A Short History of First Lady Hair’Dos & its Big Bang Theory

Michelle Obama's newly famous Bangs. (beyondblackandwhite.com)

Michelle Obama’s newly famous Bangs. (beyondblackandwhite.com)

In the one week since First Lady Michelle Obama had her hair cut and styled with bangs, this apparently momentous shift of the planetary system has generated a level of grave and serious reporting rivaling predictions on how the imminent impasse on the national budget will shake out.  Who would really have ever thought that the way an individual human being decided to wear their hair, for whatever personal reason, would qualify news?

Mary Lincoln, flower pot upon her hair.

Mary Lincoln, flower pot upon her hair.

Judging how the woman in the White House looks seems to have been a presumed prerogative of both men and women going back to at least the time of Lincoln.

After a White House reception, one Senator wrote in a private letter to his wife that he had just seen First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, who liked to wear a crown of fresh roses as a head-dress. Or, as he reported it, wearing “a flower pot on her head.”

The media first broke the boundary of public commentary on the matter in the spring of 1877.

Lucy Hayes.

Lucy Hayes.

That’s when New York Independent newspaper’s “A Woman’s Letter from Washington” columnist Mary Clemmer Ames, in scrutinizing the new First Lady Lucy Hayes, went into rhapsody over the woman’s black hair, pulled tightly behind her head into a bun,  her “bands of smooth, dark hair with that tender light in the eyes we have come to associate with the Madonna. I have never seen such a face reign in the White House. I wonder what the world of Vanity Fair will do with it? Will it frizz that hair?”

Lucy Hayes didn’t frizz her hair and neither did any newspaper or magazine illustrators. but it was evidence enough for Ames to serve as proof that the Hayes Administration would be a plainly honest, moral, upstanding one.

The first real Coiffeurist-In-Chief was Frances Cleveland.

The "a la Frankie" on Frances Cleveland herself, with shaved neck nape.

The “a la Frankie” on Frances Cleveland herself, with shaved neck nape.

The one quirk to the way the  21-year old  who went by the nickname of “Frank”  wore her hair was that she had shaved the hairline of her neck a bit too high, a move she apparently made accidentally and regretted.

The fact that the nation was obsessed with the beautiful recent college grad who had suddenly been thrust to fame by her shocking marriage to the bachelor President thirty years her senior meant any and all “Frankie” (as the press mistakenly reported her nickname) tidbits sold papers.

And so, without any apparent evidence, a New York Herald reporter went on with bated breath about how the obviously high hairline on her neck had set off a stampede to the nation’s hair salons by all the young women wanting to look hip for 1886 and shoving their way into the barber’s chair demanding the “a la Frankie” cut.

The result?

It set off a stampede to the nation’s hair salons by all the young women wanting to look hip for 1886 and shoving their way into the barber’s chair demanding the “a la Frankie” cut.

National First Lady Hair Obsession took an unexpected curl just after the Frances Cleveland Shaved Nape Look when Ida McKinley entered the White House.

Ida McKinley had her own reasons for cropping her hair.

Ida McKinley had her own reasons for cropping her hair.

Now, it wasn’t a matter of merely copying the First Lady’s look, no matter what it looked like, but to find the “meaning” of it all, to decode the “personal message” being “transmitted” about the woman by how the stuff on her head looked.

Mrs. McKinley offered a radical change, with her graying brown hair cropped short like a man’s, and combed to either side of her head. It was no longer women style reporters but male political reporters who were insisting that Mrs. McKinley’s hair was an outward manifestation of her inward feminist inclinations, for she was the first incumbent First Lady on record to support women’s suffrage and she strongly defended her record of working before marriage in her father’s bank, being promoted from a clerk to an assistant bank manager.

The truth? Ida McKinley suffered from seizure disorder; she found the weight of the era’s heavy hairstyles and tight pin clasps made her head hurt and provoked her heachaches.

Some twenty years later, the marcelled silver head of Florence Harding seemed a bit too perfectly waved for  Washington Post reporter Vylla Poe Wilson.

Florence Harding wasn't wigging. (Corbis)

Florence Harding wasn’t wigging. (Corbis)

So convinced was she of her journalistic instincts that she got her Harding Hair Conspiracy Theory past her editor to espouse her conviction that the First Lady was wearing….a wig.

