kim, cher, and the enduring appeal of freakishly long hair

Tracing the complexity and controversy of extra-long locks in the year of the buzz cut.

by Hannah Ongley
23 June 2017, 10:45pm

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

Adwoa Aboah, Slick Woods, Jazzelle Zanaughtti, Kristen Stewart, Cara Delevingne — there are enough badass women buzzing their hair off to prove this isn't a fleeting trend. But not every cool girl on the block is reaching for the razor. i-D Japan cover star Yuka Mannami (Instagram bio: "Long hair Don't care") is known for her hip-length locks. The flamingo-hued hair of her BFF Fernanda Ly is only an inch or so shorter. Ford-represented model/rapper Madame Kush's hair measures an extreme 3-foot-7 and counting. She hasn't seen a hairdresser in five years and it takes a solid five hours to dry.

Long hair, so it goes, represents a willingness to be a sexually viable option for men. Yet the look is still resonating hard in the age of buzz cuts and "natural" beauty. Just look at more established stars: at Paris Fashion Week in March, Nicki Minaj answered French girl beauty with faux hair so long that gossip blogs joked she might trip on it (it was a legitimate possibility). Ariana Grande frequently posts no-makeup selfies to Instagram and Snapchat, but I've only seen her sans-extensions once in recent memory.

Naomi Campbell is still rocking the waist-length hair she popularized in the 90s. The supermodel's uniquely long locks made her even more remarkable than she would have anyway. At Prada's fall/winter 12 show, conversely, 30-something sets of sleek dip-dyed wigs transformed the models into an army of sinister space dolls in sci-fi stark clothing. Watching a Victoria's Secret runway procession has an equally creepy, though less interesting, effect.

In October, Cher superfan Kim Kardashian announced on Twitter that she would be wearing no makeup to Balenciaga's spring/summer 18 show. Just ($510 Guerlain) moisturizer and the show-stopping extensions she was rarely seen without with all week. "I took my inspiration from the runways in the 90s [for a] Cher meets Naomi Campbell [vibe]," her stylist Chris Appleton said of the high-shine style. It's no secret that Kim Kardashian has a Cher obsession. When Cher turned 71, Kim posted no less than nine photos to Twitter and Instagram as a tribute to her "fashion icon Armenian queen." (When Kim's husband Kanye celebrated a birthday, he was allocated just one tribute photo.)

If you want mermaid hair on a mortal budget, it's possible — but may take a half-decade longer than speed-dialing Appleton. Online communities like the aptly named Long Hair Community function as support groups for hair growth. (There are many less family-friendly web groups dedicated to long hair, but we'll save those for another day.) LHC's community guidelines prohibit "'kewl' talk or 'txt' speak," though members use a lot of acronyms that are probably even more confusing to those not hip to the lingo. "I've been SL for years and never could seem to make it to APL," wrote boldbrunette last week, "does anyone have any tips to retain my length as it grows? APL means "arm pit length." TBL is "tail bone length," while you can always use CICT ("can I call this…?") when you're unsure if you qualify for a given hair length. I cannot find an acronym that fully captures the majesty of Nicki Minaj at fashion week.

When Cher first became the poster child of flower child hair in the 60s, long locks were still seen as radical. Along with her voluminous bell bottoms, Cherokee-inspired vests (we'll get to those in a minute) and navel-exposing scarf dresses, the wigs that sometimes fell to Cher's calves were a turbocharged take on the aesthetics of the anti-war movement that gained national prominence around 1965 — the same year Sonny & Cher's "I Got You Babe" climbed to number one on the British and American charts. In October of the following year, the Black Panther party would rise up out of Oakland, encouraging African-American youth to grow giant afros as potent symbols of resistance and racial pride.

Hair in the 60s, though, ran the gamut — in 1967, Vidal Sassoon was filmed cropping Mia Farrow's long locks into a pixie for Rosemary's Baby.

Cher's long, dark hair wasn't celebrated by all communities. Along with her supermodel-slim figure and olive skin, it provided her with a polyethnic access point to Native American culture, something which sparked protests from Cherokee people when she released "Half Breed" in 1973. The music video — which shows a headdress-clad Cher atop a horse, led native groups to dispute the singer's claim that she had 1/16 Cherokee blood.

"Cher's first ethnic point of reference is to Native American culture through her iconographic slim, straight body and long, dark hair," Diane Negra writes in Off-White Hollywood: American Culture and Ethnic Female Stardom. "By selectively and sporadically coding her body as Native American, Cher provides one ethnically based means of rationalizing its decoration." Yet Negra also credits the star with disrupting the notion that whiteness and color are self-evident and mutually exclusive, and therefore "problematizing the security of whiteness." Mainstream America, meanwhile, was still up in arms over the fact that Cher, a woman, wore trousers.

It seems absurd to think of the reigning queen of the naked dress as a binary-smashing symbol of gender-fluidity. But the combination of hair butt-grazing locks and commanding contralto (not to mention her gender-bending outfits) often creating something bordering on moral panic. In Cher: Strong Enough, Josiah Howard writes that the star even hired a secretary to reply to fans who inquired about her gender, unable to believe that a woman could have such a powerful voice. Rather than symbolizing femininity, Cher's hair was used to claim she was wearing drag. Hair, on formidable women, is often seen as a way to compensate for masculine attributes.

Long hair also connotes youth. And as women age — heaven forbid, as they grey — the refusal to cut it off becomes still more radical. Take Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, or Erykah Badu, who frequently Instagrams unapologetic photos of her ankle-length dreadlocks or half-up natural hair in Cruella de Vil streaks of black and silver.

Women often speak of long hair as a security blanket. But when our government sees womanhood as a pre-existing condition, why stigmatize security? It's not a buzz cut or thigh-grazing hair that's radical but the ability to choose. Or to choose both. 


Text Hannah Ongley
Image via Twitter

Kim Kardashian
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