Friday, June 12, 2015

Roman through your hair

What's cool about Baltimore is that just about everything here is cool.

People here take their hair very seriously.  Go to any deli or bakery on a Saturday afternoon, when the ladies of the town have been to Hairy Shearers for a dye-and-blowout, and see them protecting their bouffants with a plastic Rain Bonnet.

Or see a kid with an elaborate coiffure that takes an hour to arrange into something that looks like he or she just got out of bed.

Former Representative 'Sonny' Bono, (R, CA)
Back in the day, kids from all over tuned in for channel 13's Buddy Deane Show dance party to see the latest in duck's ass hairdos for the Vitalis generation, and of course, John Waters, he of the pencil thin mustache, did movies called Hairspray about how AquaNet kept young Baltimore girls six inches closer to Heaven.  If not more.

More to the current point, we have a lady in town named Janet Stephens, a hairdresser at Studio 921 Salon and Day Spa.  She's not just a cut, curl and dye lady; she is a forensic hair archaeologist. She visited the Walters Art Museum downtown, and while gazing up at the Greek and Roman statue busts, she realized that there was logic and construction in those elaborate hairdids...and that, contrary to popular belief, they were not wigs, but were spun from the actual hair on the actual heads of the ancients.

And Ms Stephens didn't just do some cursory noodling on this. She did deep research and found that at the old time hair salons way back then (I guess they were called Curlus Et Dyus) the stylists used, not a single-pronged hairpin, as had been believed, but a needle and thread to weave those locks into intricate formations. 

This is the bust of the Empress Julia Domna (170 AD –217 AD, but she looks much younger).  As the wife of Roman Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus, she had all sorts of hair personnel ready to fix her up for a big night out at the Coliseum. "It was amazing, like a loaf of bread sitting on her head," says Ms. Stephens of her first look at old Julia's melon.  She set out to recreate the look, first with mannequins and then with real human volunteers.  And she wrote up her findings!

She submitted a report to the Journal of Roman Archaeology. "It's amazing how much chutzpah you have when you have no idea what you're doing," she says. "I don't write scholarly material. I'm a hairdresser."

That's Baltimore modesty at work.  We realize that most people don't know what they're doing, but we all just do it.

Journal editor John Humphrey realized that Ms Stephens's specialized knowledge of hair stuff, blended with her research, set her apart from other archaeologists who don't know a French Braid from a baguette.  "I could tell even from the first version that it was a very serious piece of experimental archaeology which no scholar who was not a hairdresser—in other words, no scholar—would have been able to write," he says. 

Ms Stephens continues to transform 21st Century Americans into 2nd Century Romans at Studio 921, with one problem.  Mullets are out, and one crazy 'do from back then, on a sculpture called the Fonseca Bust, boasts a tall, horseshoe-shaped pile of curls in the front that would involve cutting the model's hair. "It's like a mullet from hell," she says.

I'm no archaeologist or historian, but that sounds like the Emperor Billyus Rayus Cyrus to me.

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