Appearance is more than just clothing. It is our skin, our nails, the tilt of our mouths or the furrows of our brows, the tattoos that may adorn us and the hair on our heads – or our legs, or our armpits. Of course, most of my work culminates in a study of garments, as garments are what cover our bodies, something that can be easily swapped and changed at will. Clothing may signify lesbian possibility most often, but there are times when it is hairstyles that lead the way.
I’ve recently been working on a lecture about queer women’s hairstyles throughout history, and this article is based on part of it. There is so much to be said about queer women’s hair and lesbian hair, but the focus of this article is the long-standing theme and persevering lesbian stereotype of short hair, or fully shaven heads. This stretches from all the way back from the literature of Ancient Greece up to think-pieces and Instagram posts of today, and it is this lineage that I want to trace for you now.
There are countless modern-day articles about queer women cutting or shaving their hair to feel closer to their identity or their community. One writer, Ella Braidwood, wrote in 2021 that “I got my [radical haircut] because I wanted to embrace how I felt as a butch lesbian.”1 Another, Chris Belcher, said in 2018 that “I drew strength from knowing that with my lesbian haircut, I was part of something bigger than myself.”2 Yet another example is from an article titled why shaved hair is such an important part of the lesbian identity, also from 2018, where writer Sophie Wilkinson states: “There’s nothing wrong with looking like a lesbian, passing as a lesbian or paying tribute to your lesbian forebears with your haircut.”3 Which leads us to the question: who are these lesbian forebears, and how did they style their hair?
Fig. 1: Illustration of Demonassa and Megilla/Megillus, from Lucian, Dialogue of the Courtesans, 1928 edition (text originally c. AD150) published by A.L.H.
Above is an illustration from a 1928 edition of Ancient Greek author Lucian’s Dialogue of the Courtesans, depicting two of the characters from ‘A Dialogue Between Cleonarium and Leana’. These characters are not Cleonarium and Leana themselves, but Demonassa and Megilla, who later reveals herself as Megillus. Emma Donoghue, author of the 1993 lesbian history book Passions Between Women, suggests that this story is “perhaps the best-known classical source on lesbian desire.”4 It follows a narrative told by a young woman, Leana, about an occasion on which she had been hired as a minstrel by two rich women, Megilla and Demonassa, who promptly began a quest to seduce her.
Once Megilla and Demonassa finally get Leana into their bed, Megilla reveals herself. This revelation presents her as not a man, but not quite a woman – she is a person who, despite being biologically female, has passion for other women. This would have been something that was either impossible or fascinating to most readers, and it remains fascinating to a 21st century lesbian eye, if for very different reasons. In this particular context, the most interesting element is the way that Megillus reveals herself. It was clearly the dramatic crux of the story; it is pictured in the 1928 illustration, after all, with Megillus bearing a shaved head and holding a wig in her hand. Donoghue, in Passions Between Women, describes how this happens: “Suddenly Megilla pulls off her headgear, revealing a shaved head like a champion’s, and declares, ‘I am not Megilla but Megillus, and there’s my Wife’, pointing to Demonassa.”5 The “like a champion”, incidentally, refers to shaven-headed athletes of the time.
When Megillus narratively transitions from woman to man, from harmless to, perhaps, lesbian, the thing that conveys this change is hair. The shaved head, all the way back in this Ancient Greek story, denoted lesbianism, or at the very least a passion for women that was plausible and real. Demonassa, the “wife”, was also engaging in this passion, but without the shaved head she isn’t seen as such an anomaly. It’s also important to note that the shaved head isn’t a simple disguise: Megillus was never just a man in a wig, luring in an unsuspecting woman. To cite Emma Donoghue once more, “Megilla refuses to reduce her power to a phallus.”6 When Leana asks Megillus whether she has had a sex change (something that occured in stories at the time, if not physical reality), Megillus says “No, […] but I’ve all the passions and inclinations of men.”7 In other words, love for women… and a shaved head.
Fig. 2: Portrait of Abigail Allen, and Portrait of The Female Husband (1829). Yale Library.
Megillus is a very early example, as well as a fictional one. However, as the centuries went by, there were other instances where possible lesbians would adopt short hair. In the 18th century, particularly, and into the 19th, there was a phenomenon of “female husbands”. Female husbands, among other examples of women dressed as men, lived their lives as they did for a variety of reasons, ranging from financial independence, to travel, to inner feelings about sexuality, desire, romance, or gender. And, while a pair of trousers or breeches could be whipped on and off with relative ease, only those truly committed to the cross-dressing life would go to the extremes of a short haircut. In these scenarios, it was less a tool of self-expression than one that could allow a person to pass as a man, rather than as a woman.
