Janet Stephens is a hair archeologist based in Baltimore. She studies the hairstyles of antiquity, focusing in particular on those of Ancient Rome. On her popular YouTube channel, she uses wigs and live models to demonstrate historical hairdressing. Interviews with Stephens and profiles of her work have been featured in The Huffington Post, in The Wall Street Journal and on the BBC.
Two years ago, I modeled for her while she recreated the hairstyle worn by Agrippina the Elder, who was the granddaughter of Augustus Caesar, first emperor of Rome. Recently, Stephens agreed to discuss her passion for hair and the new intersection between archaeology and cosmetology.
Alexa: How did you become interested in historical hairstyles?
Janet Stephens: Well, I’ve always been interested in historical hairstyles. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by them. Even in elementary school I would see photographs of 18th century wigs and try to figure out how they could be reproduced. I think I even made a model at one point of cotton balls, trying to recreate Marie Antoinette’s style. But at least as far as this project is concerned—I’m a professional hairdresser, so I’m tuned to look out for this kind of stuff—it was when I was visiting the Walters Art Museum [located in Baltimore] just for fun, waiting for my kid to get out of a music lesson or something. I had gone into their ancient collection, and I had never seen any of those portrait busts down on the ground where you could get around to the back. You know, the back is where most hairdressing happens. Most museums will display these portrait busts pushed tight up against the walls with their faces facing in the room so you can hardly see the profile, let alone get around to the back. So I was looking at this one bust, I thought it was really cool and I wanted to try it at home. When I got home, I just could not make the hairstyle work using modern tools, so that kindled my curiosity and I started looking in books to see how [the hairstyles] were created. I found that nobody really knew. People assumed that they were made from wigs or that they were made up by the sculptors themselves. No one really treated it as a serious topic.
AK: So you looked at images of artwork and busts to research the hairstyles?
JS: Primarily. The problem that I had in the research was that I had to work primarily from photographs, because you can’t travel to all the museums where all these busts live. But I just got back from a vacation in Rome, so I’ve been taking my own photographs. But the whole research process was extremely laborious because I could only work with what had enough views for me to be able to examine as a hairdresser and not as an art historian or student of stone carving. Most things were not aimed toward the technical recreation; they were saying something about society, something about class, or women’s lives. But nobody ever really discussed the how-tos of the hairstyling.
AK: You had to come up with the technical process pretty much on your own?
JS: Yes, absolutely. And that involved a lot of just grunt research. Luckily, I’m married to a professor, so although he didn’t really give me a lot of assistance on the project, just having lived with him I absorbed some procedures. Hearing him complain about what his students weren’t doing, I said, “Oh okay! If they’re not doing that, then I’d better.”
AK: Is it difficult to go from looking at a sculpture to recreating a style on actual hair?
JS: It would depend on the sculpture. I’ve been a hairdresser for 23 years, so I am very accustomed to looking at an image of hair and breaking it down into its component parts because that’s what I’m asked to do every day. So for me I do not find that terribly difficult. Hair has an internal logic. First you look for the root, for where the hair is attached to the scalp. You look for part lines and you follow the flow of the hair from that part line. And then what does it come up against? A roll lying over the top of it, twisting a particular way, or do you start seeing cross-hatch markings that indicate braids? I just start looking for all the details: direction, overlap, and changes in density, turns in curls, flow. Hair is kind of like abstract art in a way, but it does follow certain logical imperatives, especially if it’s real hair. Sometimes I’ll run into statues where I’ll think that probably some component of the hair is fake, or maybe that’s a hair piece, or maybe it’s a full wig, because it will defy the known logic of how hair originates and moves.
AK: You also mentioned that a lot of the information you were finding was coming from articles about social class and other aspects of society. Did you find that social class affected women’s hairstyles very much in the time periods you were studying?
JS: Well, it’s hard to know because the great preponderance of evidence we have comes from the elite classes. The only people who were able to leave behind portraits of themselves generally had money. I won’t say that they were necessarily aristocratic, but you had to have money in the first place in order to commission a portrait. That being said, there are occasional images of women who look fairly modern for the time that aren’t in portrait context. There’s an image of a female shop keeper from Ostia. They showed her wearing a bun hairstyle. She may have worn a bun, but it also could be dated to a period when a simple bun was the height of fashion, say the middle second century. I would say that many women of lower social status could wear these hairstyles, if they had the time to sit down and have somebody do them. But some people were simply too poor or too busy to attempt a highly fashionable hairstyle, or they might not be able to afford a hairpiece that would duplicate it easily. But there’s always a possibility that some women, like expensive prostitutes, might have worn very fashionable hairstyles.
AK: I’ve seen your YouTube channel, and was listening to your instructions. Do you think that these historical hairstyles are simple enough for people who are not hairdressing experts to attempt?
JS: I would say it’s not so much being a hairdresser, but being somebody who is comfortable with textile arts. I feel like hairdressing is kind of a textile art. These are fibers, you’re weaving them. And they’re sewn styles, so this type of hairdressing may not be easy for women today, but I think it was far easier for women in antiquity because they were trained to perform these sorts of skills. Even for aristocratic women, at least during certain periods, it was considered a basic part of every girl’s education to learn to spin thread and to weave. And braiding and basket making and all of this kind of stuff can be applied to hair. So [the hairstyles] look very intimidating and highly complicated for someone to do nowadays, but for women who are really into it, I don’t think they would have trouble.
AK: There are a lot of comments on your YouTube videos. Have you talked to people who have attempted these styles?
JS: Yeah, I’ve been getting feedback, just in terms of modern applications, for modern contexts. It’s also been very popular among the reenactor crowd. Renaissance fairs and Roman reenactors—there are a lot of reenactors in Europe particularly. I’ve gathered material in Rome to hopefully start branching out into Renaissance and into Napoleonic hairstyles. So I’m hoping to get some of those shot and up by the end of the year.
AK: Will you be using more live models?
JS: Oh yes, absolutely, I love using the live models. It’s so much more successful. I mean the mannequins are great for being able to shoot it over and over again, and do kind of boring, repetitive stuff that you absolutely have to see the detail on. But the live models are more fun and I discover so much when I work with a real person.
AK: And then you can have them dress up too…
JS: Absolutely, it’s fun to dress up!
AK: Yeah, I had a great time doing it! And I think the videos are beautiful.
JS: I do my best to make everybody look good. I think you all look gorgeous.
AK: So where do you usually find your models? I remember seeing your poster in either the Classics or the History department [at Johns Hopkins University, where Stephens’ husband is based].
JS: Every time I need somebody, I do a guerrilla incursion into the library on campus and tape up posters quickly before they tear them down.
AK: Most models are Hopkins students?
JS: Occasionally I’ll get models from another college like Loyola. One girl contacted me cold, and I’m going to start using her pretty soon. She had just heard the interview on—I think it was BBC, where I was complaining about how it’s hard to find models with hair that’s long enough, that’s not cut. So she contacted me through YouTube. I love working with the students, but you guys leave for the summer, and summertime is often the easiest time to shoot, so it gets a little tricky.
AK: What kind of response has your work received? I’ve read a few articles about you in high profile publications like The Wall Street Journal, so it looks like you’ve gotten a very positive response. But can you tell me more about that?
JS: It’s been great. My YouTube audience is very devoted. I wish I had more time to actually edit videos, but because of the attention I’ve been getting, it’s slowed down my production considerably because I’ve been having to do all these PowerPoints instead. But yeah, I think it’s been overwhelmingly positive. You know, if I make mistakes, they point them out, so I occasionally will do a new edition or correct it, or just kind of ignore it, because you can’t please everybody.