• Ben

Hair Is Everything

Claire got a bad haircut. A monumental, life-changing-in-how-bad-it-is haircut.

Claire’s “French” haircut
Claire’s “French” haircut

Anyone familiar with the show Fleabag knows all about this scene, along with the now famous “hair speech” Phoebe Waller-Bridge gives to the hairdresser who has the temerity to try and calm her outrage:

“Hair is everything. We wish it wasn’t so we could actually think about something else occasionally. But it is. It’s the difference between a good day and a bad day. We’re meant to think that it’s a symbol of power, that it’s a symbol of fertility... Hair is everything.”

Unfortunately for Claire, the speech comes to nothing when the hairdresser produces a photo showing that he gave her exactly the cut she was looking for. Luckily for Claire, her sister was able to ease the blow by saying the magical words that add style to anything instantly, no matter how bad it is: “It’s French!”

This long introduction is all a way of saying that Phoebe Waller-Bridge is 100 percent right, historically-speaking at least, and her sentiment is eternal. Just go back and look at the Merovingians, the long-haired kings of France who showed their power by keeping their hair uncut throughout their lives. It was a symbol of rank and power, and the quickest way to ruin their turn as monarch was to cut their hair. Clovis did this to Chararic, a minor Frankish king, and his son in 507 in retaliation for their lack of loyalty. In an even more famous story, King Chlodomir had had his two sons living with his brothers Childebert and Chlothar prior to his death in 524. When he died, Childebert and Chlothar realized they could take his kingdom if they got rid of his kids one way or another. They sent their mother, Clotilde, a message and asked whether she would prefer to see the boys hair cut, thus returning them to a state no better than a commoner, or if she would rather have them killed. She chose the latter option, and the boys were executed at the hands of their uncles. Tough crowd...

On top of simply having their haircut, fallen royalty would be given a distinctive hairstyle known as a “tonsure.” Tonsures are not stylish, and I can’t imagine they ever were. This highly symbolic hairstyle was traditionally worn by monks, and involved cutting the hair off of the scalp while keeping the sides kind of bushy. Here‘s an example:

Mosaic from Ravenna, Italy
Saint Barbatianus and his tonsure

Like I said, it was a distinctive hairstyle, and one well-known to the people of the 6th century. If you had this cut, you went from being a king to “just a guy,” and a guy who would be expected to live in a monastery at that. It was a method of control, and a potent symbol of the loss of power by any monarch forced to submit. Given those choice, it’s not impossible to understand how some people would take the sword over the scissor.

So yes, hair is - and always has been - everything. At least Claire had the comfort of a sister to give her a pep-talk, and a few hundred years of French style being something to be appreciated and emulated. She could have been alive in the 6th century, back before France was so cool and hip, and had a grandmother and uncles with ridiculously strong opinions on hairstyle.

That would have been a bad hair day.