This all changed in the 1920s. Women’s hair had lived many lives already at this point, but hairstyles had typically been a base of long hair that could then be braided or twisted or curled. In the 20s, it was time for women’s hair to be chopped. Modernism was in fashion, and with it came the “boyish” look, encompassing trends for women including tailored clothing, high collars and trousers – although trousers would only be worn for sport or extremely casual occasions. A key aspect of the style was hair, and a description of the hairstyles that were popular can be seen below.
To have one’s hair bobbed was to have it cut. The shingle was an exceptionally short cut in which the back of the hair was cut and tapered like that of a man. Although the most fashionable cut was short with the hair tapering off to the nape of the neck, many variations were seen… Others followed the extreme Eton Crop, a style in which hair was exceptionally closely-cropped and dressed like that of a man.8
I’ve written about modernist styles multiple times in the past (see all articles related to the 1920s), but the crux of them, when it comes to hair, was that short hair became an acceptable style for women in Euro-America. Women could cut their hair short as an act of lesbian self-expression, but it would slide under the radar of a society in which short hairstyles were a trend. Still: lesbians were some of the trend’s setters. Radclyffe Hall, for example – the author of The Well of Loneliness, banned for its lesbian themes and popularly known as ‘the first lesbian novel’ – was considered to have “the best shingle in London”.9 Newspaper The Birmingham Post accompanied the praise of “best shingle” with descriptions of Hall’s “mannish mode of dress.” At other points in history, descriptions of short hair and “mannish” clothing have been not-very-subtle code for lesbianism, or for deviance. In the 1920s, it was sincere.
Fig. 3: Radclyffe Hall, photographer unknown. Bromide print, c. 1930. National Portrait Gallery, London. Given by Terence Pepper, 2012. npg.org.uk.
The trend for short hair on women soon passed, but the lesbian fascination with short hair remained. Past trendsetters who continued to wear it, like Hall, were no longer such. Laura Doan, in her 1998 article Passing Fashions: Reading Female Masculinities in the 1920s, remarks that: “The shift of the feminine had begun gradually in 1927, but no doubt the trial of The Well of Loneliness hastened the demise of the Modern Girl.” She continues, writing that “Henceforth, Hall and her partner’s [Una Troubridge] manner of dress and even personal habits, such as smoking, would become the distinctive marks of a lesbian subculture.”10
And what a lesbian subculture it was. As the 1930s rolled into the 40s and 50s, lesbian hair took on a new form, one that wasn’t monolithic and certainly wasn’t mainstream. The 1950s and the decades surrounding it were the high point for the lesbian concept of butch and femme. In Molly McGarry and Fred Wasserman’s book Becoming Visible: An Illustrated History of Lesbian and Gay Life in Twentieth-Century America, they write that “Butch-femme was the reigning erotic system: a play of gendered dress and stance, with a charged sexual pull. In the 1950s, lesbian communities were made visible by butches in ducktails and loafers and femmes in bouffants and high heels.”11 The ducktail was a popular men’s haircut in the 1950s, though not the only short style that butch lesbians adopted – consider, also, the short, coiled curls of young Black butch Ira Jeffries in the photograph below, so confidently posed next to Snowbaby, her girlfriend of the time.
Fig. 4: Ira Jeffries’ 16th birthday: Ira, sitting on the right, with girlfriend Snowbaby. Bonita Jeffries, Ira’s lesbian mother, stands behind. They are celebrating Ira’s birthday at a “nite club”. 1948. Lesbian Herstory Educational Foundation, via the Lesbian Herstory Archive Photo Collection.
What’s important in these looks is the idea of visibility. The shingle and the Eton Crop of the 20s allowed lesbians to hide in plain sight, but the lesbian haircuts of the mid-century were about carving out a space. Aesthetics demanded visibility in the outside world, dangerous though it was. However, visibility was also important when it came to lesbian spaces themselves. By wearing specific butch and femme styles, from shoes to haircuts, women in lesbian bars could express their personal wants and desires to the other patrons and find someone to dance with or take home.
Butch and femme did not account for every lesbian experience. Short hair was certainly not a universal lesbian style – and yet, its appeal in the following decades only grew, even if for different reasons. In lesbian history, the 70s and 80s marked the rise of lesbian feminism, and the style sometimes known as the “dyke uniform”. The dyke uniform championed ideals of androgyny and of a world visibly free of gender distinctions and limitations – a wholehearted embrace of short hair was an integral part of this. The wide-spread adoption of short hair in lesbian circles becomes all the more evident when we consider accounts of lesbians who did not conform to the style.
