the high ponytail is pop culture's feminist weapon

A hairstyle full of contradictions.

by Kelsey Lawrence
21 June 2017, 4:35pm

i-D Hair Week is an exploration of how our hairstyles start conversations about identity, culture and the times we live in.

A high ponytail says a lot of things. It can be playful or intense, sometimes even deranged. It fizzes. It's sexual. (There is a painting by artist Brad Phillips that says, in a thin elegant script, Hoop Earrings High Ponytail (How to save your marriage), and somehow that tactic doesn't seem totally implausible.) From Barbara Eden's sky-high and braid-wrapped I Dream of Jeannie ponytail — a style that became part of Madonna's Blond Ambition tour iconography — to the high, sleek ponytails seen in many a Kardashian Instagram, each decade has its conception of the look.

The ponytail likely emerged in ancient Greece, according to the Encyclopedia of Hair. The style can be seen in frescoes painted thousands of years ago in Crete, set high on the backs of heads. Young women in ancient Egypt and Rome also appeared in artwork wearing their hair in ponytails. Later, in 18th-century Europe and the American colonies, men wore their hair tied back in ponytails, but the style wasn't really seen on women again until around the 1950s. Merriam-Webster made ponytail an official part of the American vernacular in 1951 and in 1959 the first Barbie doll arrived in a black-and-white swimsuit and high ponytail with short, curled bangs. That same year, Sandra Dee was a ponytail-wearing surfer girl in Gidget and, a few years prior, Audrey Hepburn had made the high ponytail look very chic in Funny Face.

In 2012, physicists, long mystified by the nature of hair, created a Ponytail Equation that explains and predicts the shape of a ponytail. It's an equation that also helps scientists understand the nature of other materials such as wool or fur; British researchers used the "Rapunzel Number" — a product of the ponytail equation essential to calculating the effects of gravity on hair relative to its length — to solve a problem that Leonardo da Vinci first wondered about 500 years ago, when he remarked on the "fluid-like streamlines of hair in his notebooks." Ponytails, it turns out, are catalysts for grand and mysterious ponderings.

Perhaps because the ponytail (and the high ponytail especially) is full of contradictions. It's regal (exhibit A: Naomi Campbell flanked by her hairdresser and a frou-frou lap dog; exhibit B: Cher, 1972, wearing a waist-length ponytail and a geometrical cut-out dress) yet athletic. It's powerful and work-oriented — I can't concentrate on anything unless my hair's pulled up and away from my face — but often described with words like ditzy. It's high fashion, seen on runways from Chanel's spring/summer 94 show to Balmain's spring/summer 16 outing. But it's also Melissa Joan Hart in Clarissa Explains It All.

Sam McKnight, the hairstylist who created those slicked-back styles for Balmain, says that designer Olivier Rousteing wanted a "strict look for the show." They spent the night before getting it just right, trying low ponytails, ponytails embellished with leather. It was the simple, dramatic silhouette of the high ponytail, McKnight says, that really worked. "They were kind of warriors in the Balmain army — it was a tough look."

In spite of the high ponytail's occasional connotation as ditzy or the terrain of high school athletes, in fashion, it's a style that communicates strength and elegance — a strictly business sensibility. Donna Karan, innovator of the modern-day woman's wardrobe with her 1985 collection of Seven Easy Pieces, sent her models down the runway with high ponytails in her fall 13 ready-to-wear collection. Jason Wu's fall/winter 12 show featured the "diva dominatrix" ponytail, secured in place with black bondage tape that stylist Odile Gilbert bought at a Paris sex shop.

The high ponytail has never really gone away and, despite the fact that it's been reincarnated decade after decade, it feels new each time. Kim Kardashian's latex-and-PVC ponytail does not at all evoke 90s Valley girl or 50s Sandra Dee. It is also a style that does not belong to any one culture. That, in itself, gives it a mystical heritage. The high ponytail says a lot about how society views women and sexuality; it plays with contradictions of youthful innocence and power. Sandra Dee's Gidget ponytail conveys something different than Jason Wu's dominatrix ponytail. In danger of being ascribed just attributes like girlish or innocent, the ponytail's power is in its efficiency, pulling your hair away from your face and allowing you to get things done.

It's no coincidence that Madonna, someone who has sparked endless conversation about women and sexuality, chose a stratospherically high ponytail for her iconic Blond Ambition tour. (A fun thing is watching Madonna, in serious Catholic LARPing mode, writhe around on stage in a black cape, her ponytail whipping out of the cape's hood to introduce "Like A Prayer.")

"So many of Madonna's looks have been iconic, but her style on that tour was particularly striking because it reeked of power," says Laura Barcella, editor of Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop and Madonna fan since forever. "That made perfect sense for that time in her life — by then, she'd pretty much accomplished her life's goal of 'ruling the world,' and that tour was one of many personal bests when it came to career milestones for her. The high platinum ponytail, the bullet bras, the Catholic iconography, the faux-masturbation, the over-the-top, unapologetic sexuality: that tour encapsulated so much of what Madonna has always been about."

And the ponytail? "You wear a ponytail when you're busy doing things," Barcella adds. "But to me, that particular type of I Dream of Jeannie ponytail is full of contradictions. It has a retro, 50s/60s princess-y vibe, yet still manages to evoke dominance and strength. All of this makes sense for Madonna, who's always gotten off on playing with people's perceptions around power, gender, and sexuality."

Madonna is not the only musician to make supreme use of the high ponytail — La Bouche's 1995 Sweet Dreams album cover would not be the same without Melanie Thornton's shoulder tilt and her high gathered hair.

More recently, in 2015, Beyoncé arrived at the Met Gala in a mostly sheer, crystal-covered Givenchy gown and a ponytail with a real higher-the-hair-closer-to-god feel. Apparently, her hair made her late to the Gala, and also apparently, Beyoncé did not care. The Hollywood Reporter interviewed her stylist Neal Farinah:

"Then, we were in the elevator on the way down, and she looks at me and says 'Neal, I want to change my hair, will you change my hair? And I said, 'Honey, there could be cameras in the elevator,'" Farinah noted, referencing the star's knack for Met Gala elevator drama. "She says, 'You have 5 minutes.' And I said, 'Girl, what do you want me to do with the hair?'" And she wanted a high ponytail.

So, should you be so inclined, flip your head forward and gather your hair up high. A conduit for science, sex, and inimitable power swings behind you — because a ponytail is never just a ponytail.


Text Kelsey Lawrence
Photography Frank Micelotta Archive/ Getty Images 

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