The Great Bob Debate

The following illustration appeared in a women’s magazine in the early 1920s.

To our 21st Century eyes, the ad is pleasing enough, but in the 1920s, it was ground-breaking.

For centuries women wore their hair long, and considered it, as I Corinthians tells us, their glory.

In the late 1800s the Sullivan sisters were famous for their long hair and marketed a successful line of hair care products for women.

That was true in Isabella’s lifetime. Women grew their hair long, which they “dressed” by wearing it up in arrangements on their head. Isabella chose to arrange her hair parted in the middle, and braided into a bun pinned low at the back of her head.

For young girls who reached maturity, making the change from wearing their hair down to wearing it pinned up was something of a rite of passage.

From a 1902 magazine article illustrating hairstyles suitable for girls.

Ladies who needed assistance in washing or dressing their hair visited a salon, where a hair-dresser (usually a woman) was skilled in arranging the latest styles for long hair.

But all that changed in 1915.

In that year, one of the most popular entertainers in America was a woman named Irene Castle.

Irene Castle in costume for one of her stage appearances.

She and her husband Vernon were ballroom dancers who appeared in films and on Broadway stages. They gained an entirely new generation of fans when they created a popular dance called The Castle Walk.

Vernon and Irene Castle, demonstrating their famous dance, The Castle Walk, about 1914.

Legions of American women copied the gowns Irene Castle wore in films and on stage, as well as her accessories and hair styles. She was an early 20th century fashion icon.

Sheet music for The Castle Walk.

When Irene Castle was forced to take a break from dancing to have her appendix removed, she knew she wouldn’t want to have to worry about her clothes and hairstyle during her hospital confinement and recuperation. Being a practical woman, she decided to cut off her hair before the surgery.

Irene Castle, sporting bobbed hair about 1920.

Later, when Irene began making public appearances again, she initially hid her short hair under a turban; but one night, she went out to dinner with her husband with her hair uncovered.

Her short bobbed hairstyle caused an immediate sensation. Within days women were flooding hair salons, asking for the Castle Bob—only to be turned away. No respectable ladies’ hair-dresser would dream of complying with such a shocking request.

Undeterred, women who were determined to look like their idol Irene turned to their local barbershops and found plenty of men—who were used to styling short hair—willing to give them what they wanted.

Movie star Claudette Colbert wore her bobbed hair styled close her her head in finger waves.

The trend shocked many, and some newspapers wrote articles decrying the new fashion. Here are the opening lines in an article in the Omaha Daily Bee:

And this from a newspaper editor in Bisbee, Arizona:

America’s scandalized reaction to women with short hair didn’t last long, as more and more women recognized the advantages and the ease of short hair. Professional hair-dressers soon realized they had to get on board with the trend if they wanted to remain in business, and began publishing advertisements like this:

Those beauty salons needed tools and supplies designed to work with short hair, and that need opened up an entirely new market of products designed just for women with bobbed hair

Part of a promotional campaign for the “Invisitex” hair net and combs designed for short hair.

Despite its scandalous beginnings, bobbed hair was here to stay, and by the time America entered World War I, bobbed hair wasn’t just for the fashionably young; women of all ages—mothers and daughters, grandmothers and girls—wore their hair short in a variety of styles, that all started with the Castle Bob.

Mother and daughters with bobbed hair.