Hair in the Culture of the 1970s

by Michael Sones

Two books, one at either end of the decade, stand out as cultural signposts to the spirit of the 1970s.

In 1970 Charles Reich, a Yale University Law Professor, published The Greening of America: How the Youth Revolution is Trying to Make America Livable. This book, following on the idealism of the 1960s, heralded a new ‘consciousness’ in which the young and the youth revolution of the latter 1960’s were the vanguard which would lead to the radical transformation of consumerist technological society into an Eden of social justice and respect for the environment.

However, by the end of the 1970s when Christopher Lasch, an American History Professor, wrote The Culture of Narcissism : American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations the early hopes had faded and there was widespread disillusionment. The idealism of the 1960s had disappeared into the wind. There were increasing anxieties about global pollution and the exhaustion of the earth’s natural resources. The 1970s had seen war in the Middle East, the war in Vietnam had ended, there was corruption in the highest levels of American government with Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, an oil crisis, and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia had turned its fertile land into killing fields. There was a daily diet of the world’s troubles brought into the homes of the West through television.

In the early 1970s there had been an urgency about a “return to Nature” and many young people left to live on communes in the country in search of a simpler way of life. This urgency was perhaps a measure of the underlying anxieties about how fast and how far we were moving from it.

At the same time there was increasing affluence. Hairstyles reflected both sides of the social coin. The musical Hair had played to sell out audiences in the late 1960s. It was a rock paean to a Rousseauesque idealized natural man-a long haired, un-permed, curly haired, natural and naked “noble savage.”

The fast pace of technological change was unsettling as was increasing awareness of the global community. This seemed to stimulate a nostalgic desire for the perceived simplicities of previous eras. Towards the end of the decade Olivia Newton John and John Travolta starred in the hit musical Grease which hearkened back to the 1950s.

The desire to “return to Nature” ,first espoused by the hippies and Flower children of the 1960s, perhaps reached its paradoxical epitome in the anarchic punk movement of the mid-1970s which included both skinheads and spiky haired youths. Increasing realization of how truly global the world and cultures were becoming seemed to be leading to increasing anxieties about losing touch with one’s roots. This movement originated in London. For the punks “Nature” was the urban jungles of many of the Western world’s great cities.

A new tribe had formed and the brilliantly coloured Mohican haircuts showed the ability of this disaffected tribe to transcend time and cultures in a symbolic link with the Indians of North America. The gelled and spiky hair, often worn atop bodies clothed in leather studded with small spikes, ears and noses pierced with safety pins, displayed their hostility to the elite of the system and the establishment. However, the establishment showed its resilience to this challenge as aspects of the radical street style of the punks was gradually absorbed by designers such as Vivienne Westwood into their “style” much as the anti-fashion, anti-consumerist grunge style was later absorbed in the early 1990s.

The “natural” hair of the hippies and the spiky coiffures of the punks symbolized their opposition to the established social order in other sectors of society. On the other hand the “perm” made a comeback with its echoes of more socially conservative times. The “permanent wave” was a method of hairstyling which had first been originated in 1904 by a German hairdresser called Karl Nessler. The “permanent waves” in a woman’s hair were created through the use of an electric machine.

Hair was backcombed, cropped, bobbed, layered, left to fall long, curled, and permed. The melding of cultures was leading to a melding of hairstyles. Hair dyes, especially red, was very popular during the 1970s. Caucasians had Afros, blacks dyed and straightened their hair, punks tried to look like Mohicans, and the short hair of the skinhead, originating in the working class of the London docks, became an intimidating mark of aggression and “hooliganism.”

Probably the most famous and emulated haircut of the decade originated in a television show, Charlie’s Angels, and was worn by the beautiful Farrah Fawcett Majors. Posters of this gorgeous and graceful woman brightened the walls of many a college dorm.

As the 1970s drew to an end the Iron Maiden, Margaret Thatcher, ascended to power in England with her radical brand of conservatism. The Shah was deposed in Iran by the Ayatollahs with their religious brand of conservatism. And all the while the global winds of cultural change began to gather in force.


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