Economics of Downton Abbey: Not Just a Haircut

(Season Five, Episode 6)

If any are tempted to rail against modernism there is a vague, anticipatory comfort in the thought that when another half-century has passed our present surroundings will have taken on a rich stain of the antique.

…Our great-nieces will laugh, and we shall sigh, while we tell of the ancient battle of Bob and Shingle, and how bold their great-aunt felt when first she was fashionably shorn.

– The Times, September 22, 1924

In this episode of Downton Abbey – where the women seem to be finally taking charge of something, be it big or small, upstairs or down – Mary decides to chop her hair into a bob. This wasn’t a coincidence. Historian Mary Louise Roberts looks at the politics of women’s fashion, including bobbed hair, in 1920s France. She argues that the bob was interpreted as “visual fantasy” of female liberation. Mary’s decision to cut her hair resonates with this argument. Earlier in the episode Mary makes a remark that Lord Gillingham doesn’t think she can know her own mind, ostensibly because she is a woman. By chopping her hair she is outwardly asserting her independence and challenging the traditional view of a how a woman should behave.

Short hairstyles are prominent in this 1926 Vogue cover by artist Eduardo Benito
Short hairstyles are prominent in this 1926 Vogue cover by artist Eduardo Benito

Roberts writes that in France, a woman’s bob, along with her modern “boyish” dress, presented a “visual language for upheaval and change and figured in a political struggle for the redefinition of female identity” (p. 684). In Great Britain, a similar redefinition was occurring: women’s organizations were on the rise to fight for equal pay and equal franchise and young women gleefully shocked their elders through their dress and actions (Horn [1995] 2010).  As Mabel remarks in this episode, Mary seems “more than able to choose which laws to keep and which to break” – and she is doing just that.

Transforming the Hairdressing Industry

With short hair in vogue, the economy was looking up for those in the hairdressing industry. In late 1923 the Times announced the second exhibition for “Hairdressing as a Fine Art”, and noted that London was now home to three hairdressing academies with about 200 students each.

While I couldn’t find specific figures for the expansion of the hairdressing industry in Great Britain beyond the above mention, I did find a lovely article written in 1925 in the Washing Post examining the hairdressing industry’s expansion in the United States due to the bob. The article takes a moment to first clarify that woman investigated the story because “mere man would have neither the tact nor the inside knowledge requisite to handle so delicate a subject.” The article then goes on to argue that, “whatever the moralists may think” about the actual cut, the bob stimulated hairdressing and associated industries. Afterall, short hair needs maintenance.

According to the article, by the end of 1924 there were an estimated 21,000 hairdressing shops around the United States – as compared to 5,000 just five years earlier (these figures do not include barber shops)*. The demand for hairdressers was greater than the supply, providing women with a new occupation to consider. The economic impacts spread beyond just hairdressing. Demand for beauty parlor equipment rose, as did the development of other hair accessories, like bobby pins, hair dye, and artificial hair to cover up the bob for certain events. Furthermore, the beauty parlor was no longer just for wealthy women; working women made up the majority of customers. The article boldly proclaims “the art of beautification has become democratized.” I’m not sure I would go that far, but the short hairstyles did foster great demand for hair services catering to women on both sides of the Atlantic, creating a boon for the hair and beauty industry.

*The article doesn’t explain how they arrived at these estimates, so take them with a grain of salt. 

Further Reading

Horn, P. 2010 [1995]. Women in the 1920s. Amberley Publishing: Gloucestershire UK.

Roberts, M. L. 1993. “Samson and Delilah Revisited: The Politics of Women’s Fashion in 1920s France.” American Historical Review 98(3): pp. 657 – 684.

Times [London, England]. Sept. 22, 1924. “The Early Twenties.” The Times Digital Archive. Accessed February 9, 2015.

Washington Post. July 6, 1925. “‘Bobbing’ and Its Results.” p.4. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post (1877-1997). Retrieved January 3, 2015.

Image: Retrieved from Vogue Magazine Archive. April 1926 Cover Image by artist Eduardo Benito.



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