Readers reply: Why do men have short hair and women long hair?

<span>Photograph: LightFieldStudios/Getty Images/iStockphoto</span>
Photograph: LightFieldStudios/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Why do men have short hair and women long hair, generally speaking? When – and why – did this become the convention? (The same questions apply to trousers and skirts, come to think of it.) Rojo Levien, by email

Send new questions to

Readers reply

And why is it legal for hairdressers to charge women more than they charge men, even if it’s for the same haircut? EBGB

In 1964, the Rolling Stones placed an ad in the NME wishing “Happy Christmas to the starving hairdressers and their families”. EddieChorepost

It’s largely cultural. There have been plenty of cultures where men have also sported long hair, such as most of the historical cultures of China and Japan, or the elaborate long hair (usually artificial) of 17th-century European men. However, there’s also a biological basis; as many transgender people can attest, oestrogen will usually improve the thickness and maximum length of one’s hair, while taking testosterone can contribute to male pattern baldness and otherwise sparser hair. Like many differences in cultures, an underlying biological tendency is often exaggerated by customs and clothing.

Also, luxurious and healthy long hair is a sign of youth for both sexes, but especially so for men, whose hair thins earlier. Due to historical sexism, it’s historically been more important for women to appear youthful, but I do think it’s telling that traditional long hairstyles for men really occur only in populations where male pattern baldness is rarer, such as Asia, or involves a lot of wigs. SaltyPickles

In modern western terms (because historically speaking men’s hair length has fluctuated a lot), it probably has a lot to do with the French Revolution and the “great male renunciation”. Although there was a bit of a wobble in the 1970s, it does seem in general that long men’s hair never really bounced back from its association with idle, callous aristocracy. Conversely, it has almost always been permissible for women to have long hair (even if it’s often been required to be covered in public) because it’s a positive for women to be decorative, even if only in private. CrawledOutOfTheSea

There was an exhibition at the V&A many years ago, The Art of the Sikh Kingdoms, which included a metal helmet designed for soldiers with a man bun. HadiDeee

Spartan men had long hair and wore helmets. DailyPotterer

For Saxons and Vikings, the hair problem was often turned to an advantage by braiding wire into their hair, forming thick blocks which would add to the protection provided by a helmet. Celts and Picts were known to cake their hair with lime, shaping it into tall spikes that made them look bigger and more horrific in war. Lycurgus of Sparta is quoted as saying: “Long hair makes an ugly man more terrifying and a handsome man more comely,” when he wrote the laws that created the Spartiate peers. RichWoods

Men have short hair because they get it cut. TicklemeScoMo

On the secondary question, the ancient Greeks used to mock the Persians for wearing trousers, which they considered to be quintessentially barbarian. EddieChorepost

Having been a student of fashion, the skirts versus trousers question is more interesting to me. Apart from the kilt, trousers are worn in western culture, but in other cultures men wear tunics, robes or even skirts. Even then, there is still usually a distinction between male and female dress.

When we make films of Viking cultures, they generally show shieldmaidens fighting alongside the men, but they are wearing dresses. Surely it would have been more realistic and practical for women to dress like men in battle? Part of the reason for distinctive styles is due to anatomical differences and modesty. However, Minoan women wore dresses that were cut in a way that left the breasts bare. Minoans also had a strong matriarchal society.

Which brings us to the rules imposed in patriarchal societies. Roman women of whatever class were not allowed to wear the toga. Many Muslim women cover their hair. For a long time, Christian practices required women to cover their head in church. Part of the case against infamous female pirates such as Anne Bonney included charges of wearing men’s clothes. The fact that women’s dresses are more restrictive, especially when corsets were worn underneath, does not seem like a coincidence. These attitudes persisted well into the 20th century. ClareM8