Closet Space: Janet Stephens, Beautiful Hair, Beautiful History


(Interviewer: Angela Sloan, CS Editor for SPACES)

janet photo 2Janet Stephens is a Baltimore-based hairstyling artisan, authoress, historian and fashionista. Janet creates wearable art on a daily basis at Baltimore’s Studio 921 Salon & Day Spa; with the stroke of a brush, the swipe of a scissor, the spritz of a can of hairspray or the turn of a curling iron, Janet empowers women to be their most beautiful and expressive selves. She unveils the inner goddess (which all women have) who just needs a bit of teasing (pun intended). Janet and I began our conversation about hairdressing and the ancient art form that it truly is. She spoke of hairstyles that peeve her, the celebrity who would be the first to tug another woman’s hair in a catfight, and the works of sculptural art that inspired her to recreate some of the most breathtakingly beautiful works of hair art that have ever been seen by mortal eyes. Janet, as well as her work, is truly divine. So, sit back and take a look.

ancient hairstyles

Angela: When, and how, did your love affair with styling and designing hair begin? Have you been enamored of glamorous hair styling since childhood? As a child, I always loved to brush and style my dolls’ hair, and I also gave some of my Barbie dolls the occasional haircut, and always regretted it afterward.

Janet: Hairdressing is part of my earliest memories—watching in fascination as my mother set her hair or got dressed up to go out, combing my dolls’ hair, comparing my hair to other children’s hair, stuff like that. I remember getting my hair professionally cut for the first (if not the only) time when I was four or five years old. I remember the dense, odd aroma of perm solution, hair spray and cigarette smoke (this was the early 60’s after all), the scratchiness of the paper strip around my neck, and the how blunt the ends of my bobbed hair felt after the cut was finished; it was thrilling. So thrilling that, a few days later, I convinced my younger friend Betsy to play “hair salon”…before my mother caught us, I had cut off half of Betsy’s lush curls with a pair of child’s paper scissors. What a spanking that was! My mother cut my hair at home after that. I was in college before I had my next professional haircut.

Angela: When and how did your fascination with ancient Roman hairdressing begin? I’m absolutely fascinated with the Papillote curls you’ve recreated.

Janet: My fascination with ancient Roman Hairdressing was purely accidental. In 2001, I was killing some time at the Walters Art Museum while waiting for my daughter to get out of a nearby music lesson. The Walters had just renovated their antiquities gallery which involved placing several portrait busts out in the middle of the room. This was the first time I had ever seen the backs of the heads of Roman portraits, close up, as a hairdresser. They made immediate sense to me. It was all downhill from there!

janet stephens 1

janet stephens 2

Angela: What inspired your fascination with these hairstyles? Have you always been a lover of history and anthropology?

Janet: A specific art work inspired my quest: a bust of the late Second century empress Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus and mother of the loathsome Caracalla. It was the first time I had ever seen the back of the head of any portrait bust. The hair was amazing!She had marvelous deep, natural waves swagging low on her neck and two rope braids on each side of her face which travelled to the back of the head, the rope braids finally disappearing into a broad multi-braided bun. The bun looked just like the braided rugs my grandmothers used to make, so I just had to try it at home. I did, and that led to my quest to solve the mystery of how these hairstyles were constructed. Needless to say, I failed in my first attempts; this is what spurred my research. It took seven years of hard work before my theory was published in the Journal of Roman Archaeology in 2008.

I have been fascinated by fashion history since childhood. I was always a sucker for lush fabrics, complicated lines and, let’s face it, sparkly surfaces. As a child, I found 60’s clothes pretty lacking when compared to the period clothing in films. My love of fashion history developed into a love of history in general, particularly social history.

Angela: Which women from that time period wore their hair in the most interesting styles? Or were all of the styles typical of the time and place in which they were worn?

Janet: There were ups and downs where Roman hair became more complicated or vastly simplified, just as it has occurred in more modern periods. But my favorite period is the late first century when very elaborate front hair was in vogue. It is hard to tell if the hair is natural or hairpieces.

janet stephens 3

Angela: Can you talk a little bit about the specific tools used in the process of creating those wonderful hairstyles? I know, for instance, that wire hairpins were not in existence. What sorts of materials were available?

Janet: The tools of ancient Roman hairdressing and how they were used is focus of my research. I showed in my article “Ancient Roman Hairdressing: on (hair) pins and needles” JRA 21 (2008) that the most elaborate roman hairstyles were likely sewn together with needle and wool thread.  This theory is supported by artifact evidence, such as the assemblages of objects found in women’s tombs and the way images of such objects are arranged in funerary carvings commemorating the female virtues of “beauty” (cultus) and “industry” (industria). I explicate how real hair interacts with the various proposed tools and I show how each tool succeeds or fails in specific applications by recreating the most problematic roman hairstyles.  I then examine the best known Latin literary passages involving female hairdressing in order to show how the history of translation reveals a persistent anachronism in the treatment of these scenes that springs from a failure to understand both hair and textile arts.  I use the history of technology and of Pompeian archaeology to show that U-shaped wire hair pins could not have been used to execute these styles.

