Everyone wants to know what I’m going to do with my hair when I get married this fall. My usual response: “I’ll probably actually comb it.” There’s not much I can actually do to my two-inch long pixie cut, which is the beauty of it. But when I thumb through wedding magazines in line at the grocery store, all I see are towering updos, big-barrel curls and long, long hair.
Wedding traditions, in these modern, Pinterest times, are flexible. Brides shatter stereotypes every day. We’re wearing short dresses paired with bright red shoes. We’re wearing black wedding gowns. We’re wearing pants, not to mention marrying other women. But the heteronormative expectation of a long-haired bride persists.
One wedding horror story has been been retold so many times among a group of friends that I can’t remember who it actually happened to. It goes like this: A woman and her bridal party visited a high-end boutique. As the bride-to-be stepped up onto the pedestal to consider a gown, the sales assistant carefully placed a veil on her head and said, “You’ll be growing your hair out, right?”
It was an assumption, not a question. The bride got so upset she stopped the appointment and left the salon.
It’s an extreme reaction, but not an isolated one. Now that I’m planning my own trek down the aisle, I’m thinking about that legend again. Many short-haired women, upon donning an engagement ring, face an innocent question: “What are you going to do with your hair?” But that gentle question often comes with a raised eyebrow or a hushed tone, as if inquiring about a giant wart on the bride’s forehead, or a missing eyeball.
Despite the total normalcy of short hair on women, I’ve seen it happen over and over. Friend with short hair gets engaged. Friend with short hair immediately starts growing it out for her wedding day. Friend cuts hair immediately after wedding, relieved to be rid of her dry, fraying ends.
Why do we want to be the long-haired bride when we’re the short-haired woman the rest of the time?
Blame it on ancient times. “Many cultures have felt that one of the greatest glories of a woman is her hair,” said Janet Messmer, professor emeritus and founding Program Head of Costume Technology at DePaul University. But if you possessed this shiny, long hair, you didn’t whip it back and forth in public. “The only person who would see your hair down would be your husband,” she said. It wasn’t just intimate. It was downright erotic.
Women’s hair remained full of secrets through the 19th century, and long, flowing hair was reserved for girls. If you were walking down the aisle and — wink, nudge — becoming a woman, you helped the transformation from maiden to married along by wearing your hair up.
But the 20th century was a hairstyle variety show. The 1920s brought flappers and bobs, and those short hairstyles continued into the 1930s and ’40s. Short hair was practical during a long period of national crisis — some wartime factories required that women on the assembly line keep their hair short for safety’s sake.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that long hair, and an increasing interest in self-expression, came back into style, in daily culture and in wedding albums. “Since then, it’s really been a choice,” Messmer said. “It’s all dependent on the vision you want to present of yourself on that occasion. There’s more choice now than there ever has been, for all things related to weddings.”
But short hair? People will still ask you about that.
“I think the idea of a woman’s hair as a great glory, and a symbol of great power, is still floating around in the subconscious of many people,” Messmer said.
I called my first hairdresser for industry insight: my Aunt Peg. Peggy James was a hair stylist for about 20 years, including a decade she spent managing her own salon.
“Someone was just asking me if you were going to grow out your hair for the wedding,” she said as soon as she answered the phone.
Regular customers would turn to Peggy for their big day, which was often a stressful experience for both bride and stylist. It didn’t help that Peggy’s salon was open during what I like to call The Big Hair Era. “If they didn’t have long hair already, they all wanted to grow their hair out for the wedding,” she said. “It would look like crap for a year while they did it.”
But bride after bride would endure shaggy strands for months so they could wear their hair up on the big day. And those large, intricate updos that require entire boxes of bobby pins can be heavy and uncomfortable after more than a few moments.
“That’s all you see in the magazines,” Peggy said of these high hairdos. “And most headpieces are designed for long hair worn in an updo.”
She’s right. The June/July issue of Brides magazine featured just one short-haired model. The spring 2015 issue of Martha Stewart Weddings did a bit better: three chin-length bobs.
For brides who have short, naturally textured hair, the pressure to have Disney princess wedding locks can be even worse. Hair extensions aren’t just expensive. They can also be painful, sometimes taking hours to weave into existing hair. But that pressure to have long, sleek hair that can be piled atop one’s head sometimes wins over a desire for comfort or simplicity.
When I asked Peggy if those determined brides lopped it all off after the wedding, she told me about her older sister, Donna Morelli, whom I can’t recall ever having long hair — not in my lifetime, not even in her teens.
But she grew her hair out for her wedding. It was just long enough to work into an updo, aided by a wiglet to add volume. (Donna had worked in the wig department at Gimbels department store.)
“One of her bridesmaids was a hairdresser,” Peggy recalled. “And when the wedding was over, that same night, she cut her hair short again.”
As my own wedding nears, it sometimes seems that this big day isn’t about love. It’s not about ceremonially marking a new life together. Instead, it feels like it’s about other people’s expectations of what makes a couple picture-perfect. But the success of my marriage won’t be predetermined by my hairstyle.
I’ll be keeping it short, thanks.