Vestri Capilli Capitis

brantholme66When I was a kid, I hated haircuts. Who did I dread most? The doctor, the dentist or the barber? I remember the place I went on the corner of Anne Street and Wildman Street in Kendal. The barber had his shop upstairs from a newsagents shop, sparsely furnished with the chair, not much different from a dentist’s chair, except that it just went up and down with a foot pump, a little shelf for the barber’s clippers, scissors and razor, and somewhere for the cash register where you paid him his one-and-six when the job was done. For a small boy like me, my Saturday morning haircut was done in about ten minutes flat – snip, snip, snip round the head with scissors and comb, a neat fringe at the front and the feel of cold metal as he took the clippers to my back and sides. I felt bare and quite mutilated! Then, home to play in the garden or go for a bike ride…

My father went to another barber in town, one he called Slash Harry. This was in the 1960’s, and I took all this for granted until the first time I saw a man with long hair. I was fascinated. About the same time, my sister decided to grow her hair and style it in different ways as girls do. Why couldn’t I do the same thing? It’s not done! Around about the age of 12, I was allowed to have a little more hair, covering the ears and down to just touching my shoulders.

micklegateAfter about the age of 16, I let it grow to just below my shoulders when I left home to work at the organ builders. There, I had to be careful because those north-country guys would not like something looking effeminate, and in any case, operating woodworking machinery with long and loose hair is dangerous. So, the regular visits to the barber resumed, but just for a “trim” now and again. It was at its longest when I was about 20 and my parents were horrified. On becoming a Roman Catholic at age 22, I kept the long-ish hair until the priests of the SSPX chapel where I was going to Mass suggested that I should get it cut.

From about those days until presently, I have dutifully maintained an austere crew cut, often doing it myself with clippers and different sized combs. The advantage of it is that it needs no maintenance other than twice-weekly washing. No brushing or combing. That is how it was when I was a seminarian. We had a seminarian by the name of Claudio Fauci, one of the only two Italians in the place dominated by Frenchmen, who was quite good at hair cutting and doing a nice job. Throughout my clerical life, short hair was the done thing, and the French often had the shortest, what we English would call the crew cut, or the Saint-Cyr military style. It symbolises the old French establishment incarnated by General De Gaulle and generations of military and political figures.

saint-cyrEven over the years when I was alone in the Vendée, I kept cutting my hair as a part of my clerical identity, and I never questioned it. So many years later, with almost a divide between the clerical stereotype and my determined attachment to my priestly vocation, I began to rediscover earlier symbols of my own being and identity. One was the sea and sailing, going out in a boat to experience the silence and freedom of the sea. What is it about hair? The Bible is full of symbolism about the length of hair, and we find that orthodox Rabbis and Orthodox priests and monks have long hair. Hindus have long hair. Buddhist monks have shaven hair. The Japanese Samurais had an extremely precise hairstyle. English soldiers and sailors before the end of the eighteenth century had long hair and a ponytail in a kind of net. The Red Indians had long hair. It is all connected with religious symbolism. Long hair means something, and so does a shorn head.

Mozart in 1766 without a wig

Mozart in 1766 without a wig

After the beginning of the twentieth century, public authorities took an interest in hygiene and found that too many men and boys had lice. Two world wars and the short back and sides stuck and became synonymous with respectability and conformity. To this day, the armed forces of most countries require their servicemen to have very short hair. The rule prevails in schools and businesses, and only now has become a little more relaxed.

In history and western culture, short hair is the condition of the slave or the person who obeys. The man with his place in society gets regular haircuts and shaves every day. The hair is no more than three inches on top and tapers to nothing above the shirt collar. We find the same rule in citizens and slaves in antiquity, medieval monasticism and modern social and business conventions. But, it is unconsciously for most of us. Jung came out with a theory of the sub-consciousness and archetypes. Telling a man to get a haircut is asserting domination over that person. In the Army, soldiers who tried to bend the rules a little often got their heads shaved forcibly.

Within Christianity, as in many faith traditions and Judaism, rules about hair and beards are quite diverse. The Eastern Orthodox has a totally different notion of monastic life from that of the west. Orthodox married priests also have beards and long or longish hair. In the order of nature, hair is a part of us, like our fingernails. Men and women have hair on our heads (unless we suffer from baldness or some pathology) and men have facial hair and differing amounts of body hair. We normally cover the body hair with clothing, so the head is the subject of discussion. What is the difference between growing hair and cutting it? The first is a natural process and the second is an action using a tool, like tending a garden.

The human head is the sign of the whole person. We recognise a person by the face, the appearance of which we have memorised. Our face is our identity card and is unique to each person, and there are billions of humans in the world. The hair on the head and face are parts of these characteristics. Decisions to allow hair growth or cut it off have their effect on the personality. Long hair is often a sign of independence and ideological opposition to “the establishment”. A long haired man is a free man. The beard also has its role, but I will discuss only the head hair in this article.