She was wrong.

And so the annals of First Lady Hair entered a long period of darkness, but not dark roots. A quarter of a century passed before anyone dared raise the issue again. And they were shot down fast by none other than the President of the United States.

Bess Truman: that touch of grey.

Bess Truman: that touch of grey.

When First Lady Bess Truman made an historic visit to a place called Jilly’s Beauty Shop in Washington she decided to throw all caution to the wind and get what was then a popular cut among younger women called “The Poodle Cut.”

Everyone seemed to have an opinion about it and most were snide, former White House seamstress Lillian Rogers Parks even recalling snickers from servants waiting on the First Lady once they were back among the household staff.  Finally, someone gently tried to raise the subject with President Harry Truman.

Proving himself well-versed in Atomic Age Pop Culture, Truman angrily snapped back, referencing the 1949 Broadway hit show Gentleman Prefer Blondes. First of all, he found the Poodle Cut far more agreeable than that dopey ponytail kids were starting to wear and as for the First Lady, “Real gentlemen prefer grey.”

One good thing about the ridiculous level of attention being levelled at Mrs. Obama’s head is the sudden rise in Google which keep Mamie Eisenhower, First Lady of the Fifties from being forgotten. For before last week the two expressions “bangs” and “First Lady” were her exclusive turf.

Mamie Eisenhower

Mamie Eisenhower.

When she first came into the national spotlight, during her husband’s 1952 presidential campaign, pictures of her smiling face beneath a bit of bristling coiffure springing out from her forehead provoked polite letters from both men and women not only to her but to magazine and newspaper editors, most in wonderment at why she insisted on wearing them.

Mamie kept on smiling, saying little except that she loved them and they were there to stay.

Enormously popular all through the eight years of her incumbency, her look seemed to catch on particularly with middle-aged glamor types of the time, including movie and TV actresses like Imogene Coca to Bette Davis sporting some good ole’ Mamie bangs.

The fast and easy Mamie Bangs Method for Fifties girls used scotch tape. (nostalgia pinterest)

The fast and easy Mamie Bangs Method for Fifties girls used scotch tape. (nostalgia pinterest)

Judging from the comment boards on many websites, many women were seemingly traumatized by them as little girls, forced to hold still while their moms took a scissor from the drawer and voila, their kiddies had a ‘do like the woman in the White House.

In the post-World War II era, she even came under the clinical care of the famous beauty expert Elizabeth Arden, at her Paris shop, when General Eisenhower was running SHAPE.  To ensure Mamie’s consistent cut, she drew up a set of rigorously-detailed drawings to guide Arden salonists around the globe on how it was all to be done, like a feat of mechanical engineering.

Mamie E's Ubiquitous Bangs.

Mamie E’s Ubiquitous Bangs.

A novelty company even made fake paper bangs people could buy and stick on their foreheads as a gag gift.

In truth, there was a strongly sentimental reason Mamie Eisenhower wore the bangs.

Mamie Eisenhower was still banging it out in 1971.

Mamie Eisenhower was still banging it out in 1971.

During a period of separation from her husband when his military career kept them apart, a friend advised her to “vamp” Ike and get a new, youthful haircut. She did and it worked, and she never got rid of them.

Long years later, even as a widow into the late 1970’s Mrs. Eisenhower resisted efforts of friends to get her out of them.

Unquestionably, no First Lady and few public figures in any field for that matter, set off a global trends of tresses as did Jackie Kennedy.

Not unlike all the other aspirational advertising going on in that Jet Era of the late 50s and early 60s, women were determined to emulate the First Lady by looking exactly like her. Although she changed her hair style many times for different events, her basic look was called a bouffant, or more precisely “the bubble.”

Jackie Kennedy's bubble or bouffant even influenced future FLOTUS Laura Bush (lower left) and was still in evidence two decades later among her hardcore devotees (lower right).

Jackie Kennedy’s bubble or bouffant even influenced future FLOTUS Laura Bush (lower left) and was still in evidence two decades later among her hardcore devotees (lower right).

