- Der Bubikopf. Männlicher Blick, weiblicher Eigen-Sinn by Helga Lüdtke
The Bubikopf (the "Bob" haircut) is perhaps the most recognizable icon of the interwar period. Alongside Marlene Dietrich in a top hat and tails and Otto Dix's slender figures smoking cigarettes, it has endured as a sort of visual shorthand for the New Woman of the 1920s. And rightly so, as Helga Lüdtke demonstrates in her charming new book on the hairstyle that was about far more than fashion.
At a time when life was opening up in dramatic ways (notwithstanding the persistence of most of the old patriarchal realities of the nineteenth century) and when the unprecedented visibility of women in public life was perhaps the most compelling storyline, the provocatively short hairstyle of the Bubikopf stood for the self-assuredness and "weiblicher Eigen-Sinn" (feminine obstinance) of the still-emerging New Woman. Lütdke calls it a "code for how women saw themselves and desired to be seen by others" (24), and it was an endlessly malleable one at that. Women chose the Bubikopf for all sorts of reasons: for some, it was a passing trend, "a sort of maskerade" (21); for others, it was merely a practicality, a DIY cut that saved money and time. And, of course, it was also statement of authority, an assertion of independence from [End Page 183] men and the male gaze. Whatever the reason, adopting the Bubikopf was no triviality: those who did faced criticism from other women, not least as intellectuals—many of whom chose the Bubikopf for its implicit political statement. Some women even lost jobs or divorced because of it.
Why? As rebellious as the hairstyle was, Lüdtke advances the fascinating (though disarmingly simple) point that hair is not merely fashion but rather a part of a woman's body—always, of course, a battleground for patriarchal control. And this body part—hair—Lüdtke argues, was perhaps especially fraught in the land of the longhaired Lorelei, whose beauty and glistening comb famously distracts the boatman, who crashes into the rocks on the river Rhein. The "modern Lorelei," Lüdtke suggests, "evokes a complicated image of masculine desire and feminine resistance" in cutting off her long locks (24). Indeed, the Bubikopf was not just about the new style itself but also and especially about what it cut off.
In cataloging the mass phenomenon of the Bubikopf, Lüdtke leaves seemingly no stone unturned, and the effect is an impressive Gesamtbild of women's lives that is far more nuanced than the stageand screen-inspired images (e.g., Anita Berber) that are often treated as representative. A case in point: Lüdkte presents the cosmetic company Elida's Most Beautiful Woman of 1928 contest and its surprising first prize selection, which went to Willy Jaeckel's Stehendes Mädchen: a full-body portrait of an athletic but, in Lüdtke's words, otherwise "unremarkable" woman in up-to-date (not avant-garde) clothing, "with a serious gaze—a young woman like those who could be found by the thousands on Berlin streets." Oh, and with a Bubikopf, of course. As Lüdtke concludes, "glamour and extravagance, attractiveness and modernity, everything that was and is associated with 1920s-era women—there is no trace of that here" (97). The Bubikopf was, without question, transgressive, but it also spanned the chasm between spectacle and everyday reality, and it serves as an extremely effective vehicle for exploring a period with such an exaggerated reputation.
For her innovative approach alone, Lüdtke deserves praise. And her framework of "Eigen-Sinn"—from the subfield of Alltagsgeschichte (history of everyday life)—adds real punch to this fun, collage-like history of a revolutionary hairstyle. Reading the Bubikopf as an act of defiance by German women en masse and across all social classes and even generations is itself a great contribution to the field and one that deserves mention in every undergraduate lecture on the topic. One can hope that Lüdtke's approach...