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Sandra Dee, Janet Jackson and Ariana Grande all with variations on the ponytailGetty

A cultural history of the ponytail

In 2018, it has a feminist undercurrent, implying ‘I’m busy, I’m working, and I need my hair OFF my face’

Helen Whitaker

There are several specific types of relief that we don’t yet have a word for but should: taking your heels off after a night out, removing your bra at the end of the day (read: the second you get home), and the sweet release of taking down a scraped-back ponytail.

Ariana Grande can relate to the latter. The 25-year-old pop star has recently admitted being in ‘constant pain’ from her signature ‘do. Considering she premiered it in 2014, that's a long time to have a hair headache. No wonder she's had a trim and let it all down.

Ariana Grande performing at the Billboard Music Awards, May 2018Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Ariana Grande and her signature ponytail on stage at the Billboard Music Awards, May 2018

But until now, she was prepared to suffer for her style, describing her affection for her ponytail as “true love”. French Vogue declared the high ponytail ‘the look of Fall 2018’, and the ponytail hashtag on Instagram brings up 2.3 million hits, with its myriad variations (#ponytailgoals, #ponytailbraids, #highponytail), generating thousands more.

All of which seems to suggest that we’re way more yay than neigh (sorry) about 2018’s hottest up-do.

But how did we get here? Here’s a quick hair-story lesson…

Pre-17th Century: Queue Here

Some may think that the semi-bald, semi-ponytail look was invented by a rock music fan who couldn’t quite accept the ageing process, but pre-17th century, the male Manchu people of Northeast China grew the hair on the top of their heads long (and often braided it), while the front was shaved. A sort of reverse rocker, if you will.

Known as a ‘queue’ – the French word for ‘tail’ – the traditional hairstyle is often associated with the Manchu people, prior to their forming the Qing Dynasty, the last imperial Chinese Dynasty that ruled from 1644 to 1912.

But the ponytail can possibly be traced back to Ancient Greece - when it was seen in frescoes painted thousands of years ago in Crete, set high on the backs of heads of women, according to the Encyclopedia of Hair.

The Manchu people forcefully introduced the style to Han Chinese men (who along with Han Chinese women, traditionally wore their hair in buns or topknots), during the Manchu conquest of China in the early 17th century.

The enforced style was a symbol of submission, with execution the punishment for non-compliance.

Illustrated figures with the Manchu queue hairstyleSmithsonian Libraries
Chinese men with the Manchu hairstyle from the book Geschichte des Kostüms (History of the Costume) published in 1905

18th Century: Sartorial Soldiers

In 2018, the male ponytail is seen as unconventional and artistic (see celebs identifiable by one name: Zayn, Brad, Jared), but in the 18th century, it was the mandatory style for European soldiers, and considered both hyper-masculine and the epitome of ‘establishment’.

French soldiers were required to wear their hair in a queue (of no longer than eight inches in length), while British soldiers and sailors wore their long hair pulled back into ponytails, not always braided, but often greased and/or powdered or tarred. It was secured with ribbon or a strap, so tight that one British soldier said he didn’t think he’d be able to ‘close his eyelids afterwards'.

'Queue' was the commonly used word for the style by soldiers until the 20th century. 'Pony's tail' makes one appearance in Anthony Trollope's 1873 book The Eustace Diamonds.

The British Army was ordered to cut off its queues in 1800, when regulations changed and short hair was deemed smarter and lower maintenance, although the Navy wore a version, known as a 'pigtail', until about 1820. 

Three European soldiers from the 1700sBBC Three / Archive.org
From left to right: English cavalry officer with braided queue, French officer with loops-pigtail and black ribbon, German officer with pigtail wig and black leather queue

Early 20th century: Er, what about the ladies?

Ringlets, chignons, sausage curls, elaborate up-dos… but the ponytail was thought of as informal. (Anyone who has yanked a hair tie from around their wrist and stuck their hair up in a messy pony, while slobbing about the house can probably agree, right?) It was also viewed as a style for young girls, rather than women.

Cliff Robertson and Sandra Dee...Columbia Pictures / Getty Images
Sandra Dee with Cliff Robertson in Gidget, 1959

When the 20th century arrived, every era had its iconic ‘do – the flapper bob in the '20s, the starlet waves in the '40s – and it wasn’t until the '50s that the humble ponytail started to get its moment, thanks to the first-ever Barbie (who came with a perky pony), and film stars such as Sandra Dee making the style famous in films like 1959’s Gidget. As the actress had such a girl-next-door reputation (Rizzo's song in Grease is a quick explanation as to how Dee was regarded in the '50s) the hairstyle, by extension, did too.