A 1999 article by Dvora Zipkin, ‘The Myth of the Short-Haired Lesbian’ brings the short/long hair dichotomy to the forefront. One of Zipkin’s respondents, Maureen, talked about feeling pressure to cut her hair short: “I feel like if I had short hair, I’d be recognised more… I have absolutely, positively felt that the best reason for having short hair would be that then I would be recognised as queer.”12 A similar example can be found in Paula Austin’s essay ‘Femme-inisim’, which is part of Nestle’s 1993 collection The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader. Austin was part of a reclaiming of “femme” in a landscape which had shunned it, alongside butchness, writing that, “I am a black self-identified femme. My hair hangs in loose curls a little below my shoulders. I often wear makeup, and I like high heels, although I seldom wear them. My femme-ininity does not make me vicitimised.”13
While short hair was a lesbian marker to the wider world, the opposite was also true. In order to keep lesbian spaces secure, those who styled themselves differently to the white, dyke norm could face ostracisation in their own community. The clothing choices made by Amina, a South Asian lesbian in her late twenties, are described in a 2004 study by Rani Kawale. Kawale writes of Amina that “as a South Asian woman she decided to maintain her long hair. This, together with her brown-coloured skin, was not perceived as dressing ‘like a dyke’ by the white female bouncer at the bar who did not allow her in.”14 Though Amina was wearing multiple other markers of lesbian or dyke identity for the time, she was still considered to not be lesbian enough because of the parts of her appearance that were visibly South Asian: not just her skin colour, but her hair. For some, the lesbian ideal of short hair could be liberating. For others, it was stifling.
Fig. 5: Kathy Tu, 32. Photographed by Lauren Perlstein for Jameson Hampton, ‘Hair That Comes Out For You,’ InStyle, 9th Aug. 2018.
Lesbians – and other queer women, with our identities merging and overlapping at the edges – now wear their hair in a wider variety of styles than ever. They’re also more free to talk about it. The image above is from a 2018 editorial from the magazine InStyle, called ‘Hair That Comes Out For You’: it’s a collection of queer hairstyles and what they mean to their wearers. Pictured is Kathy Tu, who was 32 at the time. She told InStyle, “When I cut my hair short, I think I just wanted to tell myself that I’m okay with looking masculine or looking ‘butch’. And then I discovered that short hair actually makes me feel better about myself.”15
Kathy picks up some of the threads that connect centuries of short-haired lesbians. Short hair, with all its history, is still popular, but in a way that perhaps has more freedom than in the past: there’s not so much pressure to look a certain way as in lesbian feminist communities, and society isn’t quite so disapproving of short hair on women as it was, say, in the days of Megilla and Demonassa. Our hair, like our clothing, is a way to reach out to those around us; to signal or to flag; to bond with each other and feel a part of a community. Sometimes it’s a way to blend in, and sometimes it’s a way to separate ourselves. Short hair has been both, either, and somewhere in between. It is a history that is personal and changing – history that adorns each of our lesbian heads like a crown.
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1: Ella Braidwood, ‘A moment that changed me: The haircut that liberated me as a butch lesbian’, 24th Nov 2021, The Guardian, theguardian.com.
2: Chris Belcher, ‘My Queer Teen Years:How My First Lesbian Haircut Changed my Life’, 24th Dec 2018, Them, them.us.
3: Sophie Wilkinson, ‘Why shaved hair is such an important part of the lesbian identity’, 17th Aug 2018, i-D, i-d.vice.com.
4: Emma Donoghue, Passions Between Women, (Bello: London,  2014) 35.
5: Donoghue, Passions Between Women, 36.
6: Donoghue, Passions Between Women, 37.
7: Donoghue, Passions Between Women, 37.
8: Phyllis Tortora and Keith Eubank, A Survey of Historic Costume, (New York: Fairchild Publications, 1989) 299.
9: Quoted in Laura Doan, ‘Passing Fashions: Reading Female Masculinities in the 1920s,’ Feminist Studies 24.3 (1998): 683.
10: Doan, ‘Passing Fashions’, 693-694.
11: McGarry and Wasserman, Becoming Visible, 76.Molly McGarry and Fred Wasserman, Becoming Visible: An Illustrated History of Lesbian and Gay Life in Twentieth-Century America, (USA: Penguin Studio, 1998) 76.
12: Maureen, quoted in Dvora Zipkin, ‘The Myth of the Short-Haired Lesbian,’ The Journal of Lesbian Studies 3.4 (1999): 93.
13: Paula Austin, ‘Femme-inism’ in The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, Joan Nestle, ed. (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1992), 364.
14: Rani Kawale, ‘Inequalities of the heart: the performance of emotion work by lesbian and bisexual women in London, England,’ Social & Cultural Geography 5.4 (2004): 575.
15: Kathy Tu, quoted in Jameson Hampton, ‘Hair That Comes Out For You,’ InStyle, 9th Aug. 2018. instyle.com.