styles for a forthcoming encyclopedia. "Intimidating," she said.

Lately, she has been getting inquiries about the provenance of Donald Trump's hair style. "The comb-over goes back to ancient Rome, at least," she said. "Roman comb-overs were not based on the side part, as they are today. To part the hair was an exclusively feminine practice avoided by 'manly' Roman men. If a Roman man's hair was thinning, but still present, he allowed the hair at the crown to grow longer and combed it forward. This type of comb-over is visible on portrait statues of Emperor Hadrian. If a man was hippocratically bald"--hairless on top, like Hippocrates--"he would grow any remaining side hair longer and comb each side up over the top to meet in the middle. …

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