Untangling the Cultural Meaning of Hair

15 February 2017 | By Sign Salad
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Hair is political lingo. From the flower power flat-iron, to North Korea’s TV show “Let’s trim our hair in accordance with the communist lifestyle”, haircuts are a way of expressing what you believe in.

Brands have always known this: think Dove turning blue hair into a sign of self-esteem, or adverts telling black consumers to embrace their curls. When Vogue put Beyoncé on a cover last year in a stringy-looking mane, readers wrote in to praise their feminist chutzpah and defiance of the “hair tax” (that is, money spent on expensive cuts and blow-drys.)

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With recent developments in America, however, there seems to be a new semiotic connection developing between hair and political ideals. Everyone from treat-or-treating fourth graders to famous comedians has become obsessed with Donald Trump’s hair—and rightly so, since culturally, we’re used to subconsciously decoding hair as philosophy. It’s worth asking: what cues speak to us from Trump’s hair?

Trump’s hairstyle has a mixed relationship with a cultural landscape that, increasingly, values authenticity. On one level, the bouffant cannot help but seem artificial. Yellower than yellow and perfectly sprayed into place, it is so micro-managed that Trump has even said he might not have time to maintain it as POTUS. But on another level, you could also read this very artifice as an appealing quality that codes Trump as boldly, authentically unpolished. It says something that over the years (and in spite of much mockery), Trump has refused to replace his fake-looking hair with a more natural, convincing do— together with his ill-fitting suits and “egregiously long” ties, this marks him as a person who is relatably fallible, and not beyond an obvious sartorial gaffe.

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Trump’s hair also signals the unknowable. Google “Trump Hair”, and you’ll find a dark corner of the internet devoted to its many, many mysteries. Not even Gawker knows what it’s made of, or how much it costs. Like Homer in this Simpsons episode, we have learned to treat Trump’s hair as an object that cannot be illuminated by facts, and possibly hides all kinds of secrets within its wisps; in a world that is gravitating towards transparency, openness, and knowledge-sharing economies, it signals obfuscation.

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Finally, the yellow hairdo gives off a distinct impression of precariousness. It’s been called “a soufflé of hair”, an “airy helmet”, and “unstable architecture that is doomed to collapse”; even Trump has acknowledged how flimsy it looks, joking that his critics might like to see it demolished by rain on inauguration day. Visually, then, perhaps it signals the volatility of a regime that has already unsettled the world with war provocations, and a poorly-received travel ban— a signifier of the unstable, it reminds us how little we know about the political future to come.

As the Trump administration kicks into gear, we are reminded once more that personal style can be (and always has been) a powerful tool for tribal and political branding. Brands need to tread carefully, using a fine-tooth comb to navigate a post-election sartorial landscape that is loaded with meaning.

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