The Androgynous Counterculture Of The (French) Bob

From liberating rebellion to status quo: What about this simple coiffure symbolizes rule-breaking style?

Alisha Samnani // Managing Editor, News Editor
Alba Palomar-Robisco // Illustrator

On May 1, 1920, the Saturday Evening Post published F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” a short story about a young woman who is tricked by her cousin into allowing a barber to chop off her locks. With her new ‘do, she is outcast by everyone, uninvited to a gathering held in her honour and locked away in haste for fear of bestowing scandal upon her family.

The seriousness surrounding this imagined haircut is vividly contrasted by the moment that 1890s France introduced the world to Polaire, an actress whose defining characteristic was “a shock of short, dark hair”. This jaw-hugging look would come to be known as the French Bob. 

In Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s romantic comedy film Amélie, this jaw-length curl perfectly framed the shock on his painfully shy waitress-turned-heroine’s face as she learnt the news of the death of Princess Diana. The hair Audrey Tautou has in the 2001 film is instantly recognizable as the epitome of French-girl chic.

Audrey Tatou as Amelie in a still from Amelie (2001).

The cut had its first major celebrity moment in 1909, when hairdresser Antoine de Paris popularized what was known as the “coupe à la Jeanne d’Arc” amongst his famous Parisian clientele. The cloche, a bell-shaped hat that rose to fame only the year prior, was unable to be properly worn with the long hair most actresses sported at the time.

The bob was, by nature, controversial from the start. Some variations, such as the shingle bob—tapered, and exposing the back of the neck—were said to cause medical conditions such as the shingle headache, which was described as “a form of neuralgia caused by the sudden removal of hair from the sensitive nape of the neck.” 

Regardless, the decision to chop off one’s hair was a liberating reaction to conventional times. An article from the June 1920 edition of the New York Times revealed that rebellious young women would go so far as to be diagnosed with “falling hair” in order to be prescribed a remedy of one bob haircut. 

There was a cry for more gender equality, and the shorter, bobbed hairstyle allowed women to attain a more androgynous appearance. Many fashionable women bound their breasts to give themselves a boyish, flat-chested look. By the following year, multiple fashionable women chopped off their hair in pursuit of the neutral style. Fitzgerald exclaimed: “I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth, Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble.”

Louise Brooks maintained her dark, tightly framed childhood bob when she took on the role of Lulu in the 1928 film Pandora’s Box. Lulu, much like the woman who played her, was a seductive, uninhibited young woman who possessed raw sexuality. Indeed, after her death Brooks was as famous for her sexually-liberated nature as she was for her “helmet-like coiffure.”

Louise Brooks as Lulu in Pandora’s Box (1929)

Only a year earlier did actress Mary Gorden tell the Pictorial Review: “I consider getting rid of our long hair one of the many little shackles that women have cast aside in their passage to freedom. Whatever helps their emancipation, however small it may seem, is well worth while.”

While the bob started to re-emerge in the 1950s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the bob reached its height of the French New Wave, when social and political views replicated those of the 1920s.

In Jean-Luc Godard’s 1962 film Vivre sa Vie, Anna Karina sports an inky black bob that remains perfectly curled by her ears as her character Nina leaves her husband and newborn son in hopes of becoming an actress. The striking cut is reminiscent of the one worn by Brooks in Pandora’s Box. Our heroine embodies Brooks’ character in more ways than one, as she also falls into prostitution and has her life culminate into a gruesome, violent death.

By the start of the 1970s, the classic French cut had transformed into the sleek bob made infamous by Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, soon to be replicated in multiple fashion editorials throughout the later half of the millennium. Aggressive generations of ads told American women: get a bob to attain that coveted French sex appeal—a version of beauty couched in equal parts mystery, sophistication, laziness, and je ne sais quoi.

In American and British incarnations of the French, the bob became an obvious nod towards the Parisienne, a cliché to be summoned along with the Breton shirt and a beret whenever it was deemed necessary. It’s the easiest way to obtain the aspirational aloofness of French femininity, or at least enough to evoke the illusion of the ever-elusive laissez-faire attitude possessed by such a woman.

Although the modern-day bob has been co-opted into the status quo, the most genuine bob-bearers may well be those who wear the look slightly unkempt, those who have an air of mystery about them, those who are just unbothered—and confident—enough to rebel in the spirit of the once-counterculture of the French Bob.

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