Writing in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1867, Margaret Oliphant lamented the importance women’s hair had come to play in popular novels:
Hair, indeed, in general, has become one of the leading properties in fiction.… Its quantity and colour, and the reflections in it… take the place of all those pretty qualities with which heroines used to be endowed. What need has a woman for a soul when she has upon her head a mass of wavy gold?… Power, strength, a rich nature, a noble mind, are all to be found embodied in this great attribute.
In Representations of Hair in Victorian Literature and Culture, Galia Ofek appraises the work of several nineteenth-century authors and artists to examine this “leading property” and to trace “the places where hair imagery both underlined and undermined neat and reassuring definitions of womanhood, where representations of hair both reflected and deflected the standardization of femininity and women’s quest for self-determination” (250). Ofek contends that while “many Victorian discourses sought to bury, fix, tame or categorize women’s hair as a means to contain the discussion of female sexuality,” representations of hair nonetheless “haunted the liminal spaces between classes, genders, genres, agendas and individuals” (250).
Ofek details female hair’s role as both a sexual and commodity fetish during the nineteenth century. As the main consumers of the family, women were the primary target of advertisers, and commodity culture was increasingly regarded as “essential to the process of becoming feminine” (38). One of the few publicly exposed parts of a woman’s body, hair became “the main focus of conspicuous leisure and consumption” (2), and “was invested with an over-determination of sexual meaning” (3). The elaborate hairstyles of the second half of the nineteenth century required enormous quantities of false hair, creating an expansive and profitable hair industry for artificial hair additions, as well as soaps, oils, and brushes. The fetishization of hair was further abetted by the popularity of hair keepsakes exchanged between romantic partners and family members (27). Ofek regards hair mementos as a “distinct instance of female fetishism” (49) and notes that Queen Victoria, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Charles Dickens all carried locks of loved ones on their bodies (47, 80, 118).
Applying fetish theories to literary and visual representations of women’s hair, Ofek sets out to uncover the “unread text in the margins of Victorian culture and literature” (31). Clearly inspired by the work of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Ofek’s analysis of representations of hair reveals “important, if covert, sub-narratives” that tell “the story of a marginalized, fragmented or isolated female identity” (30-1). Central to her project is a careful examination of the age-old dichotomy of the blonde heroine and the brunette vixen. Ofek draws on Roland Barthes’s notion of objects as signs to examine a Victorian semiotic system “in which hair as a widely circulated sign has a social and systemic role, conjuring up ideas which are projected as external, seemingly concrete facts” (17). In Victorian times, the opposing models of the innocent girl with blonde and neat hair and the wicked woman with dark and wild hair served as a sign system that defined proper femininity and policed women’s sexuality. “To regulate hair was to regulate society and to restrain waywardness” (35), so respectable Victorian wives and mothers kept their hair neat and orderly as a sign of sexual purity and social propriety (68); in contrast, loose, unruly, or unkempt female hair “automatically signified loose sexuality,” impurity, and even criminality (148). “As an important sign in a developing system of classification,” Ofek writes, “women’s hair mediated and negotiated the ideological construction of female sexuality” (69). Victorian authors and artists regularly utilized this hair system, depicting domestic, gentle blonde heroines and dangerous, passionate, sexually threatening brunettes. Ofek focuses on the tale of Rapunzel and the myth of Medusa–which both “seemed to fascinate Victorian imagination” (76) and were replicated repeatedly in Victorian literature and art–as a framework for examining the dichotomy between the idealized pure and helpless heroine and the wicked wild-haired temptress.
Ofek devotes three of her chapters to examining how Victorian authors reinforced, responded to, and overturned the nineteenth-century signifying system of female hair. Her chapter on male authors asserts that while Dickens, Anthony Trollope, and Thomas Hardy “were all interested in contemporary hair fashions and hair codes, and…recognized and condemned different aspects of the fetishistic economy of their culture” (144), their depictions of women’s hair nevertheless “marked the heroine’s body as destined for domesticity, and served to control and subdue her in order to contain and neutralize the threat of unmanageable female assertiveness” (103). In short, good female characters possessed light, neat, natural hair, while “scheming sirens” and “fallen women” had dark, unkempt, and artificial hair (145). Ofek sees both Rapunzel figures (Florence in Dombey and Son [1846-8], Lucie in A Tale of Two Cities ), and Medusa figures (Mme. Defarge in Two Cities, Mrs. Finching’s Aunt and Mrs. Clennam in Little Dorrit [1855-7]) in Dickens’s novels and asserts that the novelist “deployed…the Victorian Medusa-Rapunzel dichotomous paradigm…to chain his princess-heroines to conventional feminine roles and lock them in a cage of domesticity” (104).
