Hairstylist revives coiffs of antiquity

'Hair archaeologist' finds secret behind ornate Roman styles


By day, Janet Stephens cuts and colors at a hair salon. By night, she is an amateur archaeologist, meticulously re-creating hairstyles dating back to the times of Roman antiquity.

Stephens, 54, who has worked as a hairdresser for more than two decades, re-creates dos from the Roman era at her home in Baltimore. She combines her vocation as hairdresser with her love of archaeology, in the process revealing the secrets of how women wore their hair in ancient times.

She styled the hair of one mannequin as it would have been worn by Empress Plotina around A.D. 110, pointing out that the unique braided loops and coils signaled her exalted status.

Historians long believed that the elaborate hairdos of women of that era as depicted in marble sculpture were merely flights of artistic imagination. But Stephens said the intricate hairdos were fairly faithful representations of how women of that social station actually wore their hair.

“The styles work,” Stephens said. “When you know how to look at them, you see their logic. You can see the braids starting at one spot and traveling to another spot and turning into something else.”

Stephens’ exhaustive research has helped her to develop a novel theory as to how some of the most elaborate hairstyles of the day came about. She surmised that some of the elaborate and unwieldy dos were made using a needle and thread to keep them in place.

“The theory before mine was that all these hairstyles were either made for wigs or that they were the complete inventions of the sculptors who portrayed these women,” she said. “I had a leap of intuition, as I was sweating in my basement over (one) hairstyle and I realized that if I sewed it together with a needle and thread, it worked and I could make all of them.”

She guessed that slaves probably used a needle and thread to stitch together the elaborate hairstyles that could then stay in place for days. Stephens haunted museums, spent long hours in libraries, and even learned German to continue her research, back up her theory and draft a paper in which to present her evidence.

She discovered — with help from the second-century grammarian Pompeius Festus — that the Latin word “acus,” normally translated as “pin,” can also be translated to mean “needle.”

The telltale clue provided evidence that the hairstyles of antiquity might indeed have been sewn into place. Stephens published her findings in the Journal of Roman Archaeology, making her one of the few nonacademics to have contributed an article in the scholarly periodical.

She said the fact that she was not a scholar allowed her to approach her research with an unjaundiced eye.

“I was not looking for something in advance. I came in as a hairdresser, and I knew an awful lot about hair,” she said.

Stephens posted her meticulous re-creations on YouTube, demonstrating in painstaking detail how the hair first is carefully sectioned, then plaited, looped and twirled, sometimes covered partially or entirely with a head wrap. She even uses historically accurate tools to re-create the elaborate hair designs, including bone needles, gum acacia and rudimentary curling irons.

Stephens said she does not pursue her hobby for profit, but has encouraged Hollywood producers seeking to make movie scenes set in ancient Rome to log onto YouTube to see how she does it.

She has been amused over the years to see the fanciful, but totally inaccurate, depictions of how to re-create hairstyles that have been all but lost to time. She chuckles when thinking back to 1970s British television series “I, Claudius,” which depicted hairdos that no woman of the Roman Empire would ever have worn.

“At no time during Roman fashion history did any woman ever wear a side parting,” said Stephens. “It’s always from the center. It’s always symmetrical.”

Now though, as Stephens points out, historically inaccurate hairdos can be a thing of the past. “I’m sure Hollywood can go to my YouTube channel, and find all they need to know about how to do this,” she said.