In the 1930s, women who dared to dye their hair often left the beauty shop with violent headaches, swollen eyelids and blisters on their foreheads. A decade later, the picture wasn't much prettier.
"We used to make these diabolical bleaches, mixing 20-volume peroxide in a bowl with three drops of ammonia," Vidal Sassoon told Vogue a few years ago. "The number had to be exact, and I was terrified my hand would shake--it was as primitive as that."
Over the centuries, hair has been frizzed, teased, padded, coated with lard, drenched with toxic chemicals and accidentally set on fire--"all in the name of beauty," writes Mary Trasko in her new book "Daring Do's" (Flammarion).
Four years of research, in which she studied "300 years worth of hairdressing manuals," yielded the horror stories that give the book its wink-and-nudge appeal.
"Imagine anyone doing that," we think smugly. Until, of course, Trasko's history of "extraordinary hair" catches up with the more recent past. Like the punk hair of the '80s. Or the bouffants, beehives and "atomic hairdos" of the '60s, shored up as they were with industrial strength hair spray and toilet tissue.
"My book is about women of privilege who had time to have all these crazy things styled into their hair," explains Trasko by telephone from her New York apartment. "This was how they were able to establish their individuality and creativity.
"But today we have so many avenues, we don't have to sit for hours in front of the vanity doing those crazy hairstyles. We have things that matter so much more."
The 35-year-old author, who wears her dark and dyed hair in a shoulder-length shag, previously chronicled the history of extravagant footwear in "Heavenly Soles" (Abbeville Press, 1989).
Like fashionable footwear, fashionable hair, says Trasko, is rife with whimsy and frivolity. But both, she maintains, speak volumes about women's lives.
"Hairdressing used to be so much a part of a woman's elegance and eroticism. It still is, but it's about clean, healthy hair, not elaborately dressed hair."
In fact, there are--as a rule--so few extraordinary hairstyles in the '90s that Trasko was forced to commission a few, including one with burning candles, to decorate her final chapter. Ignoring the wild tresses of rock stars and their wanna-bes, she concludes that the only practitioners of "marvelous fantasy hair these days" are African American women and drag queens in wigs.
She is quite convinced that "high-style hairdressing has been marginalized . . . even in the fashion magazines. . . . There is little stress to be had in today's minimalist approach to hair, except for the $200 price tag that comes with a cut at a top salon."
Most women--preoccupied as they are with the length, shine, texture, color and thickness of their hair--will find that hard to believe. For them, the stress isn't much less than it was for the ancient Greeks. The stone likeness of Plautilla, wife of Caracalla, seems to say it all. It was made with a removable marble wig that could be changed to keep her portrait forever fashionable.
From then on, false hair rarely has fallen from favor. The same can be said of blondes.
The Greeks were the first to praise bleaching techniques (the sunny climate was most helpful) and to record their strong beliefs that lighter color signified "innocence, superior social standing and sexual desirability."
But unlike the blond mystique, big hair comes and goes. It reached its height--literally--in the 18th Century. "Never were more startling hair creations accepted as the fashionable norm," she writes. "Portraits and letters of the day reveal such extravagances as a garden scene headdress complete with a spinning windmill and brook made from mirror shards."
In 1798, the extremely short Titus cut "opened the door to the concept of a more natural beauty" and full wigs gave way to hair pieces. (Proof that not all of history's daring 'dos have been duds: The Titus cut was recently renamed the waif cut.)
The modern swing toward natural beauty started in the late 1920s, with actress Louise Brooks and her shiny black bob. "The fashion for short hair in the late 1920s was arguably as liberating as getting the vote," writes Trasko.
But the style sent shock waves through the country. The Catholic Church objected to the bob. Marshall Field in Chicago refused to employ women who wore it. Nursing students with bobbed hair were suspended, and the University of Arkansas used tests to demonstrate that "long-haired women had the best minds."
In F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story, "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," the heroine pays instantly for her temporary insanity: "Twenty minutes later the barber swung her around to face the mirror, and she flinched at the full extent of the damage that had been wrought. . . . It was ugly as sin."
To repair the sins, women turned to such tricks as permanent waves. By the 1930s, salons had become an integral part of a woman's ritual of beauty. And the more a woman was in the public eye, the more she relied on her hairdresser. The Duchess of Windsor, for example, had her hair rearranged three times a day. But she was outdone by socialite Daisy Fellowes, who, according to her hairdresser, had her coiffure changed 10 times a day.
It would take Sassoon to bring back the bob's freedom, shine, sensibility and exquisite cut. But first, women would endure the extremes of the '50s and '60s--worn and recalled by poet and author Diane Ackerman:
"I walked out of the bathroom with my hair sprayed in a huge bubble. 'What have you done to your hair?' my father demanded. 'I've just teased it,' I said. To which he replied: 'Teased? You've driven it insane.' "
Without practice to keep it perfect, all the insanity--or art--of the past may be gone forever. After writing her book, Trasko says, she tried a few old tricks--including finger waves from the '30s--with little success. "It's tricky for women today," she concludes, "because we've lost the talent for it. Even a lot of hairdressers have."