In the 1960s, the high pony hit pop culture in I Dream of Jeannie, another ‘good’ character - a 2,000-year-old genie who devotes her life and sorcery to the human man she loves. It then took the model Brigitte Bardot - AKA the epitome of sexy, insouciant French chic - to tousle it in the '60s, which reinvented the ponytail into a style that the cool girls wore.

Bridget BardotBureau/Sygma/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
French film star Brigitte Bardot pioneered the artfully dishevelled ponytail

Meanwhile, in the '70s, men’s hair was getting longer again (hello, Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles!) but rather than restricting it, it was all about letting it hang free, man.

1990: The Power Pony (Part One)

It’s pretty apt that the Queen of Reinvention gave the good-girl hairdo another makeover. Madonna’s 1990 Blonde Ambition tour saw her sporting a clip-on platinum plaited pony that became as legendary as the conical bra she wore it with. Combined with Madge’s trademark swagger, she made the ponytail synonymous with female empowerment (as well as other style choices).

Fans quickly started wearing their hair in copycat ponies to the shows, but Madonna actually dropped the look halfway through the tour because it kept getting caught in her headset – as well as putting too much stress on her natural hair. However, the pony remained iconic, with the hairpiece from the tour selling for £12,000 ($20,000) at an auction in 2014.

Madonna 1990Kevin Mazur Archive/WireImage
Madonna on stage during her Blond Ambition world tour in 1990

1993: The Power Pony (Part Two)

Box braids were around long before Janet Jackson’s romantic movie Poetic Justice, but as they’re still often referred to as ‘Janet Jackson braids’ or ‘Poetic Justice braids’, it’s fair to say that she was responsible for their '90s revival. But she didn’t stop with one trend.

When she pulled the braids back into a high ponytail, she made the box-braid pony officially (as they say in fashion) ‘a thing’ that A-listers such as Zoe Kravitz and Jada Pinkett-Smith continue to love. In 2013, she paid homage to herself (as only a true diva can) by reviving her own look at Milan fashion week.

Janet JacksonKMazur/WireImage
Janet Jackson at the Grammy Awards, 1993

2003: Enter the Pollard Pony

The slicked-back high pony had already been deemed ‘the Croydon facelift’ by style snobs - owing to its gravity-defying effect on the visage when pulled tight enough – when Little Britain took any remaining poshness out of the pony.

Matt Lucas’s character Vicky Pollard made it synonymous with a tracksuit-wearing teen delinquent. Not exactly the pony’s finest hour, perhaps, but a funny one nonetheless.

Vicky Pollard and Kate MossDave Hogan/Getty Images
Kate Moss (left) joins comedian Matt Lucas (aka 'Vicky Pollard') on stage at the Hammersmith Apollo, 2006

2012: A Scientific breakthrough (no, really)

Ever wondered at school what equations had to do with real life? Wonder no more. A team of British and American scientists won the Ig Nobel for Physics for coming up with a calculation that predicts the shape of any ponytail (based on hair length, curliness and the effect of gravity thereon). Sure, we all know the equation off by heart (ahem) - and it’s better known as the ‘Rapunzel Number’.

The award is considered a spoof of the Nobel Prize, but the quirky experiments submitted by the scientists are often designed to tackle real-world problems, and as one of the researchers worked at a giant shampoo company, there was a business interest in 'hairodynamics'. However, it also helped scientists understand other materials better, such as wool and fur. (But it is also a good conversation starter: “Hey, what’s your Rapunzel Number?”)

2015-Now: Peak Ponytail?

The 2018 pony is a slick, pulled-back number that has a feminist undercurrent, implying ‘I’m busy, I’m working, and I need my hair OFF my face’. It's a look that's been popularised by the likes of Beyonce at 2015’s Met Gala, J-Lo and the Kardashians, who return to it time and again, and of course Ariana with her seminal pony.

BeyoncéMike Coppola/Getty Images
Beyoncé makes a statement at the Met Gala, 2015

But as Ariana knows, it comes at a price. Regularly wearing your hair pulled back tightly can cause headaches and traction alopecia – a type of hair-loss whereby hair thins out after prolonged stress on the follicle. Which is why Ariana might have decided to give her pony the Thank u, Next treatment (for now).

So what now for this unisex, century-spanning do - have we indeed reached peak ponytail? With Meghan Markle regularly pulling her hair back in a simple, mid-height pony, something tells us that it’s not going anywhere, simply reinventing itself again.