History of the Hairband: Feminism, Frivolity and Function

2019 was the year of the accessory. From statement hoops to slogan slides, every inch of the body can be decorated for full sartorial effect. My head turner of choice – the hairband. A hair-raising trend since striking reemergence at Prada’s Spring Summer 2019 show, the so-called padded ‘powerband’ transformed the practical accessory into a major feature. The secret behind the success of these seemingly juvenile accessories? Their combination of practicality, prettiness and power.

Far from a decorative accessory, headbands find their origins in ancient Greece. A popular feature of classical dress, wreaths were symbols of godly status, intellectual authority or sporting prowess. The accessory of choice for emperors, goddesses or poets alike, a walk in the sculpture gallery of the V&A shows a whole host of headwear on the heads of statues and busts from classical antiquity.

Antonio Canova, Apollo Crowning Himself, 1757, Getty Museum

Moving forward to the 20th century, designers like Paul Poiret and Gabrielle Chanel looked to the Orient and the exotic costumes of the Ballet Russes for head-turning inspiration. A means of channeling the glamour and mystery of the east, turbans, headwraps and silk scarves became the accessory of choice for stylish Hollywood starlets. Best worn over the sharply chopped ‘bob’ of the female ‘garcons’ or across the forehead of a fringed-clad ‘flapper’, the accessory served up serious style when worn on the court by tennis star Suzanne Lenglen in 1921. A symbol of increased female liberation, this simple hair accessory was part of a whole host of clothing and accessories that allowed women to engage in a more independent and active lifestyle. Thanks to the hairband, women could run, jump or dance their way into the twentieth century without hair in their eyes.

Suzanne Lenglen, 1921

In the 1940s, headwraps and hairbands were popularised by the Ministry of Information as a means of promoting ‘war-time’ chic. A utilitarian essential for women working in ammunition factories, the practical reworking of this Hollywood trend was a far cry from the spotless white turban sported by Lana Turner’s ‘femme fatale’ in the 1946 film, ‘The Postman always rings twice’.

Ammunition Factory Worker, 1942


Lana Turner, ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’, 1946


Most recently termed the ‘powerband’ by Vogue’s Julia Hobbs, the headband has been connected to female empowerment throughout history. In the 1980s, headbands were often paired with the power suit: a quick google-search of Hilary Clinton proves the politician had quite the collection! With this in mind then, it’s hardly surprising that both Cher Horowitz (Clueless) and Blaire Waldorf (Gossip Girl) frequently accessorised their high school politics with a band in black velvet or heavy pink embellishments.

Hilary Clinton, December 1995

Now, nearly 150 years after the hairband was worn by Alice as she stumbled ‘Through the Looking Glass’, (The 1871 illustrations of Lewis Caroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’ are said to be one of the first appearances of the accessory in popular culture), headbands remain a pretty yet practical style solution. Just last month, Net-a-Porter announced a 19% increase in hairband sales. A far cry from juvenile frivolity though, these reworked accessories are anything but saccharine. Appearing alongside Miuccia Prada’s hyper-female silhouettes at her SS’19 show, these elevated padded styles in studs, neon and satin are a powerful accompaniment to Prada’s feminine, yet feminist, muse. Similarly, frequent reiterations of the baroque crown – see Dolce and Gabbana or Charlize Theron at the recent Costume Guild Awards – afford the wearer a modern, regal edge.


Prada SS/19
Charlize Theron wearing Louis Vuitton at the Costume Designer’s Guild Awards – Instagram @misstheron

The fact of the matter is this: the hairband has been a powerful accessory for centuries. Far from frivolous and exceptionally functional, the simple bands can elevate an outfit and evoke a variety of moods. Whether topped with studs, sequins or stones, they allow us to dress our bodies from head to toe.






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