Hair: From Mos to Mullets

Your hair is your own. At the same time, hair forms part of our shared experience as diverse communities. When brought under the gaze of others, head and facial hair become markers of identity, gender and culture. In archival photography, hair also functions as a kind of visual time stamp. Wondering when a photo was taken? Well, take a look at the hair! These photos are taken from the collection of Public Record Office Victoria. Melbourne, Australia, and were showcased in a 2016 exhibition at the Victorian Archives Centre.  

Beards and Moustaches by Public Record Office VictoriaPublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

Beards and Moustaches

During the 18th century the European elite saw facial hair as bodily waste. In 1789 early British colonists kidnapped Bennelong, Arabanoo and Colebee of the Eora Nation and shaved the men's faces. This was an early example in a long history of colonial violation of identity based on Western conventions.

By the mid-19th century perspectives on facial hair had changed dramatically. The British military changed its policy surrounding beards during the Crimean War, where the cold climate made a warm beard an asset. Australians were also inspired by bearded explorers and folk heroes like Robert Burke and Ned Kelly.

Theories on air purity led Victorian era doctors to recommend growing facial hair as a ‘filter’ – advice the gentleman in image 13 may have taken to heart. In 1853 Charles Dickens published the article ‘Why shave?’ describing it as an “unwholesome custom”. By 1900 facial hair was the pervading fashion for men. 

Short Back and Sides by Public Record Office VictoriaPublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)


A Short-Back-And-Sides cut with a clean shaven face became common during the First World War. Cropped military hairstyles reduced the spread of lice, maintained uniformity and gave soldiers “more a semblance than the reality of cleanliness.” (Frederic Manning, The Middle Parts of Fortune, 1929). The advent of gas as an offensive weapon in 1915 rendered facial hair a deadly risk. Beards or sideburns could hamper the effective seal of a gas mask, leaving the moustache as the only safe facial hair for a soldier. The invention of the safety razor in 1902 made upkeep possible even in the trenches.

Returned soldiers often maintained this now iconic aesthetic. By the mid-20th century the Short-Back-And-Sides had become the dominant masculine look. Once emblematic of military service it is now so common as to seem almost invisible as a hairstyle at all. This image may have been used to encourage injured soldiers to return to the workforce. 

Hippy Hair by Public Record Office VictoriaPublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

Hippy Hair

"Flow it. Show it. Long as God can grow it" (James Rado and Gerome Ragni, Hair: The Musical, 1967). Young people involved in the protest movements of the 1960s used head hair, body hair and facial hair as a symbol of their political and ideological beliefs. Un-styled hair became a powerful symbol of the ‘hippy’ counter-culture and a sharp contrast to the shorter, controlled styles of the previous generation. Feminism inspired women to grow their body hair as a symbol of the equality and freedom they hoped to achieve. Many in the anti-Vietnam war movement grew their hair long as a visible rejection of the short Buzz Cut style sported by soldiers. Some Vietnam veterans – many of whom were conscripted – grew their hair long when they returned in an effort to disassociate themselves from the unpopular war. Their long hair sometimes resulted in them being shunned from Returned Services League clubs. By the late 1970s the fashion for long hair had crossed into mainstream fashion and was not indicative of political beliefs, but a matter of personal style. 

Natural hair by Public Record Office VictoriaPublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

Natural Hair

The civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s proudly proclaimed ‘Black is Beautiful.’ Icons like Angela Davis and Michael Jackson made a style once known as ‘the Fro’ famous. It is one of many ways of styling tightly curled Natural Hair that does not involve chemical straightening or expensive weaves. 

Assumptions that having Natural Hair denotes political radicalism, a particular music taste or uncleanliness can be offensive and frustrating. Many schools and institutions around the world restrict acceptable hairstyles to those easily possible in European hair. The Natural Hair movement seeks to address internalised and external prejudice surrounding black Natural Hair.

Dr Ndeutala Selma Hishongwa (pictured in this image) is an academic from Namibia. She was in Australia in the 1980s completing her PHD on Women’s Education.

The Mullet by Public Record Office VictoriaPublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

The Mullet

As early as the 6th century CE Procopius wrote of the “Hunic look” of growing hair long all around the head but cut short at the front. Historians speculate that this was to “keep their necks warm and dry, but their eyes unobstructed” (Alan Henderson, Mullet Madness! 2007). This hairstyle, known to some as the ‘Lion’s Mane’ but known to most as the Mullet, came into prominence in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s.

The etymology of the word ‘mullet' is said to come from the fish of the same name. “The mullet fish basically has no neck… human Mullet Heads achieve the same.” (Mike D, Mulling over the Mullet in the Grand Royal Magazine, 1995).

From the football field to the television screen the Mullet became the quintessential symbol of Australian working class identity - a powerful statement against white-collar conservatism. In the 1990s and early 2000s young Lebanese men in Australia adopted a closely shaved version, while in Denmark they simply call it ‘Swedish Hair’. The Mullet is still a powerful cultural symbol - in 2010 Iran banned it for being a ‘decadent western cut’ (The Guardian, Iran Bans the Mullet, 2010).

