Janet Stephens: Intrepid Hairdressing Archaeologist

Some time ago, I was wandering around the Internet nerding out over old things as is my wont when I came across the YouTube channel of a genius. Before my astounded eyes, professional hairstylist Janet Stephens recreated the hugely intricate hairstyle of Empress Julia Domna (170–217 A.D.), wife of Emperor Septimius Severus, using only period-appropriate tools and a sculpted bust of the empress as an example. No pins. No perms. No hairspray. Behold Janet’s amazing skills in action:


Naturally I watched the rest of her videos in quick succession. Then I secured a copy of “Ancient Roman Hairdressing: On (hair) pins and needles,” a paper she wrote that was published in the 2008 edition of the Journal of Roman Archaeology (JRA). The depth of her knowledge blew me away. She is fully conversant in the archaeology (including unpublished artifacts), ancient literary sources and published scholarship of Roman hairstyling, and not just Roman but Etruscan and Greek as well.

Her work in this field is unique because her experience as a stylist gives her particular insight into how hair works and what can be accomplished with what tools. She upends a number of assumptions — that Roman women must have used wigs to achieve their more elaborate hairstyles, that they used hairpins — and injects a whole new simplicity and accuracy to the very vocabulary of ancient hairdressing.

Virtually all commentators demonstrate modern technological biases that lead to anachronistic speculation: in both looking at images and interpreting literary passages, they assume that the Romans used the same hairdressing technologies as do moderns. In addition, not being hairdressers, they fail to understand the technical possibilities of the tools that the Romans did have at their disposal. I will analyze the physical capabilities of the single prong hair-pin in order to show the impossibility of its application in many contexts. As an alternative I will propose sewing needles, arguing that, as Roman women of the 1st c. A.D. abandoned vitta-based [(vittae were linen or woollen ribbons used to tie the hair together when arranging it)] coiffures in favor of more elaborate fashions, they used needles (artifacts well attested in antiquity) invisibly to stitch together the style’s various components.

And that’s just the second paragraph. The rest of the paper lives up to its promise and then some.

Her most recent video, Julia Domna: Forensic Hairdressing, a recreation of a later hairstyle of the hirsute empress, was presented to great acclaim at the Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia earlier this month.

(Correction: I initially wrote she had done the recreations live, but that was my misunderstanding. In fact, Janet’s Julia Domna videos were running on a computer while four pre-styled mannikin heads, one at each stage of Julia’s hair loss as portrayed on coins, provided real-hair examples for the people attending to examine. A 4×8 foot graphic illustrated the probable progression of hair loss from one stage to another.)

Shocked and awed by her combination of scholarly research and styling craftsmanship, and cat-killingly curious about how all the elements came together, I asked Janet Stephens if she would submit to an interview and she has most graciously done so.

* * *

Janet StephensQ: How did you first begin to research ancient hairdressing?
My research began with a visit to the Walters Art Museum in 2001. They had just finished renovating the Greek/Roman collections and displayed a number of portrait busts at eye level, out in the center of the room, like a cocktail party. I had never seen the back of a roman portrait before—they are usually placed high on shelves/pedestal with the backs tight up against a wall. As I circled the portraits I saw the logic of the hairstyles and determined to try some at home. It was electrifying, can’t thank the Walters enough.

Q: When was the first time you tried to recreate a look and how successful was that initial foray?
I think it was my first day off after that visit! I pulled out a long haired mannikin to try out Julia Domna, type 2. I made it as far as the serpentine bun and hit a wall. Bobby pins and hair pins just wouldn’t do the job. It was all library leg work and practical experimentation after that.

Q: Which came first: your love of history or your love of hair?
My love of hair definitely came first (as a child I had the best coiffed dolls in the neighborhood), and my love of hair kindled my love of fashion and social history.

Q: Your article in the JRA demonstrates an astonishingly thorough command of the archaeological record, and of primary and secondary sources relating to Roman hairstyling (and not just Roman, but also Etruscan and Greek). How did you master such a density of material?
Lots and lots of reading, poring over exhibition catalogs, back searching the footnotes to the reading and reading some more! It helped that I am fluent in Italian and, in 2006, I took a German for reading class. Working in my spare time, the research took 6 years.

Q: Did you do all this research on your own or through a school or other institution or …?
I am an independent researcher, but my husband is a professor of Italian at the Johns Hopkins University, so I have library privileges there. We are friendly with colleagues in the Classics/Archaeology department and at the Walters Art Museum. They were kind enough to send me articles and clippings, read drafts and help with some picky Latin, though I try not to impose.

