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A Hairstyle Archaeologist Is Recreating Ancient Updos

Hairdresser Janet Stephens’ YouTube channel is full of how-tos and history lessons.

Noémie Jennifer

The Nuremberg Chronicles hairstyle (left) and Grecian cross-tied hairstyle

Janet Stephens takes no shortcuts—her recreations of historical hairstyles from ancient Greece and Rome, the Civil War era, and medieval Europe utilize only the period-appropriate tools of the trade. “There are a lot of tutorials on historical hairstyles online, some of them very astute but most of them using some sort of anachronistic technology, such as rubber bands and bobby pins. I try very hard to use only the technologies and materials available to the periods in which these styles originated,” she tells The Creators Project.

The Baltimore hairdresser began posting video how-tos on her YouTube channel in 2010, as part of her application for a research fellowship in Rome. “Although I didn’t get the fellowship, the response from the YouTube audience was enthusiastic, so I kept making them,” Stephens explains.

As is evident from the introductions in her videos, Stephens’ work is thoroughly researched. She—pun unavoidable—combs over books and articles, but published findings don't always provide all of the source materials she needs before experimenting on her mannequins. “Unfortunately most publications preference the front view of ancient sculpture so, unless I can see the profile, it's hard to see enough of the head to judge how to recreate the hair,” she explains. “I have become shameless at museums, almost climbing behind statues to see the backs.”

Her thirst for historical accuracy has paid off. In 2008, the Journal for Roman Archaeology published her findings on handsewn hairstyles. “In trying to recreate my first ancient styles I realized that wire bobby and hairpins didn't exist in antiquity so, being a needlewoman, I tried sewing it together with needle and thread. It worked, and the rest was a long search for evidence that sewing hairstyles was practiced in Roman antiquity.”

Screenshot from The "Tower" hairstyle: 2nd Century AD

Stephens’ interest in historical hairstyles stems back to childhood, watching old movies and playing dress-up. She grew up in a small town in Washington during the Cold War. Her father spent his days building bombs at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, and her stay-at-home, crafter mom fostered her interest in the arts. “Whenever an MGM musical ran on one of the two TV channels you could get in our small town, I was mesmerized by the gorgeous clothes and hair,” she recalls. Later, as a teenager in Ohio, she “became a geek in the high school theater program.”

Today, other theater buffs, as well as costume makers, reenactors, and hairdressers can reap the benefits of her work, which now numbers nearly 40 videos. And there's more to come: “I have a huge backlog of raw video, it's just a matter of finding time to edit it.” The footage includes styles based on likenesses of Roman empresses Vibia Sabina and Herennia Etruscilla, among others. “There are lots of styles I haven't cracked yet, but I may not be able to do them until I find more published views or travel in person to the museum where these sculptures live. I really need to get to the Vatican!”

For more of Janet Stephens’ step-by-step recreations, browse through her YouTube channel.

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