When In Rome, Hairdo as the Romans Do


Friday, April 12, 2013

The Journal of Roman Archaeology is not exactly beach reading; the annual editions weigh in at around one-thousand pages. This is hardcore PhD. land. Recently, though, the academic journal published the debut article of a scholar whose advanced degree is a Maryland Senior Cosmetologist license.

Janet Stephens is a hairdresser at a high-end salon in Baltimore who has shaken up the world of classical studies. She was killing time at The Walters Art Museum on a rainy day when she wandered into a gallery of marble busts. All the famous Romans were there — Nero, Marcus Aurelius — but Stephens was more interested in the women, with their coiffed, architectural hairdos, like the second-century empress Julia Domna.

Hair was clearly a big deal to the Romans, but not so much to scholars of the Romans; Stephens could find nothing in the literature on how they achieved these technical marvels, like the multi-braid Vestal Virgin style. Some scholars opined that the hairdos in the busts were the sculptors showing off, using artistic license; others said the women wore wigs. Stephens didn’t buy it — she could feel that the hairstyles were real, but she could not reproduce them. Roman hair had a secret technique, forgotten for millennia, until Janet Stephens uncovered it.


Slideshow: Recreating Ancient Roman Hairstyles

Aaron Henkin

Hairdresser Janet Stephens’ mannequins represent a timeline of Roman hairstyles across the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. From left to right: The “tower” (popular among politically elite Roman women in the early 2nd century AD), the preferred style of Empress Faustina the Younger, the Vestal Virgin “seni crines,” and the favorite style of Empress Plotina.

Aaron Henkin

When creating the hairstyles, Stephens only uses tools and styling aids that would have been available to the ancient Romans, such as wooden and ivory combs, woolen thread, bodkins, olive oil, and acacia gum.

Aaron Henkin

Stephens prepares to fashion the “seni crines” hairdo of the ancient Roman Vestal Virgins on model Jackie Rose. Step 1: lots of braids.

Aaron Henkin

Step 2: Stephens wraps the braids around and fastens them atop the top model’s head with a wooden bodkin. The bangs have been twisted up and away from the face into a headband-like cord.

Aaron Henkin

The finished hairstyle.

Aaron Henkin

Stephens has shown through her recreations that Roman classicists had it wrong — the Vestal Virgins “seni crines” hairstyle is made of seven braids, not six. The final braid (top left) is twirled around the fingers and tucked into the rest of the updo.

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Aaron Henkin

Comments [10]

Natalie Mendik from Claridge, Pennsylvania, USA

I loved this piece! I especially enjoyed Janet Stephen's revelation that ancient Roman women were sewing their hairstyles. My daughters do equestrian vaulting (dance and gymnastics on horseback). Their elaborate hairdos must stay in place while they're hanging upside down on a moving horse- so I sew them in place with a large plastic needle and embroidery thread. Who knew I was working within a long-forgotten tradition!

Apr. 26 2013 01:13 PM
Barbara Borden

I would like to see more off the hairstyles from the back and the sides, also, it was mentioned many more disigns.
Thank you, the report was very interesting
To runnig around in Italy und new howthe ladies look like, is very cute.

Apr. 18 2013 12:55 AM
Maria Hutchinson from Castro Valley, California

I loved hearing this segment about Janet Stephen's work. What passion she has. So interesting and funny when she shared how some workers would get startled by her mannequin heads in her basement. I also thought it was great the way she researched what could indeed hold these elaborate hairstyles in place. And to finally discover it herself, what a revelation. Thanks for a wonderful piece.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, our local station is KQED. Studio 360 comes on late on Saturday nights, and since I work nights, it's great company.

Apr. 15 2013 01:32 AM
Leni Wiener from NY

These hairstyles are gorgeous, but it brings up a question. Obviously, the women who wore these elaborate hairstyles must have had servants who did their hair, but what style did the average woman (who had to do her own hair) wear?

Apr. 14 2013 05:17 PM
Fenu Greek

Please inform Iain Lowrie (and Aaron Hinken) that Alexander III (The Great) was NOT Greek, he was Macedonian, and in desperate need of a new hairstyle.

Apr. 14 2013 05:14 PM
jana brown from NJ

Thank you so much for this interesting article...I love history and I love what people choose to adorn themselves. I especially liked Janet's disagreement w/ the "authorities" on how the vestal virgins wore their hair. I've always felt that we paint historic garb with too broad of a brush. I don't see why we cannot give the ancients more lee-way and freedom of expression; after all this was their primary way of expressing themselves, with no commercialism pounding on them as to what they must wear to be well thought of.Surely we would have some surprises if they came back to life and showed us all their beautiful clothes, hair, and styles.

Apr. 13 2013 09:23 PM
Steve MacIntyre

You can be sure that Iaian Lowrie and I weren't the only listeners startled to hear of that famous Roman, Alexander the Great.

Apr. 13 2013 09:21 PM
iain Lowrie from Alexandria VA

please inform Aaron Hinken, reporter for the Hair Styles story that Alexander the Great was NOT a ROMAN he was GREEK

Apr. 13 2013 03:01 PM
gerit quealy

LOVE this woman's work!

Apr. 13 2013 01:32 PM
Jacqueline Sergio from Jenkintown, PA.

Latin teacher here. Absolutely loved this segment, also because both my sons went to Johns Hopkins where I often visited the Walters Gallery.
Jacqui Sergio

Apr. 13 2013 08:06 AM

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