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The Guillotine Haircut

coiffure à la Titus

Women traditionally wore their hair long. So when did short hair become the vogue? Some say it became fashionable only about hundred years ago, but if we are to trace the history of cropped hair, it will take us to 18th-century France, just as the nation was coming out of turmoil of the Revolution.

During the later years of the French Revolution, many fashionable young men and women of the upper and middle classes began to cut their hair short. It was called the Titus haircut, or coiffure à la Titus. The name is a reference to Titus Junius Brutus, the elder son of Lucius Junius Brutus, who founded the Roman Republic in 509 BC by famously overthrowing the Roman monarchy.

The unlikely connection between an ancient Roman nobleman and a late-18th-century French haircut begins in 1729, with the French Enlightenment writer Voltaire, who had just finished composing a five-act play called Brutus. The play draws material from the legendary story of Lucius Junius Brutus, who condemned his son Titus to death for taking part in a conspiracy to reinstate the monarchy and put the overthrown king Lucius Tarquinius Superbus back on the throne. Titus was blindly in love with the Etruscan king’s daughter Tullie, and it was through this relationship that the conspirators dragged Titus into betraying Rome. When the Senate handed Titus over to his father, Brutus forgave his son but insisted on his execution to ensure the safety of the Republic.

Brutus was one of Voltaire’s less successful plays. When it first appeared on stage in 1730, it was criticized for not conforming to the existing theories of dramatic tragedy and for the harsh attitude of the character of Brutus. It was taken off the stage after only fifteen performances. The play was revived during the French Revolution, and in light of the current circumstances in France, Brutus received a clamorous response. During the opening performance at the Comédie-Française in Paris on November 17, 1790, when the actor playing Brutus cried, “Gods! Give us death rather than slavery!”, there was pandemonium in the theatre.

coiffure à la Titus

On May 30, 1791, on account of the 13th anniversary of Voltaire’s death, Brutus was performed at the royalist Théâtre de la Nation and at the rival Théâtre de la République. The actor playing Titus was François-Joseph Talma. He was costumed in the garb of ancient Rome, with a short crop of hair. Within days of the play, all the young people of Paris had their hair cut short, à la Titus, or “like Titus”.

The Titus hairstyle has another connection to the French Revolution—this one though the blade of the guillotine. After the Reign of Terror that saw the execution of thousands of people, it became fashionable for the young people to imitate the look of those unfortunate victims who had been put to the guillotine. They cut their hair short the way executioners cut their victims hair to make sure the blade went cleanly through the neck, and tied red ribbon around their neck to indicate the fatal cut. It has also been alleged that many high societies organized balls and parties—called bals des victimes (victims’ balls)—to celebrate the fall of the old government. People who attended these events dressed themselves à la victime, or “like the victim”, with scanty dresses to indicate impoverishment, and bare feet, in sandals, a possible allusion to the fact that women often went barefoot to the guillotine. Historians question whether these balls actually took place because there is very little contemporary evidence to support it.

coiffure à la Titus

As coiffure à la Titus became popular, support for this new hairstyle came from different quarters.

How many people have not had the advantage of having, so to speak, the face framed by the arrangement of hair! How many people have not had the advantage of having, so to speak, the face framed by the arrangement of hair! How many have a wide forehead and the temples too exposed!,” asked an 19th century French hairdresser. “The [coiffure à la] Titus agreeably covers these faults,” he wrote.

He continued:

Indeed, what could be less agreeable and more embarrassing than long flowing hair? … It hinders movement and thereby removes grace. … Finally, when the hair is long, one braids it, one rolls it, thereby reducing the head almost as if it were à la Titus. … Why does one need the difficulty of maintaining long and annoying hair, when one can procure it when one desires? 

References:
# Shannon Selin, https://shannonselin.com/2015/05/coiffure-a-la-titus/
# Encyclopedia of Fashion, http://www.fashionencyclopedia.com/fashion_costume_culture/European-Culture-18th-Century/Fashion-la-Victime.html
# Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bals_des_victimes

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