THE HISTORY OF THE PONYTAIL

In this article Emmie Cosgrove explores the history of the beloved hair trend that always has our back on bad hair days, the ponytail.

Those of us out there with long hair know how infuriating having it in your face can be. The ponytail has always been a quick and easy solution of keeping hair out of the way. It is versatile and can be styled in multiple ways. Whether you want more of a bohemian hairstyle or a look that screams ‘I’m the boss of this company and I haven’t got time for this’, the ponytail is here for you. With major celebrities such as Ariana Grande and Kim Kardashian West sporting the ponytail, it may be seen as a modern trend. However, the ponytail has been around for an exceptionally long time.

No one knows how far back the ponytail truly goes. It can be seen in works of art that date all the way back to 1600 B.C.E from Greece, Rome and Egypt. In her novel, the Encyclopaedia of Hair, Victoria Sherrow reckons that Ancient Greece is where the ponytail originated from. Both men and women can be seen in these ancient artworks with their hair tied back and was a prime hairstyle worn by many.


However, as the 17th Century rolled about the ponytail had become a staple hairstyle for the male Manchu people of Northeast China. Many of us may view the ponytail as a simplistic hairstyle, but the male Manchu people would shave both the front and side of their heads and only grow hair on the very top of their heads. This hair would then be tied back into a ponytail and was often braided. When the Manchu people took on their conquest of China, the ponytail was forcefully introduced to the Han Chinese men. Prior to this conquest, both Han Chinese men and women would style their hair in top knots and buns.

In modern times the ponytail has a way of radiating power, yet during the Manchu conquest of China, the ponytail symbolised submission. People were even executed if they refused to wear their hair in a ponytail. Not wearing a ponytail was a sign of disobedience and refusing to comply with new rules, which was punishable by death.

If you think the ponytail is a girly hairdo, the ponytail of the 18th Century may come as a bit of a shock.The ponytail had become a compulsory hairstyle for European soldiers in France and was known as a queue. It was a hairdo fit for men only and represented both hyper masculinity and the establishment. Queues were often tied back with blue ribbons and occasionally braided.

This hyper masculine ponytail didn’t last too long and in the late 18th Century the ponytail went under some drastic changes. European armies bid farewell to their long locks and ponytails as it was far too high maintenance for soldiers. Those in the army were now required to cut their hair short which quickly became the norm for men, and still to this day it is incredibly common to see men with short hair. Now that soldiers had snipped most of their hair off, and the ponytail lost its masculine nature, the look still didn’t quite make it as a hairstyle seen fit for women. People stopped pulling their hair up and tying it back. The ponytail had faded into the background and it took some time for it to resurface and gain its popularity back.

The 1920s saw the rise of the flapper and the flapper bob was all the rage when it came to hair. As the 20s ended and the Hollywood film industry boomed, the 30s and 40s had brought luscious Hollywood curls to centre stage. The ponytail had lost all its power. It was a schoolgirl hairstyle worn by children.

It wasn’t until the 50s that the ponytail was finally considered an appropriate hairstyle for women. The film star Sandra Dee wore her hair in a ponytail during the classic teen romance movie Gidget. The ponytail then became a classic hairdo for the girl next door. It wasn’t cool but it was a hairstyle that was perfect for your casual everyday girl.

With the ponytail back on the big screen, each decade that followed on from the 50s brought different styling techniques and meanings to the ponytail. In the 60s French actress and model Brigitte Bardot made the ponytail a style that cool and chic women could wear too. The ponytail was now transformed from a casual girl’s hairdo into a look that was fashionable and sophisticated.

Finally, as a big fashion hair hit of the 60s, the ponytail had become a household hairstyle and saw its fair share of use during the 70s and 80s. However, it wasn’t until the 90s that the ponytail became a powerhouse hairstyle.

With a mass following during the 80s and her music career only ever on the rise, Madonna blessed the 90s with a cone bra outfit and clip-on high ponytail during her blonde ambition tour. Wearing this clip-in during her tour transformed the ponytail into a symbol of female empowerment. Fans were obsessed with the look and would recreate it. Even when Madonna ditched the high pony due to it causing difficulties with headsets on tour and too much strain on her natural hair, this clip-in ponytail managed to sell for £1200 in a 2014 auction, and fans still loved the look. The bond between girl power and the ponytail had grown strong.

In the 1999 film 10 Things I Hate About You, one of the leading protagonists, Kat, sports a ponytail throughout many scenes. Though her character comes off as anti-social and as someone who doesn’t care about her appearance, she is also an on-screen feminist icon. She is true to who she is and fights against the standards society has set for women. She may wear her hair in a ponytail to try and look carefree and effortless when it comes to her hairstyling choices, but this look gives her a tough edge and feeds into the idea that the ponytail is a hairstyle for strong women.

Unfortunately, in the early 2000s, the ponytail went through another rough patch. Little Britain, a comedy TV show that took the UK by storm, managed to comically drain all the chic girl power out of the ponytail. The show’s character Vicky Pollard, portrayed by Matt Lucas, had turned the ponytail into a style that was fit for chavs. This led to the ponytail being dubbed ‘the Croydon Facelift’. It was now a look accompanied by tracksuits, fake tan and teenagers who spoke only in English slang.

Jokes aside, the ponytail managed to pull through in the fashion industry and was seen on catwalks and on several early 2000s celebrity red carpet looks.

By 2012 the ponytail had even scored its own scientific equation. A group of English and American scientists joined forces, and with one researcher working at a shampoo factory, they opted to create a hairraising experiment. Known as the Rapunzel number, this equation is used to predict the shape of a ponytail on an individual’s hair. Depending on hair length and curl and then the added force of gravity, you could get two completely different looking ponytails. This equation even earned itself an IG Nobel for Physics award, an award set up for ‘spoof experiments’ just like the Rapunzel number. Despite the fact this experiment wasn’t considered a serious scientific breakthrough, it helped a number of scientists gain a stronger understanding of various materials from wool, to fur, and hair.

In the later years of the 2000s the ponytail reached its peak and was no longer a laughing stock of a hairstyle. For her 2015 Met Gala look Beyoncé pulled off a last-minute ponytail that caused her to be late to the gala. Whilst on the way to the Met Gala, Beyoncé told her hairstylist Neal Farinah that she wanted a hair change.
Beyoncé demanded a high ponytail and Neal Farinah had only five minutes to create the look. Beyoncé rocked the high ponytail look and it looked like that ‘do had taken much longer than five minutes to create.

As the trend caught on this hairstyle became a favourite for celebrities such as J-Lo, and all the Kardashians have been seen with their hair up in a ponytail every so often. Though Ariana Grande did ditch her signature ponytail due to the pain it was causing her, this look still has over 3 million tags on Instagram and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

With hairstylists adding modern spins on the ponytail by incorporating pearls and chains into their styling, and more men growing their hair out, the future of the ponytail is going to be an exciting thing to experience. We’re living in a time in which people are becoming far more expressive with their fashion and hair choices, and it is interesting to see how this can be transferred to such a simple hairstyle that has been around for this long.

You can read more of Emmie’s work over on Twitter at @Ems_Pen_

Illustrations by Ben Springham Images via Wikimedia Commons and Unsplash


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