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From Marie Antoinette to JoJo Siwa, Hair Bows Have a Surprisingly Meaningful History

8 minute read
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The 16-year-old actor and dancer JoJo Siwa became famous from Dance Moms and YouTube, but, for many, she’s now recognizable by something else: her signature hair bows. The video showcasing her “insane” personal collection of more than 1,000 bows — versions of which are available to fans via JoJo’s Bow Club, a bow-of-the-month subscription service — has more than 1.5 million views on YouTube, and her branded accessories are also sold at Claire’s, Justice and Target.

To Siwa’s fans, the bow symbolizes self-confidence and their love for the teen star. The accessories have become such a craze that some schools have banned them for being too distracting and for fueling envy-rooted bullying.

A look back at the history of hair bows, however, reveals that much has changed — and not just because there was a time when they were mandatory for many schoolgirls. The act of wearing a bow in one’s hair has held a multitude of meanings throughout history, ranging from communicating the status of one’s love life to displaying loyalty to a regime.

Their story is an old one. During any period of time when there has been evidence of civilization, there has been evidence of hair accessories. Ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Sumerians and Aztecs all wore ribbons and hair adornments. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is home to a set of Sumerian hair ribbons made of gold dating back to 2600-2500 BC. Early hair accessories were worn for practical reasons, like keeping hair away from a person’s face, as well as a desire to look nice. Members of ancient civilizations were not unlike us in this manner, explains Rachael Gibson, the former web editor of Hairdressers Journal who is known on Instagram as the Hair Historian.

But one of the earliest known moments of hair-bow fame came much later, Gibson says: in 1680s France.

As the story goes, the Marquise de Fontange, one of Louis XIV’s mistresses and a woman whose position was somewhat parallel to that of today’s online influencers, is said to have lost her hat when she was riding a horse. At the time, it was considered immodest and mildly salacious for a woman, particularly a married woman, to be seen with loose hair. So Fontange tied her hair up using a ribbon she pulled off her dress. The king was very taken by the makeshift coiffure, and it quickly became a trend throughout France. The style became bigger and more extravagant as it spread through a society that embraced conspicuous consumption — as evidenced by Marie Antoinette’s hairdresser spending an estimated 20,000 francs on her hair ribbons.

Female Head-Gear Marie Antoinette
19th century illustration of Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) with elaborate hairstyle.Getty Images

Nor were hairs bows restricted to being worn by women. Among men in France, a style called a “lovelock” popped up around the 1590s, before hair bows were popular for women. The lovelock is a strand of hair grown long and braided over one’s heart, tied at the end with a ribbon bow, worn to show a man’s devotion to a woman. Many men even used extensions to make their lovelocks longer. From the 16th to 18th centuries, wigs were also popular among men as both a fashion and a way to keep clean; men would shave their heads and wear powdered wigs as an effort to avoid lice and maintain some semblance of hair hygiene, Gibson explains. And, as long as there was hair to tie up and decorate with ribbons and bows, they did so.

So why are bows like those sold today by Siwa seen as a feminine look?

Historians believe that the Duke of Bedford is to thank for that. In an act of rebellion against the powder tax, which had been introduced by William Pitt in 1795 as an effort to fund the Napoleonic War, the Duke was among the first to give up wigs and maintain a short haircut. Men wearing shorter, natural hair slowly became accepted; the style became known as the “Bedford Crop.” Men in European cultures, and North American by extension, have mostly worn their hair short since, and this is where the hair bow’s meaning starts to change, too.

According to gender-studies scholar Esther Berry, who has researched the economy and meaning of hair, the bow’s main purpose changed in the 19th century. Where it had once served as an object to distinguish class, it became an object to distinguish gender — starting a set of gender norms that still persist today.

