Beards may be back in fashion but today’s styles are very different from the ‘performances of hair’ which reflected the profound religious and social changes sweeping through Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.
We live in a world in which our appearance – what we wear, what we cover and what we reveal – is highly politicised. Witness the debates, among others, of the wearing of religious symbols in the public arena. Hair is an aspect of appearance loaded with meanings that shift according to context. A billion pound industry trades on the desire to avoid a bad hair day. In the barbershops of hipster London, beards are combed and coaxed into just the right shape.
In early modern Europe, dress was regulated by ‘sumptuary laws’. These regulations set out who could wear what and when, according to a hierarchy of privileges believed to be accorded by God. Some of the laws related not just to clothing but also to hair. In 1637, for example, the authorities of the city of Basel prohibited its male inhabitants from wearing “hair and long tresses that are unseemly and unnecessarily ample and long, that hang down over the eyes, as well as artificial hair and hairpieces.”
Basel was a centre for print, scholarship and radical thought. It and other cities had recently undergone the sweeping religious changes known as the Reformation. In some areas, the Reformation made extravagant excesses a subject of discussion and attempted to regulate clothing in regard to new aesthetics of piety and morals of modesty. In Basel, sumptuary law restricted the usage of gold and silver borders, edgings and braids and prohibited the wearing of hats decorated with beads, pearls and jewelry.
Dr. Stefan Hanß is a historian of material culture and the body in early modern Europe. “When I began to examine the archives of cities such as Augsburg and Nuremburg, I realised that hair is everywhere, mentioned again and again. We’re talking about a period when outward appearance was everything – and a community’s religious purity was defined by its inhabitants’ social and bodily behavior,” he says.
“Hair is the stuff of emotions and high on the list of things people really mind about. It’s a product of our bodies and part of our identity. That’s why enforced shaving is so demeaning and a punishment commonly meted out to criminals. When authorities impose rules and regulations about hair as a means of discipline, there is often a strong reaction.”
Early modern European cities enacted laws that defined the privileges and duties of different groups. Noblemen, clerics and peasants, for example, were expected to dress and behave in certain ways: what was appropriate for one group was inappropriate for another. In the wake of the Reformation, people were expected to comply with new rules on dress – but, as always, there were some who were determined to test the limits of authority.
Among them was a French noblewoman called Charlotte Duplessis-Mornay whose husband, caught up in religious conflict, moved with his family to Montauban, a small city in southern France’s Midi-Pyrénées. The Protestant clergy of Montauban had made hair a prime issue of religious and social discipline and had preached against women wearing braids and curly tresses in public. Duplessis-Mornay, however, refused to changer de coiffure and in 1584 attended church adorned in luxuriant curls.
Duplessis-Mornay’s defiance provoked what she described in her memoirs as a huge scandale. The Protestant consistory, the city’s disciplinary authority, started official investigations that resulted in the excommunication from the church of her entire family. News of Duplessis-Mornay’s stance on the question of her hair travelled wider than Montauban. The magistrates of Toulouse were also informed.
Wearing a black scarf that covered her curls, Duplessis-Mornay appeared in front of the consistory to defend her position. She openly contradicted the consistory’s religious interpretation of hairstyles and pointed out inconsistencies in the Bible on matters of women’s appearance. On one hand, she pointed to the Apostle Paul’s well-known demand that women cover their hair during prayers and, on the other, she quoted biblical passages that declared braids and jewelry to be heavenly adornments of spouses.
Charlotte boldly demanded clarification of her case: “Since it were very pernicious that the opinions of men, although good and holy, should be put in the place of the commandment of God, I desire that this matter may be cleared up for the well-being and the concord of the churches.” She concluded: “Voilà, messieurs, quel est mon but et mon opinion en ce faict.” (Voilà, gentlemen, that’s my goal and my opinion in this matter.”) Sadly, the outcome of her dispute is not known.
Hanß is one of the first historians to pursue in detail the question of how hairstyles mattered in 16th- and 17th-century Germany, the heartland of the Reformation’s upheavals. “Hair is highly significant as it represented much more than civic order,” he says. “In such a hair-literate society, people were innovative and managed their appearances by going to barbershops, using medicinal remedies, and staging distinctive beards and hairstyles.”
In cities, barber guilds flourished and members of these craft guilds opened shops like the one shown in a German print from 1568. Barbers washed, cut and perfumed the customer’s head and facial hair with the many perfumed waters, pomades and medical ointments that were available in their shops. With scissors, razors, tweezers and combs, a man’s hair was delicately groomed to face the day in a perfectly appropriate manner.
“People spent large amounts of money and time on their hair to produce the desired look,” says Hanß. “Within the parameters established by societal norms and by local regulations, people embraced the latest styles and created novel fashions. Dressing to look the part for special occasions, they were always pushing at the boundaries.”
Recipe books contain countless instructions to the proper treatment of hair and hint at an “experimental world in early modern Germany”, in which men and women creatively engaged with expectations by meeting or subverting them. Hanß suggests: “Going to the barber meant visiting a place where razors were used, diseases were cured and rumours were shared, to manage one’s own physical appearance when going to church services, weddings or market places.”
Historians are puzzling over the question of why, after a period that favoured the clean-shaven, beards made a come-back in the 16th century. An extreme example is the cultivation of long beards among South German urban and Habsburg court élites late in the century. The imperial military councillor, Andreas Rauber, famously grew a beard of two strands that reached down to the floor. It was widely rumoured that Rauber could lift an anvil with his beard.
Hanß suggests that beards had become potent signifiers of nobility and masculinity. “Anatomical and medical treatises defined the growth of facial hair as a byproduct of a man’s sperm. Beards became such a prominent feature of manhood that almost everyone, in stark contrast to the 15th century, decided to have a beard – and some took this to extremes,” he says.
“For men, women and children, hair played an important role in the making of group cultures. Hair can indicate political and religious belonging – and in the case of early modern courts, noblemen signaled their loyalty to their rulers by imitations of princely hairstyles. What we do with our hair conveys a multitude of messages about ourselves – and this was certainly the case in early modern Europe.”
This article originally appeared on the University of Cambridge website.