Is it a myth? A cliche? A fact? We investigate, and find the first historical instance of the post-breakup hair-change:
Today, there's a piece in the Times of India touting the cathartic benefits of the post-heartbreak hair change. You know: often a dramatic crop, sometimes a hue shift, frequently the subject of hairdresser talking-downs, the post-breakup haircut is a cultural staple. If we count Samson as the first to lose his locks to a bad relationship, this is something that's been going on for millenia. Broken heart? Off with her head - or at least a few inches thereof. Gwyneth sports a sleek crop after she finds her Sliding Doors beau in bed with a Yank; stars go blonde (Kim K) and red (Evan RW) with dazzling suddenness and uneven success. Need we mention Felicity? Onscreen, it's the stuff of triumphant montage. In reality, it's as often an emotional impulse that leaves us feeling, not triumphant and sassy, but denuded and alien.
The motivation is obvious: after a bad ending, the thinking goes, you want a fresh start, a new identity, and making a major change indicates a degree of ballsy self-stewardship. The fact that long locks are generally regarded as a classic indicator of femininity admired by men is just icing on the cake, when one opts for a dramatic crop. Some have gone so far as to suggest that divesting oneself of length is an actual physical indicator that a woman is not interested in mating.
The antecedents of the cultural stereotype are a bit murkier, since most everything available on the Internet - mostly first-person accounts of writers channeling heartbreak into their stylists' tip jars - assumes a familiarity with the concept. But where did it start? Obviously, some time in the 20th century, since prior to that women simply didn't change their hairstyles with the regularity with which we do - or have the same kind of "break-ups," for that matter. There were makeover sequences, sure, but they were generally of the rags-to-riches school. In an act of liberated defiance, Audrey Hepburn crops her hair in Roman Holiday, the closest thing of her era to the makeover-haircut ethos, but that's not exactly a breakup. I even looked at the hair of some women with famously dynamic love lives - but Liz Taylor's raven locks maintained their length no matter the husband, and Lana Turner was always iconically platinum. Of course, these women broke hearts, and didn't admit to the alternative - maybe it's the husbands' brilliantined hair I should have been looking at.
The closest I found in old movies was Shirley MacLaine's much-married black-widow character in What a Way to Go, but even then she changes her hair to match each successive husband, rather than as a response to ended relationships. Clearly, the cathartic post-breakup 'do, I thought, was a new phenomenon going back no further than the 80's teen flick and had an obvious relationship with posyt women's-movement liberation. And then, it hit me: the first-ever, on-record instance of defiant breakup hair is...The Parent Trap. Does it take place ten years after the original breakup? Yes, but nevertheless, Maggie McKendrick's 1961 crop meets all our criteria: it comes as a direct result of a breakup, is inspired by feistiness and independence and, incidentally, causes her ex's jaw to drop and his new girlfriend to feel threatened. That it looks kind of like Hedy La Rue's wig and is only okay-looking because it's on Maureen O'Hara is, perhaps fitting: the post-breakup hair-change is rarely a straightforward proposition.