“This is when fashion magazines began to instruct readers on how to dress to fit a specific gender ideal, saying things like ‘don’t let your boys wear long dresses’ or ‘make sure you style your hair a certain way if you’re a girl,'” she says. As the hair bow became an exclusively female object, since men who followed those norms no longer had enough hair for it, it was considered especially helpful — in distinguishing the gender of infants, Berry says, as this wasn’t immediately visible, something that’s still done today. This dichotomy was later seen in the early 20th century’s Edwardian Era as well, as super-sized bows were used as visual cues to suggest an amplified degree of femininity and white bows were used to suggest purity, contributing to the girlish, innocent connotations bows hold today.

three sisters with hair bow- 1906- Photographer: Rudolph DuehrkoopVintage property of ullstein bild
Three sisters with hair bows, 1906.Rudolph Duehrkoop—ullstein bild/Getty Images

But not every hair bow has been part of the same story.

As Berry points out, the hair bow has also served as an object of resistance and mobilization. In Louisiana in the late 1700s, regulations known as “tignon laws” barred African American women from showing their natural hair, forcing them to use tignons (a type of turban-style cloth headcoverings) to cover it up. However, as a form of protest, they decorated their tignons with ribbons, bows and jewels and used fine materials to wrap their heads, reinterpreting the law and making the tignon a style for themselves.

Centuries later, in the Soviet Union, hair bows again held a vastly different meaning. White bantiki (big, white hair bows) were worn by young girls, as required by their school uniforms across all regions in the freshly formed Soviet Union, to show Soviet loyalty, explains Iveta Silova, a co-author of Childhood and Schooling in (Post)Socialist Societies: Memories of Everyday Life. “I grew to associate hair bows with the Soviet nationhood, especially the Russification policies and their effects on children’s everyday lives,” writes Silova, who grew up in Latvia during the rise of the Soviet Union. She recounts an incident in which she didn’t wear a hair bow to her school’s picture day, per a request from her parents, who didn’t want Silova to lose her Latvian identity; a schoolteacher quickly fastened a bow on Silova’s head to ensure she fit in. Such bows became strongly emblematic of Soviet identity, and today children in formerly Soviet regions often still wear hair bows to school even though they are no longer required, mainly for nostalgic reasons, according to Silova.

Schoolgirl Writing on Chalkboard
An Armenian girl writes on the chalkboard at school in 1988Thierry Orban—Sygma via Getty Images

In the United States, a 1944 issue of LIFE magazine reveals another level of meaning carried by the bow: “Girl’s Hair-Do Reveals Love Life” reads a caption under an article titled “High-School Fads.” The accompanying photos depict girls wearing hair bows in varying positions, in a trend that echoes the 16th-century lovelock. According to the images, a hair bow on the top of a head means the girl is actively searching for a man and a bow worn in the back means that a girl is “not interested in men,” among other bow positions and explanations.

“It’s like a Facebook relationship status update, but worn on the head,” says Berry, and since topics relating to sexuality and love were considered unsafe for everyday conversation, there’s a chance that the bow did serve as a way to communicate a secret love language. Berry goes on to note that the bow in this article “can also be read as reinforcing the age-old stereotype that what women want most is frivolous romance. Accordingly, the bow can be seen in this example to communicate that women think with their hearts, not their heads, reinforcing gender norms that see women as governed by emotion and men by reason and intelligence.”

More recent hair-bow appearances, like its presence on models’ hair in the 1995 Chanel runway show and in the Chanel Metiers d‘Art 2015/16 Fashion Show, show the accessory’s place in high fashion, and the 2018 trend of repurposing the ribbons from designer shopping bags into hair bows show its modern consumerist symbolic value.

The hair bow is a fashion object that has communicated class, gender, resistance and nationality, among other structures — and now JoJo Siwa has helped add another meaning to that long list.

Correction, Aug. 14, 3 PM EST: The original version of this story misstated whom the Marquise de Fontange was a mistress of. It was Louis XIV, not Louis XVII.

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Write to Anna Purna Kambhampaty at Anna.kambhampaty@time.com