Hollywood's First Haircut Heard 'Round the World

Cristen Conger

In 1928, actress Mary Pickford's short haircut made the front page of The New York Times.
In 1928, actress Mary Pickford's short haircut made the front page of The New York Times.
Chicago Daily News

If you're a leading actress in need of a publicity jolt, here's a surefire strategy: chop off your hair. Mia Farrow's iconic 1968 pixie in "Rosemary's Baby" -- which, by the way, Vidal Sassoon did not create, Farrow adorably informed The New York Times earlier this year -- stoked Hollywood legend that her then-husband Frank Sinatra demanded divorce as a result. In 2000, when actress Carrie Russell cut off her signature curly ringlets while on break from filming the WB's "Felicity," the look caused such a stir (and a possibly related ratings dip) the network instituted stricter rules about actors altering their hairstyles without prior permission. More recently, when Emma Watson fulfilled her Harry Potter commitment and parted ways with her long Hermoine locks, she caused an "international sensation" and had to field questions about whether it was an outward symbol of mental instability or lesbian-leaning sexual orientation.

The Western construct of femininity has long included long hair, differentiating it from the masculine crew cut. Perhaps since Hollywood stars like Farrow, Russell and Watson often serve as popular representations of female beauty and femininity, their seemingly insignificant decisions at the salon are so quickly interpreted as acts of defiance and subversion. The media tend to assume that there must be deeper truth (Watson coming out?) and consequences (Sinatra hiring a divorce attorney?!) saddled with short hair. Why else would these high-profile women willingly opt for a look outside the heteronormative beauty matrix? In all three cases I cited, it was simply fashionable experimentation, like the ill-advised time I got blonde highlights in high school. But due to the heavy symbolism entwined in our tendrils, socially-primed people instinctively leap to outsized conclusions about what that short hair must mean.

Or perhaps, some of the assumption that short hair signals a cry for help stems from the first Hollywood Haircut Heard 'Round the World that was, in fact, a public display of grief -- or so one account of it goes. Mary Pickford, nicknamed "America's Sweetheart" and "the girl with the curls," was one of silent film's most famous actresses, instantly recognizable by her cascading gold ringlets that tickled the middle of her back. In 1920, Pickford's status became solidly A-list when she wed leading man Douglas Fairbanks in what the press called "the marriage of the century." They were essentially the Brad and Angelina of their era, only minus the adopted children, and instead of globetrotting for charitable causes, they stayed put at their legendary estate Pickfair to host the who's who of Hollywood and moneyed America.

In 1928, when Pickford's mother Charlotte died of breast cancer, the coquettish star made a startling decision. Allegedly as manifestation of her mourning, she cut off her signature curls at a New York salon, in an event made the front page of The New York Times with the headline "Mary Pickford Secretly Has Her Curls Shorn; Forsakes Little-Girl Roles to Be Grown Up." Pickford later wrote that "were the choice given to me again, I am positive I would not do it." Judging by the press photo above, it also looks like Pickford went short less in homage to her mother and more since bobbed hair was all the rage for dizzy dames at the time, and mama Charlotte never would've approved of the controversial hairstyle.

That female stars' pixie cuts can still generate publicity so effectively 85 years later not only speaks to fandom's insatiable appetite, but also the symbolic power of hair. Even though it's the one part of our bodies, save finger- and toenails, that will eventually grow back over time, one would think, for instance, that Miley Cyrus sawed off her right hand when she debuted her scalp-bearing new 'do in 2012, judging by the media response. And maybe that's precisely why short-haired women are so reliably shocking: likely aware of the coming backlash, they brazenly go ahead and cut it all off anyway.