Q: You say in the JRA article that sculptures tell you where to part the hair, what direction to twist it in, even whether the curl is natural or artificial. I’m particularly curious about the latter. How you can identify the source of the curl?
It helps to have a lot of hairdressing experience! This is a complex topic with room for much ambiguity. Identifying artificial curl on a statue requires a visual literacy similar to that necessary to distinguish a particular painter’s work by his brush strokes. It can be difficult to identify artificial curl today because of the vast array of hair care technologies available.

The Romans did not have the range of technologies that we do (electric dryers, plastics, cheap metal clips, air conditioning, hair spray), so changing the shape of hair was both risky (irons heated over fire) or time consuming (air drying wet hair so it takes on an unnatural shape can take many hours). How long these artificial curls might endure depended on climate and weather. I believe most Roman women made do with their natural curl patterns and avoided artificial curling.

But on Roman portraits, curls that are too neat, ribbon-like, evenly sized and orderly may be suspected as artificial. I always examine the entire hairstyle, looking for signs of wave or straightness. I look for signs in hairstyle components where curl would be irrelevant or counterproductive to the finished style, and I pay special attention to mismatches between one zone of the head and another. Artificial curls are arranged in strict rows or stacks, with a logic and consistency to their rotational direction, say clockwise on one side of the head and counterclockwise on the other. Natural curl tends to be chaotic and “frizzy”, there is usually a mix of different diameters of curl and they don’t always rotate in the same directions.

Q: Were you already an accomplished stylist by then?
Yes. I now have over 20 years professional hairdressing experience. I have also taught in an accredited beauty school and as a color educator for a major haircare company.

Q: Did you have to do a lot of trial and error to figure out how certain hairstyles were achieved?
Not really, once I realized they could be sewn together, the styles came together fairly quickly. Using high quality portrait examples is a must, though.

Sabina, wife of Hadrian, as Venus Genetrix, ca. 117, Museo OstienseQ: Which ones were the most challenging and why?
The ones I do on mannikins are the hardest, because I have only my two hands to work with. A live model can follow directions or help out by holding on to a piece of equipment or hair. But in terms of sheer manual dexterity, the “beehive” (ca. 117 A.D.) is the toughest so far.

Q: I was surprised by how much hard science — like the isometric tension keeping bodkins in place and the anatomical requirements of hair length for any given style — was in your JRA paper. Are these factors you can calculate by observation or did you have to learn them by experimenting?
Hairdressers learn a lot of biology and anatomy during cosmetology training and we apply it every day in the salon. We all learn that certain hair lengths work better for certain styles. I prefer using vertebrae to measure hair length because it is precise but not dogmatic. I have used bodkins to dress my own hair and I use them to manage the long hair of clients. You become familiar with how they work and it just becomes a matter of finding ways to describe them.

Q: How did you find those unpublished needles in the Johns Hopkins collection?
The Johns Hopkins University has a very good archaeological collection and museum. Their gracious former curator, Eunice Maguire, helped me with the needles. There is a lot of unpublished material out there.

Q: How was your “Julia Domna: Forensic Hairdressing” presentation received at the Archaeological Institute of America Conference this year?
It seemed to create a a lot of buzz and people said they enjoyed it. It’s not every conference where you go to the poster session and see “heads on pikestaffs”!

Q: Is there anyone else doing anything like what you do?
Dr. Elizabeth Bartman (president of the AIA) and Prof. Katherine Schwab of Fairfield University have each employed hairdressers to recreate the hairstyle of Faustina the Elder and the ancient Greek Erechtheion caryatid hairstyles, respectively. But, so far as I know, I am the only professional hairdresser working as a scholar in her own right on the topic of ancient hairstyle recreation.

Q: Do you have any specific goals, attitudes you’d like to change or new approaches you’d like to establish in the archaeological community?
I would love it if all archaeological museums would display their sculptures out in the middle of the room instead of in niches and against walls! And I wish there were mirrors behind every small sculpture displayed in a case.

Q: For instance, creating consistent terminology (i.e., bodkins and needles instead of curlers/hairpins/bobby pins) standards in the scholarly literature?
That’s a great idea…and I would extend the concept to include technologically neutral descriptions of hair itself.

