The most popular post here at WITS is a very early post from Sharla Rae on writing descriptively about hair. This post is so amazing, we pulled it up from the archives and buffed it up a bit for you. What's included? Everything from basic descriptions and colors to word choices and hairstyle names. and descriptions.
Let's have a hair party!
The #1 thing about hair descriptions is Do Not overuse them. You do not want to be known as "hair girl "or "hair boy!"
#2 on the essential List: Hair descriptions are a part of the character so make them work harder by using them to describe the person “inside,” not just what the person looks like outside.
Alternative Generic Names For Head Hair
Bangs obscured her eyes like a sheepdog
Flaked with snowy dandruff
Bleached, bottle baby
Braid like a thick black rope
Bundled at the nape
Bun resembled a cow patty
Cascading down her back
Coiled in a top-knot
Curls foamed luxuriously
Tendrils danced on the breeze
Downy hair sprinkled her arms
Dramatic widow’s peak
Elaborately dressed with ribbons
Smelled like burnt chicken feathers
Snow drifts of dandruff
Veiled her expression with
Greased into a ducktail
Flaming locks fluttered to the floor
Frizz job, bad perm
Glossy locks lifted on the wind
Grew like a thatch of straw on a roof
Grizzled, gray hair
Hair drooped around pale cheeks
Hair like Rapunzel
Hairy as a dog
Hung like a dark river
Left unbound to tumble
Like a clown wig, artificial red, plastic shine and fuzzy
Like a thatched roof
Like she put her finger in a light socket
Limp and lifeless
Long, shaggy hippy look
Lustrous as onyx stone
Marcelled into fingerwaves
Matted to the scalp
Puffed like a bubble around her head
Shock of hair stood straight up
Slapped her face like wet worms
Sleek and chic
Smooth honey dripped over her shoulders
Spiky Mohawk style of a punk rocker
Spilled out of the hat
Spread like feathers on a pillow
Standing on end
Stiff in front like a cockatoo
Straight as a wire
Stuck to her sweaty nape
Two-toned dye job
Unconquered curls sprang loose
Old-lady blue rinsed hair
Vibrant color and shine
Wet with sweat
White Pigeon Wings at temples
Wondered what rubble lay beneath that mess
Wreathed her face
Bleached hair like mushy wet works
Blue feather hair of old lady
Cotton candy hair, fine
Short-cropped and stiff
Soft and lush
Soft curls and waves
|Crow's wing||Indian Ink||Onyx|
Grays and Whites
|Battleship gray, dull gray||Maltese gray (blue gray)||Smoke|
|Blue dandelion fuzz||Mineral||Snowy white|
|Blue rinse gray||Mousy (gray)||Swan's wing|
|Flint||Salt and Pepper||Wood ashes|
|Ash brown||Fudge cycle|
|Auburn (reddish)||Glazed ginger|
|Baked Clay||Maple Sugar|
|Chestnut||Rawhide, dark reddish|
|Dark Earth||Tortoise Shell|
|Brassy||Clown wig red||Russet|
Here is a wonderful link, shared with us by Erin Michelle (see comment below) from Writing With Color: Describing Natural Hair.
Professional Hair Color Descriptions
Ash blond -- Lacks red or gold highlights (verges on green tones); light mousy blond, medium and dark blond, dishwater, beige
Ash brown -- Browns lacking warm/red tones tones; light mousy brown, medium and dark brown
Black -- Different shades of black vary according to the amount of highlighting or pigmentation shadings present in the hair; black lacking all highlighting will be duller, ash shade; black containing a lot of red may appear as deep burgundy
Red -- Warm shades; berry, russet, strawberry (red-blonde), rusty orange, wine, carrot top, etc.
Towhead -- Whitish blond; usually an ash blond lacking warm tones but not always
Warm blond -- Blond with touch of gold and red; whiskey, wheat, honey, strawberry, brassy, golden etc.
Warm brown -- Brunette, dark or light brown that contains red or gold tones; varies from light to nearly black; reddish brown, chestnut, dark amber, auburn etc.
It’s impossible to name all the hairstyles but the selection here should be a good start. Many listed here also are known by other names.
[See of some these hairstyles here.]
Afro -- Unisex style borrowed from African-Americans; short and very curly, forming a bowl shaped profile; a pick is used to pull the hair away from the head and shape it
Asymmetric -- Hair is cut long on side of the head and short on the other.
Bedhead -- Popularized in 1990s by starlet Meg Ryan; short to mid-length shaggy cut worn jelled or moussed in tossed fashion
Beehive -- A 60’s French twist coiled at the back of the head and rising above it to form a cone shape (see upsweep)
Bob -- Introduced in 1915 this short cropped hair style was popular during the 1920’s; also called the shingle bob, the shingle, the Eaton crop. It is often cropped at the jawline and aligned close to the face.
Bouffant -- Puffy hair style’ hair is backcombed or ratted then barely smoothed, resulting in a bubble affect
Bowl -- Most commonly worn by young boys. The bang area cut straight cross the forehead as if measured by turning a bowl upside down on the head. The top layers are longer and cut along the this bowl line around the head.
