It arrives like a blimp, floating ethereally through the door before the rest of the woman’s body does. For a moment, you can look at nothing else. You try to stare at the woman’s face, at her dress, even down at her shoes—but your eyes keep wandering upward. No matter how many times you’ve seen it, you find yourself once again awestruck by that towering, impenetrable edifice known as…Big Hair.
The most scorned fashion statement of our day, the target of rabid eradication campaigns by modern hairstylists, Big Hair hangs on like a buzzard in the desert. I, for one, am glad. At the risk of sounding socially impaired, I must confess that I love Big Hair.
I mean really big. I love the old-fashioned bouf-le-dos made popular again by Governor Ann Richards, and I love the wild curled-all-over hair of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. I love the way West Texas women can back-comb their hair until it looks like balls of tumbleweed, and I love the fluffy blond-tinted permed hair of big-city socialites. I love hair that looks like it’s exploding out of a woman’s head like a volcano, hair that stands on end as if it were trying to escape. I love the drama of simply standing next to a big-haired woman, wondering if the whole is going to collapse onto my face, cutting off my air supply, the fumes of her hair spray sliding up my nostrils and lodging forever in my brain.
And, thank God, I am lucky enough to live in Texas, the Big Hair Capital of the World. According to this year’s Glamour magazine survey of hairstyles around the country, “Everything’s larger than life in Texas.” This past summer, two anthropologists from Wayne State University in Detroit studied the importance of hair in American culture. Their findings? Sixty percent of women age 25 or older in Dallas wear some variation of Big Hair. “Dallas residents,” said the study, “linked hair loss with loss of power or opportunity in the workplace.” The distinguished Wall Street Journal, also feeling a need to weigh in on the issue, reported that Dallas women defiantly stand up to any stylist who wants to change the thick, molded “Dallas ‘do.” In fact, the internationally successful Vidal Sassoon salon closed soon after making a heralded move into Dallas in the mid-seventies because women hated its trademark short haircuts. “Some women, even today, come into my salon to get a chic contemporary cut,” says Paul Neinast, a well-known Dallas society hairdresser, “but when they head out to a big ball or party somewhere, they’ll fix their hair back into a big poufy hairdo.”
Says Perry Henderson, another Dallas society hairdresser of note: “A woman isn’t going to go to a party in an $8,000 suit, a $450 pair of shoes, and $75,000 worth of jewelry with hair that’s not done! Women who play golf don’t have big hair. Women who dress do.”
Big Hair, however, is not restricted to rich women who have a lot of time on their hands. Ladies who live in trailer homes on the edge of town still make weekly trips to the beauty shop for beehives. Post-punk girls who populate downtown nightclubs tousle and mousse their hair until it looks like a temper tantrum. Cool teenage Hispanic girls prefer Mall Bangs, in which one half of their bangs shoots straight up over their heads and the other half swoops down over their foreheads. Stern fundamentalist Christian women, dutifully following the Apostle Paul’s command in I Corinthians (“If a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her”), show up for church in plain high-necked dresses with great mounds of hair billowing around their heads like sheep. Every God-fearing Texas woman learned early in life the true significance of the Bible story in which Mary Magdalene was forgiven of her sins after drying Jesus’ feet with her hair. Mary Magdalene had Big Hair.
Everyone seems to have an idea about the origin of Texas Big Hair, known among some scientists as the Big Bangs Theory. Some say it started out of necessity in West Texas, where women needed a way to keep their hair in place when the wind blew. Not so, says Barbara Jenkins, an Austin hairdresser for eighteen years. Jenkins traces the roots of Texas Big Hair to a time when Texans started buying big Cadillacs. “Women started growing their hair out,” she says, “because they had a lot of room they could fill up in the front seat.” Wrong, says no less of an authority than Governor Richards’ salty hairdresser, Gail Huitt. “Honey,” she says, “Big Hair was created for one major reason. A woman learned that when her head was smaller than her butt, she looked deformed, like a marshmallow with an olive on top. Big Hair gives a gal proportion.” Others say that Big Hair caught hold in snooty society circles when Jacqueline Kennedy was seen wearing a back-combed big-haired style in the White House and that it prospered among the young when Elvis Presley married bouffant-wearing Priscilla. A new batch of Big Hair arrived in the seventies, when native Texan Farrah Fawcett showed up on Charlie’s Angels with massively teased hair.
Now, I know that fashion historians claim Big Hair’s glory days occurred in eighteenth-century France, when coifs were three feet tall, Madame de Pompadour was a European celebrity, and Marie Antoinette was said to have a headdress so high she couldn’t get into her carriage. But all that was only for show, height for art’s sake. What makes the Texas Big Hair phenomenon even more amazing is that it holds fast against trendiness. I have listened to people criticize a lot of things—politics, the salaries of sports stars, abstract art—but there is nothing like a woman without Big Hair complaining about a woman with Big Hair (“Ugh, beauty pageant hair!” “Soap opera hair!”). Indeed, those oh-so-progressive haut monde women—the kind who search for the meaning of life in fashion magazines—look at BHWs (Big-Haired Women) with a