Posted in theology

About those verses of braided hair…

By Elizabeth Prata

I’ve been watching The Waltons in my free time here during summer break. It’s a sweet drama based on writer Earl Hamner, Jr.’s life on the fictional Walton’s Mountain. His actual boyhood home was in in the Appalachians of the area of Schuyler in Nelson County, Virginia. The time is during the Depression.

The mother is named Olivia (played by the lady Michael Learned) and in the show her hair is always is a simple twist on the nape of her neck. It’s very pretty hair and the loose tendrils that escape during the inevitable hard labor chores frame her face. Very occasionally, if Olivia is shown in bed attire or having gotten up in the middle of the night, her hair is down in one long braid. I always liked how the show did up her hair. I don’t know if her hairstyle is authentic for the 1930s or not, but I always thought the simple chignon was pretty.

Jane Seymour starred with Christopher Reeve in the romantic movie Somewhere in Time. Jane’s character also had beautiful hair, of which I was fascinated. Above, the character Olivia Walton.

Farrah Fawcett was known for her hair, a style which defined the 70s and caused many to swoon. Jennifer Aniston’s hair also did the same for the 1990s. When one thinks of these and other beautiful actresses, their long, flowing hair dressed in feminine style is usually the first thing that comes to mind. Who doesn’t remember a a kid brushing Barbie’s long hair, or even the Trolls’? And that is the point. Long, luxurious hair is always identified with womanly femininity.

Our Sunday School lesson is currently in 1 Peter. We are going through section by section this summer. Yesterday was 1 Peter 3:1-6.

Your adornment must not be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; 4but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God.

In this verse, is the Holy Spirit against braided hair and gold jewelry? No. If one takes a correctly literal but incorrectly narrow view of this verse, a women could highly adorn her hair not in braids but in a French knot and wear not lots of gold or pearls but pounds of platinum and say she is being consistent with the verse, literally. So what does the verse mean?

Julia was the Roman emperor Titus’s daughter and thus part of the Flavian era, which ran during its three emperors reign from about 65-100 AD. The Flavian Dynasty bore the emperors Titus, Domitian, and Vespasian. These three reigned just after the abusive and cruel time of Nero. Vespasian was the emperor who built the Colosseum.

In the earlier days of the Empire, Roman women wore their hair relatively simply, in one long plait, or loose with a headband. High-born vs. low-born women could not readily be distinguished. Their clothes also were relatively simple, with no patterns except the stripe of purple the very rich could afford, or perhaps by the quality of the linen (or its sheerness, of one was a prostitute).

By the time Julia came along, those simpler days were gone. She sparked a hairstyle craze of elaborately coiffed curls, stacked in layers. And then as now, when a high-ranking women or a celebrity display a certain hairstyle, the other women follow suit. Remember the desire for Princess Diana looking hair? Or Dorothy Hamill cuts? Or Michelle Obama bangs? Back in Peter’s day, women wanted Julia-hair.

Portrait Bust of a Flavian Woman (Fonseca Bust), from Rome, c. 100 C.E., marble. Kahn Academy

Since dress was fairly uniform, it was the hair that was the main event. Since all Roman women believed that loose hair was a sign of barbarianism and coiffed hair was a sign of civilization and even literacy, they all did their hair. They all wore it up, except for young girls, or at funerals.

lot could be told about a woman’s social status by her coif. The more intricate it was, the more it was obvious that the woman had leisure time to spend on personal appearance, and more slaves to attend to her. Some wore gold hair nets, or included pearls or jewels in the braiding. Some sprinkled gold on their hair to look blonder (a sought after hair color, then as now).

Olivia Walton’s hair, held in place in a bun with one un-elaborate pin, would be worn by lower class women. The higher the class, the higher the hair, and the more elaborate the pins. Lower to middle class women would go find a tonstrix shop, that’s the Latin word for female barber (tonsor is the male). They were mentioned in ancient literature and usually lined up on one street or in a neighborhood section. Wealthy women would have an ornatrix to attend her hair and dress at home, from the pool of slaves she would invariably own. The relief blow shows a wealthy woman with four ornatrices.  An orantrix didn’t just handle hair, she perfumed, made-up, rearranged clothing, anything to make her Lady look good to the public.

Relief of slaves adorning a woman. Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Trier, Germany. (2nd-3rd c. AD)

The styles took hours to accomplish. Before you go all “that’s such a waste of time!’ think of how long it takes to do cornrows, hair extensions, or perms. Uh-huh.

What Peter was saying in 1 Peter 3 and what Paul was saying in 1 Timothy 2:9 is that the adornment we should display is Christ. We need not spend hours in an activity whose main aim is to get people to look at us. A woman’s character of humility meekness, warmth, love, and kindness are the statements we want to achieve. Being consumed with outward appearance inhibits a woman from loving Christ and others as the primary occupation of her life. It also distracts her from the service she could be performing and the money she could be spending elsewhere.

Hair styles come and go, as well as preferences for certain kinds of jewelry or clothing. But the principle the Apostles were asking the women to apply is to dress modestly, according to the individual conscience, but to also monitor why one might be spending longer times on one’s appearance, or more money, than she used to. We do want to be properly adorned on the outside but it’s the inner adornment that matters: Christ in us. Don’t let anything perishable compete with that.