In the final season of Emmy-nominated Downton Abbey, set in 1924, Lady Mary Talbot (née Crawley) debuted a new haircut: the bob. She was a little behind the times, as the cut had entered the mainstream in America starting in 1920, as women finally earned the right to vote and the Saturday Evening Post ran F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.” But for a member of the British aristocracy, cutting off one’s hair and moving away from corseted Victorian fashions marked a notable break with traditional ideas of what a woman should look like. In short: the bob, at the time, was a haircut that made both a political and a cultural statement about what kind of woman one was.
The bob is directly tied to the rise of the flapper, whose existence is indebted to the end of World War I and the change in social attitudes it ushered in. The whole look of the flapper was in direct opposition to the Gibson girl standard of beauty that had prevailed before it. Gibson girls were corseted to look curvaceous, had their arms and legs (down to the ankle) covered at all times, wore long hair in complicated updos, and wore little to no makeup. Flappers preferred a straight up and down, almost asexual, silhouette. They wore strapless dresses that fell above their ankles and rolled stockings. They adored makeup and wore as much as they could, never shirking on their cupid’s-bow lips, thinly plucked and redrawn eyebrows, moon manicures, and kohl-smudged eyes, and embraced suntans like Coco Chanel. Their hair was liberatingly short and worn straight in a shingle bob, a tapered cut that exposed the back of the neck; with a finger wave; in a style called the Marcel, named after the Marcel iron; or in the Eton crop, the very short and androgynous style associated with Josephine Baker.
The taste for androgyny among women at the time had much to do with their entering the workforce when men went off to fight in WWI. As the men came home, women weren’t exactly looking forward to heading back into the home and their old social positions. They’d had a taste of independent life, as the breadwinners and managers of their own lives, and they didn’t want to give it back. Suffrage in 1920 and the introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923 were the political manifestations of that: Women wanted to legislate that they would remain in control of their lives. An androgynous appearance was the cultural manifestation; a step toward a more equal playing field between men and women.
The cut is remembered by Vogue as originating in Greenwich Village, New York City, back in 1912 as a popular look among bohemians. Irene Castle, a famous American ballroom dancer, caused such a sensation with her bob in 1915, which she got as a practical measure before having an appendectomy, that it became a trend referred to as the Castle bob. Coco Chanel followed suit in 1916. By 1921, you could go to the local movie theater and see a bob on Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, and Joan Crawford. And while F. Scott Fitzgerald is credited with bringing it into the living room of the average American with his short story, his wife Zelda, a flapper herself, said it best when she wrote in 1922’s “Eulogy on the Flapper”:
“The Flapper awoke from her lethargy of sub-deb-ism, bobbed her hair, put on her choicest pair of earrings and a great deal of audacity and rouge and went into the battle. She flirted because it was fun to flirt and wore a one-piece bathing suit because she had a good figure, she covered her face with powder and paint because she didn’t need it and she refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring. She was conscious that the things she did were the things she had always wanted to do.”
There is no doubt, the bob was a haircut for the modern, self-possessed woman. It fits Lady Mary, who was taking over the care of Downton as well as acting as a single mother and a member of the young nobility of turn-of-the-century England, just perfectly.