As long hair is the rule in Eastern Orthodoxy, its absence is a mark of western Christianity. In ancient Greek culture, youths sacrificed their hair on reaching manhood. This custom is reflected in France at the end of the nineteenth century.

petit-garconWhen I first married my wife, I was highly impressed on seeing a painting of her grandfather as a little boy in the 1900’s. He had beautiful long locks of hair, like a girl, and wore something looking like a sailor’s uniform. It was cut off as the boy reached puberty. Here in France, many people kept their hair in a bell jar. At home, my father has four “baby books”, and mine contains a lock of hair from “My First Haircut”. Old symbols endure.

The western clerical tonsure is something curious. In the ceremony of the Tonsure, the bishop takes a pair of scissors and cuts tiny tufts of hair from the back of the head, the front, each side and from the crown. The new cleric then gets his surplice. The shaved tonsure is not much in use these days but I have “worn” it. A circular shape is shaved from the crown of the head, about the size of an old English penny. The monk has his head shaved except for a crown of short hair. In the Congregation of Solesmes, haircuts are every month. In the middle ages, clerics did not wear cassocks in the street but the ordinary dress of a gentleman. The tonsure alone set him apart, and helped the cleric avoid various urban temptations. Saint Paul condemned long hair for men in I Cor xi.14: “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?” The Synod at Elvira forebade a woman to have anything to do with long-haired men, under penalty of excommunication. It all seems very strange, since Christ had long hair if we go from all the iconography from the mists of church history, sappy Sacred Heart statues and the Shroud of Turin itself.


In the Old Testament, there is the Vow of the Nazirite is found in the book of Numbers, chapter six. A man who consecrates himself to God does not cut off his hair. This prescription is observed in Orthodox Judaism and the Eastern Church. Rastafarians also do not cut their hair. They grow it into “dreadlocks”, and the Vow of the Nazirite is a part of their religion. Leviticus xix.27 and Deuteronomy xiv.1 also order the keeping of long hair and beards. Sunni Muslim men are expected to have beards, though orthodox Islam now discourages or even forbids long hair. Native Americans also have long hair because they believe that a man’s vitality and strength reside in his hair, as do the Sikhs in India. The hair is cut, as in other cultures, for mourning.

It is highly significant that shaving a man’s head, as for when it is done to a woman, is a sign of humiliation and giving that person a feeling of nothingness. Julius Caesar made the Gauls shave their heads as a sign of submission. French women who collaborated with the Germans during the Occupation (1940 to 1944) had their heads shaved after the Liberation, sometimes as a prelude to being raped and shot. Convicts have their head shaved on admission into prison, and not only for reasons of hygiene. We take haircutting and shaving for granted in our society which is as characterised by class, wealth and poverty, domination and obedience as ancient Rome. The symbolic meaning is the same, but unknown to most of us.

Powdered wigs in the seventeenth century

Powdered wigs in the seventeenth century

In western secular society, long hair became associated with marginal subcultures in the 1960’s like the Hippies and various men who ride motorcycles in groups or perform rock and various types of modern popular music. Long hair is seen to stereotype artists and some academics. It is more acceptable these days as cultural reasons for having long hair are more diverse. For many, it is a sign of personal growth, identity and freedom.

longhairWhy do some men go for long hair, as only about 5% of western men do so? Most modern hairstyles are short and there is a tendency to reproduce the styles of the 1920’s. Long hair has never in recent times in secular life been in fashion. It has been a characteristic of subcultures associated with various types of popular music or political ideologies. The common stereotypes are hippies, bikers and rock musicians.

I read on the Internet that most men with long hair are heterosexuals and quite masculine. They have no effeminate affectations as a rule. The gay community is mainly short-haired following current fashions.

Many men who have long hair affirm it as a part of their identity and childhood desires. I have to be frank and admit that it was as much a childhood dream as sailing, and I hated haircuts. It is a sign of cultural independence, even when a long-haired man does not use drugs, go in for rock or ride a motorcycle (though I had a Suzuki T200 when I was 20 and rode it from London to York, enjoying every minute of it). A long-haired man just doesn’t care, and if people like him, it’s because of his personality and not because he conforms to fashion or the old historical opposition between dominant and dominated. Our identity is generally formed in our childhood years, and we are fools to shut it out of our lives. It is easier to go with the flow, but our characters are formed by being truly ourselves.

Goodbye, scissors?

* * *

Links on long hair (both male and female) in history and culture

An interesting fact is that the pair of scissors in its modern form was invented around 1760. See scissors.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Vestri Capilli Capitis

  1. Patricius says:

    Having my hair cut is like a chore. I hate going to the barbers with a heart-felt loathing! That is not to say that I have ever had long hair. When I was little my father used to cut our hair with his electric razor, very short. I hated it. I wanted wavy hair through which I could brush my fingers. I secretly always longed for a coiffed hairstyle, perhaps with some henna brushed through, but I doubt I could pull it off. Just like ornamental waistcoats, I’m just not fat enough in the belly, though doubtless that will come in time!

  2. Felix Alexander says:

    I have had long hair in the past, but because of incipient baldness I keep it at a medium length; I settle for a long beard. Along with some of my tastes in clothes/hats, it generates many compliments; I think people generally see it as confidence and determination.

  3. CredoUtIntelligam says:


    This post demonstrates that you need to get away from the internet and have a real parish life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s