How hairstyles, make-up and nail polish have always been just as essential for social rebellion as placards

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Katie O'Malley
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A statement red lip? A revolutionary crop? Beauty has been used as a weapon for social rebellion for decades. Browse the gallery below to see the key events that shaped history.

llustration: Eve Lloyd Knight

Illustration: Eve Lloyd Knight, YCN

  • Red lips: Suffragette scandal, 1912

    In the 19th century, wearing make-up in public was considered improper; associated with rejects of society such as actors and prostitutes. But when suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman defiantly wore red lipstick at the New York City Suffrage Rally in 1912, highlighting the campaign for the women’s right to vote, it became an emblem of female emancipation. Attitudes didn’t change overnight, though – a bill was proposed in the US in 1915 to make it a misdemeanour for women to wear cosmetics “for the purpose of creating a false impression”.

  • The bob: a step forwards, 1915

    In an age when women were treated as decorative objects in restrictive corsets, a short haircut only ever occurred in cases of illness or accident. WWI saw women take on “male” roles in factories and fields, and it quickly became apparent that traditional dress codes were unsuitable. Things came to a head when American ballroom dancer, Irene Castle, became the first public figure to bob her hair in 1915, claiming it was “simply more practical”. Many hairdressers refused to carry out the cut, forcing women to go to barbershops, while those with bobs were fired from clerical and teaching roles.

  • The zazous: fighting fascism, 1940s

    The zazou subculture emerged in France during WWII in protest against the Vichy government’s collaboration with the Nazis. Against the drab background of wartime France, a group of youngsters, les zazous (inspired by French musician Hector Zazou) wore bold colours, striped stockings, and bright make-up, sporting peroxide hair in quiffs, curls and braids. Their American-inspired style was a direct rebellion against the conservative aesthetic of Nazi ideology. Christian Dior wrote in his autobiography: “I have no doubt this zazou style originated in a desire to defy the forces of occupation.

  • The afro: African-American Civil Rights Movement, 1960s

    Until the African-American Civil Rights Movement, most black Americans wore their hair in a way that emulated the styles of the dominant white society; as Black Panther Party member Kathleen Cleaver conceded, “Only straight hair, light eyes, light skin was beautiful.” But appreciation of black aesthetics (the ‘Black Is Beautiful’ movement) demanded African-Americans reject European-American ideas of beauty, and chemical straightening products and pressing combs became objects of shame.

  • Body hair: a feminist statement, 1970s

    When bikinis went mainstream after WWII, the sexualised female body (minus any hint of pubic hair) became a linchpin in adverts and films. But in a move towards equality, the US Congress passed The Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, sparking a feminist movement centred on self-ownership. Body hair became a motif of the cause and singer Patti Smith famously flashed her unshaven armpits on the cover of her 1978 album Easter. Tony Glenville, creative director at London College of Fashion, says refusing to shave “was seen as rebellion, but brought the sexes closer together”.

  • The mohican: social rebellion, 1970s

    The mohican or mohawk originated with the Mohawk tribe of Native Americans, who styled their hair to stop opposing tribes taking it as a trophy. Later, it was adopted by paratroopers during WWII to intimidate the enemy, and was embraced by punks in the Seventies, who used it as a symbol of opposition against traditional views and imposed gender identities. Using hairspray, glue, pomade and vibrant hair dyes, the mohican was a way to reject conformity and popular conceptions of beauty. “A mohawk and aggressive tribal imagery went with the attitude of punk,” says Glenville.

  • The chapatsu look: a Japanese revolt, 1990s

    A change in hair colour took on high stakes in the Nineties, when students across Japan started dyeing their hair brown and tanning their skin. Considered an act of rebellion against traditional ‘beauty’, the authorities were swift to act. Hair bleaching, chapatsu (literally, tea hair) was a rejection of Asian heritage, and perpetrators (male and female) were labelled delinquents and often expelled from school. In 1996, a police chief and his deputy were fired after pouring beer over a boy with tea hair and the Yakult Swallows Japanese baseball team banned ‘distracting’ chapatsu among players.

  • Secret salons: taking on the Taliban, 1990s

    During the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan from 1996-2001, it imposed strict rules on women – banning them from work, beauty salons and using cosmetics. In October 1996, a woman had the tip of her thumb cut off for wearing nail varnish. But this didn’t stop the Afghan Women’s Revolution risking their lives to find freedom under tyranny, running clandestine schools for girls, women’s clinics and underground beauty salons at home. Each hairbrush stroke and flick of mascara was an act of defiance against enabling women to earn their own money by doing beauty treatments.

  • Chopped hair: Egyptian protest, 2012

    On 25 December 2012, female activists cut off chunks of their hair at a demonstration for women’s rights in Tahrir Square, Cairo, chanting, “A woman’s crown is her liberation!” Mona Abdel Radi, co-founder of the National Front for Egypt’s Women, was one of eight women protesting against a new sharia-based constitution drafted by the Muslim Brotherhood that restricted women’s freedom and approved marriages of girls as young at nine years old. Crowds watched as the women covered their mouths – a symbol of their imposed silence – before chopping off their hair.

  • Rainbow nails: LGBT controversy, 2013

    At the World Athletics Championships in Russia in 2013, two Swedish athletes took the opportunity to protest against the host’s new law prohibiting the promotion of “gay propaganda” to under-18s. In tribute to the LGBT movement, high jumper Emma Green Tregaro and 200m runner Moa Hjelmer painted their nails rainbow colours. Green Tregaro posted a picture on Instagram with the hashtag #pride and got 12,000 likes. Despite a warning from the sport’s governing body, she said: “Sport is about respect and unity, so it felt like the perfect opportunity to show that.”


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Katie O'Malley

Katie O’Malley is the editorial assistant at Stylist magazine. When she’s not writing features about everything, from Suffragettes to fashion designers’ desks, she writes the Elsewhere page and contributes to Scoop and 5 Minute Philosopher. She also has a weakness for cheese, monochrome everything and films…all films.