It was ubiquitous, a look Congressional wife and later First Lady Betty Ford admitted to wearing, a look that high school grad and future First Lady Laura Bush wore for her yearbook picture and it was, admitted First Lady Barbara Bush in later years, what most drew her attention while watching the famous 1962 CBS “Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy.”

For a full hour, the nation could gaze upon that bubble.

Laura Petrie channels Jackie Kennedy,

Laura Petrie channels Jackie Kennedy,

And if anyone happened to miss the “Jackie Show” on TV, they could always catch a weekly episode of her most overt copycat, the “Laura Petrie” housewife character from the Dick Van Dyke Show, played by Mary Tyler Moore.

Laura Petrie not only copied Jackie hair and clothes, but she even spoke French.

Not even kids could escape it. In an episode of the popular Flintstones cartoon show, housewife Wilma Flintstone stops agog in a department store at the “Jackie Kennelrock” mannequin with the bubble.

In fact, one of the many of the movie and gossip magazines of the era even warned readers that to be “Be Your Town’s Jackie Kennedy,” they had to get the bubble just right.

There was even an instructional booklet printed to give women specific directions on how they could achieve the “Jackie Look” for themselves.

And it even prompted a 1962 one-hit wonder, “The Bubble.” Listen in and see images proving what you never imagined hair could do:

And then there fell a dark pall across the land, for some thirty years the nation’s First Lady hair analysts were immobilized under a dryer with a dearth of news to report on the locks of ladies in the White House. There was one brief shining moment of white, however.

Barbara Bush inspired many to just keep their hair color natural.

Barbara Bush inspired many to just keep their hair color natural.

In 1989, Barbara Bush finally made it clear she had no intention of ever dying her snow-white hair. She had tried that years before, she told reporters, but when she would finish swimming, the chlorine had turned her hair green. And that prompted hundreds of letters from other Americans who said no to the bottle and let their hair color go natural, fortified by the First Lady’s example.

Four years later, it was the witty and wise Washington Post reporter Donnie Radcliffe who began to detect there was indeed always something new about the new First Lady, who represented a younger generation of women in politics.

Hillary Rodham Clinton wanted to look as good as she could, but she had always focused on issues of substance, not style. So, without much personal input, she often took the advice of her barbers and changed her hair cuts.

Many times.

Too many times, apparently, for it to be left analyzed.  Now it was not just the style people who sought a hidden message in what Hillary’s hair looked like that day, observing it closely and decoding each look, like a haiku intended to telegraph some political turmoil.

Hill-hairy Clinton's evolutions. (Huffington Post)

Hill-hairy Clinton’s evolutions. (Huffington Post)

And it wasn’t long before the hair-commentators themselves began to look a bit ridiculous, spending their professional adult lives studying the levels of blondness or featheriness of the First Lady’s hair, while she was out seeking to reform the health care system, initiate new adoption legislation, introduce micro-credit programs in developing nations, and foster an understanding of civil societies in the former Soviet republics.

Until that is, Hillary Clinton made a humorous crack that brought awe and a dark theory as to the real reason she kept changing her hairstyle.

“If I ever want to get Bosnia [the controversy about whether the U.S. should involve itself in Bosnia’s internal conflicts and to what extent] off the front page,” she joked, “all I have to do is change my hairstyle.”

Perhaps then, there is a connection between the big bang over Mrs. Obama’s bangs – and the budget talks.

And just what would it mean to the world if she decided to wear it curlier again?

Mrs. Obama with curled hair.

Mrs. Obama with curled hair.

Categories: Barbara Bush, Bess Truman, Buchanan, Lincon Johnson Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison, McKinley, Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, Harding, First Ladies, First Ladies Public Image, Florence Harding, History, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, The Eisenhowers

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4 replies »

  1. One of our hobbies is ex-Presidents and their wives…weird hobby, I know, but some of you can no doubt relate. When we saw Michelle Obama in bangs we immediately channeled Mamie Eisenhower and said, “it’s nice having bangs back in the White House!” Only those of us interested in all things Presidential would know immediately what that last sentence means!

  2. hmmmm…. so women’s social status in this country is told by their hair?

    Love the Jackie/Bubble video!


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