In contrast, Ofek argues that many Victorian women writers were “fully cognizant of the value of [their] heroine’s hair as an important sign in Victorian ‘social grammar’, and…fashioned [their] heroine’s hair as a means to discuss female identity and its representation in contemporary literature and culture” (149). Ofek concludes that Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, and Sarah Grand made ambivalent use of the conventional sign system without significantly challenging it. Margaret Oliphant, however, is championed by Ofek as the female writer most critical of the connection between sign and signified–the most resistant to allowing hair to serve symbolically to characterize her heroine. Her reading of Miss Marjoribanks (1866) contends that Oliphant “successfully manages to contrive a heroine whose hair defies definition, representation, or symbolic reading” (169). “By countering all the reader’s expectations and exposing the current patriarchal signifying system as arbitrary at best,” Ofek asserts, “Oliphant showed that…she knew and understood conventions well enough to manipulate and twist them” (170-1).
Ofek’s most engrossing chapter examines how sensation fiction exploited the conventional hair sign system to subvert nineteenth-century discourses on femininity by transforming–in Oliphant’s words–the “wicked women” of Victorian fiction from brunettes to “the daintiest, softest, prettiest of blonde creatures” (184). “The new literary vogue for wicked, greedy golden-haired heroines” deliberately overturned the dominant sign system, challenged Victorian ideals of passive womanhood, and critiqued the fetishization of women’s hair (197). Like beauty advertisements, sensation fiction suggested that women could defy fate and birth and transform themselves into something they were not – a threatening notion to Victorian society (194). Novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Ofek maintains, “developed practical counsels for her readers, advising them how to exploit the existing semiology of hair signs, so as to profit not only from hair products but also from culturally manufactured and circulated hair codes” (196). Ofek further notes that the popularity of sensation fiction and Pre-Raphaelite painting influenced hair fashions during the mid-1860s, creating a rage for red hair–a color that had previously been regarded as “carrots” and “social assassination” (210).
Less interesting is Ofek’s chapter (perhaps wisely relegated to the end of the book) on satiric and cartoon depictions of hair in the pages of Punch and in the art of Aubrey Beardsley. Ofek asserts that by regularly depicting women as “too preoccupied with nonsense, and too burdened by heaps of artificial hair” (216), Punch directly connected women’s desire for hair products and fashions with their equally frivolous desire for expanding social and political influence. According to Ofek, George Du Maurier and Aubrey Beardsley both used their art to parody the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s fetishistic preoccupation with women’s hair, but Du Maurier also sought to ridicule “women’s aspirations to gain formal education and professional skills in order to enter the public sphere” (218), while Beardsley’s “grotesque hair imagery” was intended to overturn “neat categorizations of identity according to hair signs, collapsing and merging traditional dichotomized groups like male and female, virtuous and fallen, good and evil, fake and real, artificial and natural, frivolous and serious” (233-4).
Ofek’s wide-ranging study draws on Judeo-Christian tradition, Greek mythology, advertising, fairy tales, circus freaks, jewelry, and Pre-Raphaelite painting and offers welcome examinations of less well-known Victorian texts, as well as often ignored Victorian women artists like Eleanor Fortesque-Brickdale and Frances Macdonald. Her text is enhanced by 32 illuminating illustrations of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, advertisements, Punch cartoons, and Beardsley drawings. Ofek’s dense prose and excessive referencing of other scholars and theoretical approaches occasionally obscure and subordinate her own argument. Some of her lengthy chapters seem to strike the same notes repeatedly, an impression not aided by the sometimes repetitive phrasing of her prose: for example, three times in only seven pages we are told that Punch “confirmed rather than challenged the dominant” Victorian hair iconography (211, 212, 218).
Much of what Ofek reveals regarding the dichotomous nature of Victorian hair representations will ring familiar to contemporary readers, as the association between wild, unruly hair and female sexual desire is still widely exploited by advertising, music videos, and pornography. And the teaser trailer for Disney’s recent animated Rapunzel-themed movie Tangled–depicting the beautiful blonde fairytale heroine employing her seemingly hundreds of feet of serpentine, prehensile locks to apprehend an encroaching thief and tie him to a chair–demonstrates that female hair still represents both female sexuality and threat. Ofek’s book offers a useful analysis that helps untangle how Victorian literature and art reinforced and occasionally upended a hair sign system that limited female agency.
Brent Shannon is an assistant professor in the Department of English & Theatre and in the Women & Gender Studies Program at the Eastern Kentucky University and is the author of The Cut of His Coat: Men, Dress, and Consumer Culture in Britain, 1860-1914 (2006). He is currently at work on a study of masculinity and the nineteenth-century university.”