I Dig Your 'Do
Janet Scott Stephens '80 is not your average hairdresser. The Baltimore maven is a self-styled "hair archaeologist," and in 2005 she took the study of ancient up-does to a whole new level with her discovery that Roman women were likely using embroidery to stitch together impossibly intricate designs with their long locks. Most historians had assumed they were wearing wigs.
"I've always been interested in history, but I got into hairdressing archaeology because of a chance visit to the Walters Art Museum," she said. "They had just rearranged their antiquities collection. I had been a hairdresser for about 10 years and I got to see the back of some portrait sculpture from ancient Rome. I was intrigued by the hairstyles I saw and I tried to recreate them at home on hairdressing mannequins. I failed dismally. That drove me into research on the subject of ancient Roman hairdressing."
Stephens, who was a drama major at Whitman and studied music and languages at the University of Washington, is a stylist at Studio 921 Salon and Day Spa. She first started receiving national attention for her hobby of researching and recreating ancient hairdos in her off-hours a few years ago, when she presented her analysis of a vestal virgin portrait at the Archaeological Institute of America. Since then, Stephens has received invitations to speak at universities and museums around the country and abroad. Her work has been covered by The Wall Street Journal, the BBC and The Huffington Post. Most recently, The New Yorker asked for her take on 2016 presidential candidates' hair, particularly Donald Trump's infamous comb-over, a style she says "goes back to ancient Rome, at least."
"I can talk about pretty much every candidate," Stephens told the magazine in September. "Carly Fiorina, Jim Webb, Ted Cruz and Trump all would have mocking epigrams written about their dye jobs. Jeb Bush would fit right into the first century A.D., the bridge between the Republic and the principate. Chris Christie could be Emperor Vespasian, but he'd have to lose a little more hair. Ted Cruz would fit perfectly in ancient Rome. Carly Fiorina, absolutely not: short hair was a sign you’d been conquered. Jim Gilmore vaguely resembles Emperor Galba, from the first century. I'm amazed at how many styles Bobby Jindal has had. He'd fit into the Trajanic period, early second century. Perfect throughout the Mediterranean world."
In keeping with her observations in The New Yorker, we asked her to analyze a figure from Whitman's history, Cushing Eells, who founded the college in 1859. Did he too perhaps have a hairstyle Doppelgänger from antiquity?
"Lucius Junius Brutus was the founder of the Roman Republic, having led the revolution against Tarquin the Proud. I think Cushing Eells bears a strong resemblance to him, both physically and in expression," Stephens said. "Eells wears a distinct side part, however, which was anachronistic for ancient Romans—they preferred to comb their hair forward."
She added, "It's actually much easier to compare 19th century photographs to ancient Roman portraiture, because they did not smile for their pictures as we customarily do. One reason they didn't smile was because having one's photograph taken was a rare occasion, worthy of some gravity. Another reason was because exposure times could be relatively long, which made smiling painful."
For now, Stephens is hard at work on a chapter for the forthcoming tome Cultural History of Hair. In June, she will travel to the Netherlands to give a talk at the Het Valkoff Museum. Still, she doesn’t plan to give up her day job anytime soon. "They’ll have to take me out feet first," she said of the Baltimore salon where she has spent the past 11 years. "What I love about hairdressing is that it's new every day. It's creative, it's rewarding and I meet really interesting people. It can be physically and mentally taxing, but I get to relax with scholarship in the evenings."
To watch some of Stephens' historical hairdressing tutorials online, visit her YouTube channel at youtube.com/jntvstp.