Mohawk by Public Record Office VictoriaPublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

The Mohawk

The Mohawk hairstyle gives reference to the Mohawk nation, an Indigenous people from the  East Coast of North America and Canada who plucked out their hair except for a square piece of long hair on their head. The modern Mohawk in all its varieties is commonly linked with the punk scene, and emerged during the mid-1970s and symbolised a movement against the political conservative establishment. Bands like The Sex Pistols took a punk attitude to the world, giving the finger to the hippy era and concurrently the conservatism of Thatcher-England. The early punk music scene in Australia screamed out for a more progressive country, challenging the decade long leadership of orthodox Christian State Premier Sir Joh Bjelke Peterson in Brisbane, where the scene thrived. The fashion aesthetic spilled over into the 1980s combining fetish leather wear and studs with working class simplicity like boots, jeans and a white t-shirt. Hairstyles were dramatically non-conformist, like this student Mohawk, or even asymmetrical coloured spikes (Liberty spikes). The Melbourne punk culture of the 1980s also introduced a DIY-ness to the City’s creativity that many believe thrives today. Bands like The Young Charlatans, La Femme and Boys Next Door (Nick Cave) played at the Crystal Ballroom in St Kilda where the culture had a strong following. 

Beehive by Public Record Office VictoriaPublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

The Beehive

The Beehive hairstyle was intentionally created by Margaret Heldt of Michigan, USA, for a 1960 edition of Modern Beauty Shop magazine. They had requested a new style for a new decade, and the admired hairstylist created the bouffant ‘look’ of hair twisted on top of the head as a method to fit beneath the pillbox, or fez, hat. The writer of the article noticed an accessory pinned in the model’s hair resembled a bee, and hence the Beehive was born. It became popular when Audrey Hepburn donned the style in the 1961 film Breakfast At Tiffany’s and singing groups like The Ronettes adopted it as part of their stage presence when they sang on television. The Ronettes had a ‘bad girl’ reputation which helped influence the Beehive as a fashion statement. The Beehive was popular in the early 1960s before the counter culture hippies unravelled it completely. 

Victory Roll by Public Record Office VictoriaPublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

The Victory Roll

The Backward Roll, or Victory Roll, was worn by average women throughout the 1940s. It was a fashionable solution when goods were rationed during the Second World War and women couldn’t get their hands on pins or other hair accessories easily. The increased number of women working in factories and industry, due to the absence of men, also helped influence their adoption of the backward roll. By day, women rolled their hair around headbands made from old stockings, tucked safely away from dangerous machinery, while by night their hair unfurled into a glamorous Victory Roll. The term was coined after the celebratory display by airline pilots who would loop their planes in the air as they returned from battle. 

Queue by Public Record Office VictoriaPublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

The Queue

Much has been written about the male hair tradition The Queue: a male hairstyle specific to regions in and around China and broadly adopted from the early seventeenth century. Long hair had always been customary for the Han Chinese as a sign of virility and beauty. The Queue, in contrast, shaves the front part of the hair off. It’s commonly linked with an area in China previously referred to as Three North-East Provinces, or Manchuria. The Queue was forced upon the Han-Chinese, and used as a symbol of domination, when the Manchus conquered Han territories and replaced the Ming Dynasty with the Qing in 1644. The traditional style was to shave the front portion of the head and wear the hair in a long plait down the back. Those who opposed the Queue, when the Manchu forces spread across China in the 17th and 18th centuries, were executed and thus it became a symbol of defiance to cut off their plait. The Queue was maintained as a traditional form of hair until the Qing dynasty abdicated in 1912. Early Chinese immigrants to Melbourne, during the 1800s, still wore the Queue, evident in this police mug shot taken at the time. 


The Bob by Public Record Office VictoriaPublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

The Bob

In 1915 the sight of a haircut so short it barely touched a woman’s ear lobes was controversial. Irene Castle, often cited as popularizing the Bob, was not bothered by conventionality and happily influenced fashion throughout her career. One of New York’s most respected ballroom dancers in clubs and silent films she naturally had influence, and her infamous hairstyle The Castle Bob, short with a little curl, became vogue. 

By the 1920s young women were seen lining up outside barbershops with short hair in mind, because while their hair shortened, a woman's independence from traditional social structures grew. They had been driving cars, casting their right to vote and working in male dominated industries.

The Bob hairstyle, with its straight sides and block fringe, was embraced with enthusiasm by young women as a natural complement to the radically androgynous flapper dress. Both styles pushed the boundaries of gender stereotypes, and skin exposure. The Bob hairstyle suited the 1920s, a period of post-war exuberance when rebellious young women danced with abandon to Jazz music and smoked in public.

This image from the early 1930s indicates Australian women wore the Bob well into the 1930s, but it lost its appeal soon after when movie stars returned to long wavy hair. 

Credits: Story

This content was originally produced for a physical exhibition at the Victorian Archives Centre, North Melbourne. The exhibition 'From Mos to Mullets' was exhibited from October 2016 to February 2017.

Exhibition Curators: Laura Feslier and Kate Follington
Online producer: Tara Oldfield

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Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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