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The Enduring Appeal of the Short Bob

By Kames Narayanan

Muriel Finlay, Ziegfeld girl, by Alfred Cheney Johnston, circa 1928.
Muriel Finlay, Ziegfeld girl, by Alfred Cheney Johnston, circa 1928.

Anna Wintour may well be the fashion industry’s most powerful female superpower but there is one thing that she might perhaps have earned more of a reputation for — her signature sharp bob. Cut to razor-sharp accuracy and curled in at the ends, Wintour’s tresses are meticulously coiffed to frame her face. 

There is more weight to Wintour’s bob than it just being well-cut or impeccably styled hair. Worn on a woman who warrants an unprecedented level of influence, the bob has manifested as a visual cue of feminine power. Turning back the clock, the history of the haircut, too, recalls a similar narrative. 

As understood by many historians, the dawn of the bob hair trend harks back to as early as 1914 when renowned American female ballroom dancer Irene Castle cropped her hair short for ease of maintenance prior to an appendectomy. When she later debuted her drastic chop, it turned the heads of women across the country. 

Castle’s convenient cut fast turned into a sensation — particularly compelling during the period of World War I as women sought to break loose from the societal conventions of gender roles. The portmanteau hairstyle then took on meaning beyond the former or latter half of the word. Its narrative was quite literally written in the books when revered American fiction author F. Scott Fitzgerald published a short story titled “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”: the tale of a young, innocent girl who transforms into a vengeful vampire with just a haircut. 

In the years after, with Tinseltown’s popular ladies Twiggy, Louise Brooks and Joan Crawford all sporting ear-grazing bobs, the hairstyle minted its place in popular culture. The hairstyle itself has evolved with time in terms of its shape and length. In 1965, the bob underwent perhaps its most radical change in the hands of Vidal Sassoon, who introduced what he coined the “five-point cut”. Sassoon’s rendition of the hairstyle was tapered at an angle on either ends in the front and back of the hair and framed by bangs. 

“My idea was to cut shape into the hair, to use it like fabric and take away everything that was superfluous. Women were going back to work. They were assuming their own power. They didn’t have time to sit under the dryer anymore,” Sassoon said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1993. 

Since its launch into the limelight, the bob has remained an evergreen style albeit today, less radical than it once was. The modern woman’s inclination to the short, face-framing cut leans towards a myriad of reasons: liberation from the cumbersome maintenance of long tresses; a penchant for fashion; and a subtle nod to feminism. 

“Anyone can pull off a bob. The only guidelines that a hairstylist has to follow is in paying attention to the shape of the face,” says Ken Hong, award-winning celebrity hairstylist and salon director of Evolve Salon Singapore. “For instance, if the face is round or square then the length of the hair has to be lower than the chin by two centimetres. But if it is oval, the length of the bob can end above the chin.” 

Like the cyclical rounds of trends in fashion, hairstyles, too, go through the seasons and the bob reclaims its spot in the limelight. One of Hollywood’s most prominent hairstylists who also happens to be the Kardashian clan’s go-to, Jen Atkin (who sports a blunt, wavy bob herself) is a self-professed purveyor of the bob. 

Naturally, Atkin has gone on to earn a reputation as the woman behind some of the most prolific, contemporary bob cuts of recent times from Kendall Jenner to Hailey Bieber and Jenna Dewan. 

“Bobs are here to stay for 2019. I love Christy Turlington’s bob from the ’90s because it’s a tousled blowout that I think many girls can achieve. Keep it above the shoulder so it shows your neck, and ask your stylist for some layers throughout so there’s movement,” she writes on theouai.com, a haircare brand she conceived. 

Many are drawn to the short crop for its ease of maintenance. Not only does the washing, drying and subsequent styling of a bob cut significant time off the morning routine, it also is a style that ages with grace. Growing out a bob is an adventure of its own as it graduates from a bob to a lob and eventually falls down the shoulders. 

The women have power over a bob as much as the style serves to empower them. On the surface, it’s an unabashed show of rebellion and a subtle finger to the traditional conventions of how a woman should look.