Q: If you could choose one ancient hairstyle or technique to bring back into fashion today, which one would it be and why?
Selfishly, I would love to see more women of every age wearing their hair as long as they can: that way I could find hair models more easily!

* * *

Inspiring, isn’t she? Not only is Janet Stephens an expert in her profession, but in just six years she taught herself to be an expert in the academic field of ancient hairdressing, maybe even the primary expert. Now run, don’t walk, to watch all of her videos and clamor for more.

27 thoughts on “Janet Stephens: Intrepid Hairdressing Archaeologist

  1. Interviews are an excellent idea for this blog. They captialize on all of your talents–scholarship, research, analysis, writing–and now interviewing, too. Let’s see more of this, if you will.

    1. Thank you kindly. :thanks: I actually have asked another person whose work I bumped into online last week for an interview. I haven’t heard back yet, but I’m definitely hoping to make interviews a more regular feature of the blog.

  2. I’ve responded to this elsewhere but here I’ll use my words because I’m a big boy now and that’s how we do.

    First, I’m a dude. And as a dude I’m not supposed to find hairdressing interesting. It’s not me, understand, but it’s the unwritten dude code. But the same part of me that loves Hollywood musicals (Anchors Aweigh is my favorite, probably because it’s the first one I can remember seeing as a little bort) could not stop watching or reading.

    It seems simple enough to think in hindsight, but of course people have always enjoyed getting they’s hair did (if I may use a vernacular). What was especially infectious in this instance is the passion both you and Janet Stephens have.

    And, I must say, this is one of the few times I can’t say “That belongs in a museum!” Because it doesn’t. Ancient Hairstyles of the Elite and Famous should totally be a thing.

  3. So glad you were able to interview her! I had this stray video posted on my Facebook about the Medieval braid and done the Venus knot after I fried my hair with a color session. I love that someone is investigating this since hair was such a huge part or status and identity for Roman women.

    1. Yes, it really is a window into the social history of Roman women and that is a rare thing. In her paper in the Journal of Roman Archaeology, Janet analyzes a passage from Ovid’s Art of Love in which the author describes beating on his girlfriend and his later regret at having hurt her. He tears her hair out of its styling and he begs her to have it redone because it’s such a terrible reminder of how badly he has hurt her.

      Janet points out that a complex hairstyle sewn together is extremely stable. You can sleep on it without anything poking at your scalp, and until you cut the tie, the stitches hold every hair exactly where it needs to be. In order to tear it apart, Ovid had to have been extremely violent and used an enormous amount of physical force. Without knowing about the stitching, that passage reads like he messed up her hairstyle and is hamming it up to get back in her good graces, when in fact he’s saying that he brutalized her.

  4. This was AMAZING! :boogie: A totally awesome topic. It’s so neat to see someone in such an everyday field like hairdressing putting their knowledge and hard earned experience to something like this.

    Utterly fascinating! Thanks for sharing this! :notworthy:

  5. A fantastic post and a valuble resource. I used this in teaching my senior history girls about the First Triumvirate and the rise of Augustus. It was most engaging and its scholarly tone made it very much useable on their research assignment. You really struck a positive chord with this one…. one student event wore her hair in Agrippina style to her Senior Formal.
    Very well done!

    1. Thank you so much. I am ridiculously happy to hear that your students were inspired by Janet’s work even to the point of adopting Agrippina’s look for Senior Formal. I’ve emailed Janet to let her know. :thanks:

  6. I am a Roman re-creationist who has found somany of your research projects helpful and quite enlightening. I have made a serios of bodkins and pins in bone and am continuing my work in perfecting the use of this material fore these objects.

    As a re-creationist, I entered this project into an Arts & Sciences contest and won. I attribute much of this to your sold iworks on the topic and I send great thanks for your willingness to share this great work.

  7. :no:
    I totally commend Janet on her accomplishments and her bringing to life what was once lost, but I ask that we dig a lot deeper on who cleopatra really was. Cleopatra was not a european woman. This video explains and reveals who cleopatra truly was. This video does not portray her natural african identity.

    please follow this link:

    Many blessings, Angelic

    1. I posted about the alleged Arsinoe tomb discovery when it was announced in 2009. The evidence is almost non-existent, I’m afraid to say. There is zero proof that the bones discovered belonged to Arsinoe, and the ethnicity judgment was based solely on measurements from the 1920s done on a skull that has been missing since then. Cleopatra may well have had African ancestry in her maternal line — unlike the rest of the Ptolemies, she actually spoke Egyptian — but the Ephesus tomb proves nothing whatsoever to do with Cleopatra or her family.

