‘Tease it to Jesus!’ – the beatific return of big hair

After Miley Cyrus won her first Grammy Awards this month, she took to social media to “personally thank my hair” – a 1970s coif that made the case for dangerous quantities of hairspray, back brushing, Velcro rollers and hairpins. It drew on her southern roots, where a common saying is something along the lines of: “The higher the hair, the closer to heaven – so ‘tease it to Jesus’.”

Cyrus isn’t alone. Big hair is having a resurgence, from Julianne Moore in The Cut magazine to Julia Roberts on the cover of Vogue. Doll-like models wore coloured wigs inspired by The Supremes at the Marc Jacobs’ show in New York earlier this month, to celebrate his brand’s 40th anniversary. For the recent Schiaparelli couture show in Paris, legendary hair stylist Guido Palau teased model Kendall Jenner’s hair into a bouffant, which was accessorised with a red strapless minidress made from fingernails.

Supremes-style bouffants were a feature at Marc Jacobs’ New York show this month. Photograph: Nina Westervelt/WWD/Getty Images

Larger-than-life hair has been dominating the screen, too: from Cailee Spaeny’s gravity-defying ’do in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla; to Amy Winehouse’s back-brushed beehive in Back to Black, a biopic about her life coming in April. Then there is Emma Stone’s four feet of extensions that made for a dramatic hair moment in Poor Things. Finally, a remake of 2004’s favourite film, Mean Girls, has sent TikTok crazy for a line from the original: “That’s why her hair is so big. It’s full of secrets.”

In fact, “big hair” has more than 950 million searches on the platform, pulling up references to Cindy Crawford’s 90s blowout, supersized natural hair, and the hot-off-the-tongs styles of The Sopranos’ leading ladies, Carmela and Adriana.

Big hair is free and rebellious. It is the antithesis of the clean girl aesthetic that’s dominated the 2020s so far, where quiet luxury, natural makeup and hair that’s scraped and straightened has reigned supreme.

Kendall Jenner goes supersized, for Schiaparelli. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

In 2024, says Palau, “it feels subversive to do big hair. At one time, it was the epitome of glamour and power,” but now it’s rare to see a woman with over coiffed hair, which makes “it shocking to see”.

In the 50s and 60s, by contrast, “women did their hair like that every day and that was considered the height of how women should present themselves”. Today, instead of an expectation, it can be seen as an act of self-indulgence to style your hair that way, rather than in the ubiquitous messy bun, the symbol of our time-poor society. “To see a woman that has spent that much time, it feels like a very in-your-face hairdo,” says Palau. “And I love it.”

Yet Rachael Gibson, who runs the Instagram account The Hair Historian, says that “there’s always a fine line that you have to walk as a woman”. You have to be “thin but not too thin, your hair be full of body, because that suggests you’re a healthy woman that’s full of vitality, but not too big that you’re going to draw attention to yourself”.

Pushing hair to the extremes, Gibson believes, can be a statement of independence and empowerment. “When you look back, the really obvious era of big hair is a bit earlier. It’s Marie Antoinette in the 18th century with her big wigs,” she says. Of course big hair will only get you so far, but Gibson sees it “as allowing women to take up space and express ideas about their status. To represent their power through their hair at a time when women didn’t have much of a voice.”

The same was true in the male-dominated world of mid-20th century country music, where musicians in the 60s, such as Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, tried to get their break on The Johnny Cash Show. Back then, she says, “filling the screen with your hair felt like quite a power move”. For Winehouse, whose beehive was inspired by Ronnie Spector‘s from the 1960s group, the Ronettes, her hair became her armour. “The more insecure I feel,” she said in a 2012 interview, “the bigger my hair has to be” – a way of transforming herself into a character that was stronger than she felt.

Angela in 1970. Photograph: AP

During the Black Power movement in the 60s and 70s, big afros took on a political role. The activist Angela Davis embraced natural hair as a way of reclaiming her African heritage, and inspired many others to do the same. “An afro, my afro, would also serve as a talisman of acceptance – indisputable evidence that, no matter my light-skinned flesh nor the thousand shades of blond in my thick hair, I was Black,” she wrote in the Atlantic. “My mighty afro would mark my militancy.”

“It was a power statement”, says Nia Pettitt, who founded natural hair salon The Curl Bar London four years ago. “At that time, a lot of advertisements would say you had to wear your hair straight to be deemed as acceptable,” she says. Meanwhile, workplaces and schools expected black women to “manage” their hair so that it conformed with European standards of beauty. As recently as December 2022, schools needed to be reminded to comply with the 2010 Equality Act and not punish pupils for wearing their hair in natural afro styles.

Now, celebrities such as India Amarteifio, Alicia Keys and Tracee Ellis Ross are wearing their hair naturally on the red carpet, says Pettitt. “You’re seeing wavy, curly and coily hair and people are embracing it because ultimately it’s an extension of themselves.”

Pettitt, who chemically straightened her hair from the age of 3 to 11 but has since been embracing her natural curls, sees a correlation between wearing her hair freely, and “showing up for yourself freely as well. When I first started to love my hair for its volume and body, I felt more confident to dress more vibrantly or just be myself basically, whereas before, when I was hiding my hair, I didn’t feel confident to show myself freely.”


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