The Semiotics of Curls

January 28, 2015

I’m going to start this piece by leveling with you: I have HIGHLY curly hair.  Not a gentle wave, not ringlets, but full on curls.  As a kid I hated them, as an adult I love them (although they have come to define my appearance so completely that people that see me daily don’t recognise me if I tie my hair back).  That in itself is telling. 

Curly hair has long been positioned as ‘the other’; it's the ‘non-norm’, at least here in Australia, and certainly in the UK and USA too from my own experience.  This is partly through incidence, but I believe also partly due to the cultural code it embodies, the semiotics of it.

This hit home more than ever during some recent work for a confectionary brand, one that is known to be a bit ‘wacky’, ‘inventive’, ‘fun and playful’.  As part of understanding the brand perceptions, we asked people to draw a personification of the brand.  They did, and every time, at least half drew someone with ‘crazy curly hair’. 

These curls represented to them something that breaks the mould, that defies logic (it is not a straight line, it goes whichever way it wants to), something that therefore ladders up to ‘zany, wacky or quirky’.  They were eccentric, creative or just plain mad.

Image: Its no coincidence Miss Haversham is usually portrayed as curly


When we look through pop culture, we see the same thing repeating itself.  Our crazy professors, our witches, our ‘eccentrics’ all wear curls.  Similarly we see the practice in African American culture of ‘straightening’ or ‘relaxing’ hair, to make it acceptable or professional to the largely ethnically ‘white’ populous. 

Image: 80s-tastic, The Witches of Eastwick rock the perm


But this has been shifting.

Gradually ‘crazy and eccentric’ became rebellious.

Inherently curls represent ‘anti-authority’

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From rebellious, we have now moved towards a genuine acceptance of curly hair as ‘another’, rather than ‘other’.

The shift back towards curls is due to a number of influences, from more prominent mainstream African American role models (Solange Knowles, anyone?), to an increased range of products, to schools and hair-dressing blogs now intentionally acknowledging the single biggest truth anyone with curls will recognize:  No set of curls is the same.  There is no ‘one-size-fits all’ from a product perspective, every set of curls is different, and changes day to day. 

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Which leads me to a recent mass piece of communications that accurately captures what curly-haired women have known all along.  We’re taught not to be proud of our hair, but that is changing, and rapidly.  I may not love the way the ad is constructed, and it feels (perhaps genuinely) aimed at the children rather than the adults, but the insight is there, and that has to count for something!