In Appreciation of the Bobby Pin
This essay is a part of unMUTE, a collection of pieces written by participants in the 2020 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive Online.
I should have gotten a haircut before the quarantine began. But who anticipated how long it would last or that my hair would grow so long? It’s not a big deal—certainly not something worth protesting, and certainly not worth showing up at the state capitol with my big, dumb, white face unmasked despite the rapid spread of COVID-19, shouting about priorities and freedoms while I publicly sit for a defiant trim.
My wavy, midback-length hair is relatively easy to contain. Stick a couple of bobby pins in it and it’s out of my face. Every morning I get up, attend to my daily ablutions, and gather my hair in one hand for taming. I open the vanity drawer and prowl around it with my free hand to find some pins, but there are almost never any there. I blame my husband. He has a yen for using the pins’ curved ends to clean his ears—an unattractive habit that he admitted to when I asked why there were bobby pins in the bathroom trash. I also blame the cats, who swat pins off the vanity and send them scattering. Eventually, I hunt some down, finding a few in my nightstand and under my pillow. At last, with hair impounded, I can move on with my day.
I never expected such a tiny device to feel so essential. But Irene Castle did.
Irene Castle and her husband Vernon were an entertainment sensation in the early twentieth century. Stars of Broadway and silent films, the couple repopularized social dancing by melding the decorum of ballroom with the exuberance of ragtime, jazz, and other musical styles developed by African Americans. Undeterred by prejudicial social boundaries, the white duo collaborated with black-music luminaries, including bandleader James Reese Europe and composer Ford Dabney.
Irene quickly became a fashion icon. In 1915, she got the chop when most future flappers were still in pigtails. Irene’s new ’do was done for convenience, as traditional fasteners had previously worked their way out of her longer coiffure when she danced, but now her earlobe-length hair had a habit of falling in her face. Standard hair restraints of the time offered no help in controlling Irene’s short locks, so she turned to beauty supply purveyor Luis Marcus. He created a new style of hairpin for her, hammering wire by hand into a shape similar to the bobby pins used today. Luis found his invention frivolous (like a protest about haircuts in a time marked by racial disparity and a global pandemic), but a generation of flappers and countless future hair-bearers disagreed.
Since then, bobby pins have transcended their original function. A 2014 Cosmo article offers “20 life-changing” ways to use them. Almost all of these suggestions are hairstyle-related, including how to tuck long hair into a faux bob. I’m skeptical of the impact Cosmo’s tips have had on anyone’s life path, but the article demonstrates how bobby pins have transformed from concealed utilitarian fasteners into meant-to-be-seen fashion accessories. Wikipedia also suggests using bobby pins as bookmarks, lockpicking tools, and roach clips. And it turns out a lot of people, like my husband, unadvisedly use them to clean their ears. Who knew?
So, as I pinned back my hair this morning, I offered a small thank you to Irene Castle and Luis Marcus for their hair-regulating innovation, as well as the simple bobby pin itself for fettering my uncut bangs. There’s a revolution going on, and it’s not about hair care. It’s important to see clearly and to keep the wool–er, I mean hair—out of our eyes.
unMUTE Group Statement
Take a moment to think about how strange a video chat is. You can see and hear someone, but all the nuance of body language is lost—flattened into two dimensions and reduced in resolution. Conversation starts and stops, unaided by technology cuts and lags. How do you even know when someone is about to speak?
Now take that single moment of video chat and multiply it by sixteen, each tiny square on the screen filled by a student hoping to mentally escape the 2020 pandemic.. Norms need to be created so that everyone feels comfortable contributing, and group dynamics have to be explicitly established so no ideas or experiences—indicated sometimes by only the slightest wave—go unshared.
On the surface, a large group video conversation seems unwieldy. It morphs into something entirely new when the meeting happens every weekday for two weeks, pressurized by rapid-fire lectures, readings, and assignments. It’s hard to imagine, but what if—in the midst of a global health crisis and nationwide protests over racial inequality—those sixteen people created bonds so deep and discovered things about themselves so profound that they left the meeting changed? What if they wrote prose so revealing you stole a glimpse into who they are?
If you’re curious, please unMUTE.