  8. Dear Janet

    I’m an Italian documentary producer.
    We’re specialized in historical and archaeological documentaries.
    I read a press magazine article about you activity in archaeological hair style and I would like to get in touch with you.
    We’re developing a documentary about the process of emancipation of women in ancient Rome – I century B.C.
    Would you contact me?

    Best regards

    Massimo My
    MyMax edutainment srl
    via A. Riboty, 28
    00195 Roma – Italia
    Skype: Massimo.My
    Mobile: +39 335 8300869
    Phone: +39 6 43412520

    1. I have emailed Janet to let her know you wish her to contact you. She would make an outstanding contributor to your documentary, I’m sure. I would dearly love to see it when it’s complete.

  9. I just watched the video by Janet on the Vestal Virgin hairstyle. Of course I would be interested because of my name. I find this so amazing. As I have long hair I would love to give it a try. If I could find someone who could figure it out by watching the video. Thanks for this very interesting article.

  10. AWESOME video I just watched on LiveScience website of your latest creation of the oldest Roman hairstyle worn by the Vestal Virgins You are amazing and quite talented, thank you so much!


  11. Wonderful stuff. Could you pass along a request to Janet to attempt some Mycenaean/Minoan hairstyles? That area is my specialty, and I would love to see a professional tackle it.

  12. Hi, I’m commenting to request your permission to print out this interview and present it. I will be recreating some of Janet Stephens’ hairstyles this weekend, and I want to have this interview as a display. Thank you

    1. You absolutely have my permission. I think it’s tremendously exciting that you’ll be doing some of Janet’s Roman hairstyles. Please report back and tell us how it went. 🙂

  13. I hope Janet read this. As an historian and researcher on women’s culture.., museum-worker and former resident of Greece/and a woman…..I praise your curiosity and expertise that has enveloped you into your own career! I agree….the weaving, plating, configuring of the hair could not have all been wigs. They would have far more retrieved by archaeologists. Hair having the life span as it does, I find that this would be so…they’d have been unearthed.
    I live in Cincinnati and have medium length hair, sometimes bobbed. In your interview you stated you hadn’t been called on to re-create too many of the styles. As for me…I’d grow my hair to lengths so I could have a Greek-do done for an occasion just by you!

    Finding you out has made my day.

    B. Speeg

  14. I am so intrigued by the work Janet is doing. I am very interested in finding out more and how to take steps to become more educated on the history of hair. I am currently a working hairstylist, but want to further my education, where do I begin? There is not a lot of information on the internet, suprisingly. Look for war to any information you could give me! Thank you!

  15. 2012-01-30 01:19:26

    In order to tear it apart, Ovid had to have been extremely violent and used an enormous amount of physical force. Without knowing about the stitching, that passage reads like he messed up her hairstyle and is hamming it up to get back in her good graces, when in fact he’s saying that he brutalized her.”

    Ya know, your comment from January 30th, 2012, actually gives even more valuable insight; probably just as much as your interview does, about a most famous work of literature by Ovid. Between the main body of the article, and your comments, it has REALLY brought it to life, and made them seem more like actual people, rather than legends.

  16. A very interesting blog and interview, Janet! Thanks so much for publishing this!

    I just found your History Blog and look forward to reading more of your articles.

    Thanks and best wishes!

  17. I read the paper, and she proved that various hairstyles can be achieved with the use of needle and thread (or cord?). That does not prove that women did not wear wigs or hairpieces. Elaborate hairstyles tend to require lots of hair, which many women do not naturally have. And when they don’t have it, if they are fashionable they fake it buy buying someone else’s hair. Look at the Victorian era. There’s a popular myth that all Victorian women had long hair. Actually, women’s magazines are full of ads for hairpieces.

  18. 😉 :yes: :thanks: :skull: :shifty: :p :ohnoes: :notworthy: :no: :love: 😆 :hattip: :giggle: :facepalm: 👿 😮 😎 :confused: :chicken: :boogie: :blush: :blankstare: :angry: 😀 🙂 🙁

  19. :skull: :angry: :angry: :angry: :blush: 👿 😎 😎 😎 😎 😎 😎 😎 😎 😎 😎 😎 😎 😎 😎 :chicken: :chicken: :chicken: :chicken:

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