Angela: How did you discover the needle and thread method of constructing these amazing ancient hairstyles? Do you use a regular sewing needle and cotton thread to hold the hairdos in place?

Janet: I alighted on needle and thread through trial and error. The particular bun I was trying to recreate, that of Julia Domna, looked like a braided rug, the type of braided rug I had often watched my grandmothers make, which were braids of fabric sew together along their sides. From the beginning I chose to use needlepoint and yarn needles with blunted tips (on the assumption that no one would like to have their scalp pricked or scratched), and I used woolen needlepoint thread—a good choice seeing as that wool was the primary fiber used by the Romans.

janet stephens 5

Angela: What is your ideal hair texture to work with when recreating some of the Roman hairdos? Is thick, wavy hair easier to work with, or straight, silky hair?

Janet: The ideal texture really depends on the style. Some styles are better with silky hair, some won’t work at all, and vice versa. For instance, the Cleopatra and Aphrodite knot hairstyles are much easier on curly hair, hair that is too silky doesn’t have the same effect or holding power.

Angela: What is the most difficult and tedious hairstyle you’ve ever created or recreated? Tell us a little bit about it.

Janet: It is bar none a spiral perm using concave rods on waist length hair. It’s time consuming, tedious, hard on the wrists, painful for the client (200+ rods, anyone?) and likely to damage the hair irreparably. Yet clients begged for it.…I’m so glad the 80s are over!

Angela: Are there other fashion historians who have influenced your studies?

Janet: The works of Drs. Elizabeth Bartman, Paula Virgili, Judith Sebesta, Larissa Bonfante and Laetitia LaFolette have all been extremely helpful. I am also very grateful to my friends, Sabine Albersmeier, Joaneath Spicer (curators at the Walters Art Museum) and professors Alan Shapiro and Matthew Roller (professors of Classics at the Johns Hopkins University) and Eunice Maguire (former curator of the JHU Archaological Museum).

janet stephens 4

Angela: Do these styles require a lot of maintenance once they’re completed, or will they stay in place all day long? For instance, do they require heat or any sort of styling products?

Janet:  Again, the duration of a style relies on the type of hair it is dressed on, the climate and the daily activities of the wearer. Most will last all day with little or no touch up.  But, if curling iron was necessary and it’s a wet day, the curl may fall out. The most common styling aids (besides water) in ancient Rome were oil based—they would have been used to control curl (or frizz) and to hold hair in place.  It is possible that water based aids such as acacia gum or egg whites were used when wet-setting the hair.

Angela: Who or what has been your biggest support and motivation during this whole process?

Janet: My husband, who is very indulgent of my obsessions, has been wonderfully supportive throughout. But I also was motivated, as a professional hairdresser, by a desire to challenge the weak assumptions and dismissive attitudes about Roman hairstyles I routinely encountered in the scholarly literature I was reading.

Angela: What is your ideal working environment? Do you like to be alone in your home or in a busy salon when recreating these complex works of hair art?

Janet: When working on a “problem” I prefer to work alone in my basement listening to public radio, but I often find my mind has been tacitly working on it while I’m at work—I will suddenly have a eureka moment in the middle of a client’s haircut.

Angela: While recreating these ancient looks, is it easier to work with a wig on a stand or a human model?

Janet: When working on a technical problem, I prefer mannequins. Once I have the style completely worked out, it’s easier on live models (provided they have suitable hair).

Angela: How long do these styles typically take to complete, from start to finish?

Janet: There is no typical time constraint, since each style is very different in its level of complexity and detail.  The minimum is about 1 minute for an Aphrodite knot to about an hour for an Hadrianic “turban” style—the more braids the more time consuming a style will be.

Angela: Would you like to see these hairstyles come back into popular fashion? Or do you feel they would appear too archaic on a young woman in 2013? How would you alter some of the ancient hairstyles to make them more modern and wearable?

Janet: I would love it if these styles were worn more, but depending on the amount of stitching, they could be impractical for most women to do at home, and they can be hard to take down by yourself. I advise using elastics for all ponytails, and bobby pins for attaching buns to the scalp. But some things, like the stacked braids of the tower or Faustina 2, are much more reliable with stitching than with bobby pins.

Angela: Are there any specific paintings and/or sculptures that have inspired your work as a hair stylist?

Janet: Does Dr. Seuss count? His illustrations have inspired more than one edgy hair color, I can tell you!

Angela: A hairdo is, in a way, transient: water, shampoo, a strong breeze, and many other things can cause it to topple; so, why is something so temporary such an important form of fashion as art?

Janet: Because hair grows. Hair is, by its very nature, impermanent, a constantly renewing medium of self-expression. Every year you have six inches of new hair to play with, what a gift or what a burden, you pick!

Angela: Which women in the public eye wear their hair in a way that you absolutely adore? Are you a fan of celebrities who wear elaborately styled wigs, such as Lady Gaga, Cher and Dolly Parton?

Janet: I love short hair on celebrities, I love Anne Hathaway’s current cut, Judi Dench’s and Natalie Portman’s “V for Vendetta” cut. But what I like even more is the confidence with which they wear their hair. So may women hide behind their hair or use it as a “security blanket.” I think of hair as a fashion accessory not as a life sentence.

Angela: Which hairdos and/or fads drive you absolutely crazy?

Janet: I shudder every time I see white kids with fine, straight, silky hair wearing homemade “dread-locks”—they look like they’re wearing cat barf!  Eeeuwww!

Angela: Are there any fabulous hairdo moments in film that you carry around with you, like Polaroid pictures? It’s almost daily that I think of the elaborate bun hairstyle with tiara that Audrey Hepburn wore to the ball in George Cukor’s My Fair Lady.

Janet: I love all of Jean Hagan’s hairstyles in “Singin’ in the Rain” (she plays the platinum-haired villainess, Lina Lamont). I can only dream of doing finger waves that well! Sydney Guilaroff and the MGM wig department were utterly amazing.

singin in the rain 2

Angela: Which era of hairdressing, if you could, would you bring back into fashion with a snap of your fingers?

Janet: I like the 1940’s wartime hairstyles a lot. They were so feminine yet so practical and you could wear a cunning little hat with them!

Angela: As a woman who knows her way around a head of hair better than almost anybody, what are your biggest hair styling dos and don’ts for us novices?

Janet: This is such a big question! My advice for attaining hair contentment is to find flattering styles that suit your lifestyle, genetics and pocket book.  Know your hair, know what you want it to do and be willing to do and spend what it takes to get it, or be willing to accept it as it is. I can’t tell you how many women come to me with long, skinny hair who want it to be big and voluminous, yet they are unwilling to layer it, curl it or even blow it dry.  Good hair rarely just “happens,” it takes commitment, time (or money!) and practice.

Angela: What are the biggest no-no’s women make when styling and/or caring for their hair at home? Are you a fan of heated styling tools?

Janet: The most common mistake I see is women using the wrong shampoo and conditioner for their hair type, especially when their hair is long or chemically treated. This is where the advice of a hair care professional is critical.  Using the wrong shampoo can sabotage a grow-out faster than anything else I know (except an overheated flat iron).

As for hot tools, they definitely make our lives easier, but they must be used properly and treated with respect. This is especially true of the aforementioned flat iron: this tool is addictive, often leading to split-ends and breakage. Once split ends get a foothold, they are very hard to correct without sacrificing length. If you use a lot of heat, keep the temperature as low as possible and get frequent, microscopic trims.

Angela: Which hair products should every woman have sitting on her vanity table or on her bathroom shelf, other than a good hairspray and/or mousse?

Janet: Every woman is different, and her individual hair should guide her product decisions. However, I do believe that every woman should have a seasonal “wardrobe” of hair products suited to her climate and what she wants her hair to do. For instance, during humid summer months she may need oil based products to fight frizz, but during winter she may need moisturizing leave-in conditions and volumizing gel to fight the desiccating effects of central heating. Any time she’s using a hot tool, she needs a heat protectant (I love Unite’s 7-second leave-in conditioner, in particular).

Angela: How is the way in which a woman wears her hair a vital and important part of personal as well as artistic expression?

Janet: An entire book could be written on this subject. In biological terms, hair is just an appendage of the skin which protects and insulates the head, just like fur on a cat. But in psychological terms, we are social creatures functioning within complex cultures that freight hair with meaning, mores, expectation, and arbitrary standards.  A cat doesn’t care what color or length its coat is, but a woman cares very much:  hair is fundamental to her self-esteem. Her hairstyle choices are motivated and judged by the culture she inhabits. Society interprets her choice of hairstyle as “making” her beautiful, desirable, confident, competent and powerful…or harmless, invisible and irrelevant. Hair is perceived as a political statement of rebellion or conformity, a wish to stand out or disappear, as an insider or an outsider. But these social interpretations are informed by arbitrary, shifting, culturally conditioned ideals (youthfulness and fashion to put it bluntly) that are fundamentally exclusive rather than inclusive. This is why we have the concept of “good hair/bad hair” in all its fraught complexity.

No matter how beautiful her face, if a woman hates her genetic hair, she is never fully content with herself, no matter what hairstyle she wears. Most people want their hair to communicate outwardly the best of what they feel about themselves inwardly (or what they don’t feel, but yearn for). Thank god we live in the amazing technological age we do! To paraphrase Ovid, “art can assist nature.”

Angela: Which other art forms (theatre, sculpture, film, literature) give inspiration to your craft? I love the wigs that were created for Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, as well as the styles worn by Marisa Berenson in Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 film Barry Lyndon.

Janet: I love art and film and find the styles of celebrities a useful shorthand when consulting with my guests behind the chair—the bulk of my work is very consumer-friendly. But for my original work, I find I am inspired most by nature and fashion (literally the clothes). I remember two haircuts in particular—one inspired by the fall of petals on a chrysanthemum and another by a very punk pair of stiletto “Shoeties.”

carmen miranda 2

Angela: And finally, which female celebrity (of any era) would be the first to pull another woman’s hair in a cat fight?

Janet: Carmen Miranda without a doubt! And she’d throw fruit!