Braid -- Plaited hair
Bubble -- 60’s hairstyle, short to mid-length, ratted/backcombed to appear like a football helmet or bubble surrounding the head
Butch/flattop/crewcut -- A man’s style; usually cut with electric shears; very short and stands on end at the front of the head and his shaved close to the head on the sides; sometimes called a GI cut.
Buzz - Modern slang for a hair shaved close to the head
Chignon -- Bun, usually at the nape or top of head; topknot
Conk -- African-American textured hair that is straightened
Cornrows -- Small tightly braided rows of hair that hug the scalp
Duck tail -- 50’s style worn by girls and boys alike; hair on either side of nape combed toward the center of the head; reminiscent of Elvis Presley, Fabian, Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds etc.
Farrah Fawcett -- Long layered hair flipped or feathered back off the face with a bang that feathers or rolls off the face as well; made popular by the TV star of the same name; late 70’s and early 80’s
Finger waved -- Usually short haircut in which a stylist uses lotion and her fingers to create deep waves that circle the head. Popular in the 1920s and 30s.
Flip -- Feminine hair style of the 50’s and 60’s; long hair usually shoulder length turned up at the ends, sometimes in a roll.
Fontange -- Worn 1690’s to 1710; a towering fountain of frills and complex, lacy intertwining shaped around a wire frame and considered the height of fashion; nicknamed by disdaining men, the “tower and the comet”
French twist/seam -- Hair swept back from both sides the head (front to back) and rolled down the center of the head into a roll or tucked to make a seam
Fringe -- Curly bangs worn in the 1880’s; in 1900’s worn straight; alternate name for bangs
Kiss curls -- Seen immediately after Civil War; ringlets of curls on the cheeks or forehead
London Cut -- Short female cut popular during the 1960s and early 70s. The hair was cut over the ears, leaving a fringe in front of the ears, often brushed toward the face or straight down. The nape hair was cut along the hairline like a boys but more rounded instead of squared off like a man’s neckline.
Mohawk -- Shaved head with a strip of hair growth down the center of the head from forehead to the nape
Pads -- Late 1830’s long coiled curls over the ears (looked like ear muffs); at the back of the head they were called a Grecian knot or psyche knot
Pageboy -- Introduced in late 1930s early 40’s; long, hair turned under, usually just touching the shoulders
Pigtails -- Same as pony tail only the hair is parted down middle and each section is cinched into its own tail above or below the ear
Pixie -- Female short cut; feathered around profile of face and onto cheek, short at the nape line; usually with full bang and combed forward onto face; also called an Italian cut; permed version called a poodle cut
Pompadour -- Style of wearing the hair high over the forehead usually in some type of rolled affect; in 1940’s women used rats (nylon mash) to roll the hair off the forehead and puff it; a version of this also worn during the 1700’s and early 1800’s by most and women; name comes from a lady of this era called Madame
Ponytail -- Hair gathered together and cinched with a rubber band or barrette to make a tail at the back of the head; worn high or low; worn low it’s sometimes called a George (referring to George Washington) or a Paul Revere
Poodle cut -- Short, curly haircut
Powdered hair/wigs -- Unisex style worn from about 1760’s to 1820; after 1740 men were wearing shorter, simpler wigs and began to powder their own hair
Punk -- Usually short on top and styled with lotion to stand up off the head; often a mohawk fashion from forehead to nape; sometimes dyed bright neon colors of pink, purple, blue, orange etc.
Queue -- Pigtail, esp. that of a Chinese. (Chinese queue was braided) Men of Colonial America wore these as well, usually tied back with a ribbon and in some cases men wore a periwig styled with a queue
Roach -- Hair brushed into a roll
Sausage curl -- Long tube-like coils of hair; popular in early 1800’s; in the early 1970’s these were piled on top of the head in a cluster, esp. for formal dress for teens.
Shag -- Like a pixie, only long at the nape. Lengths vary from short to long layered cut; popular during the early 70’s
Skin heads -- Group of radical racist youths, men and women alike, who shaved their heads
Spaniel’s curls -- Late 1840’s into the 50’s; long thick curls worn by the ear (as worn by Elizabeth Barrette Browning)
Spit curls -- First seen in 1831; flat curls on women in front of the ear
Tonsure -- Shaven part of a monk or cleric’s head
Updo/upsweep -- Generic term for long hair styled high on top of head; hair might petaled (layered curls), barrel curled, arranged in a chignon, backcombed into a beehive or styled in French roll etc.
Wedge cut -- Also called Dorothy Hamill cut; short cut worn mostly by women; sides feathered off the face, back cut longer from the drown to the occipital bone, where its layered into a wedge; nape is trimmed close the head and short; a late ‘70’s and early 80’s style.
Do you see anything missing from this list? Are there modern styles we need to add? How do you decide what kind of hair to give your characters?
* * * * * *
Sharla Rae passed away earlier this year, but she (and her amazing lists) live on at WITS. She published four amazing historical romances. The latest, How To Fell a Timberman, is available on Amazon.
You can read more about her here.
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This is too, too perfect for me because one of the questions in the reader's guide at the end of my forthcoming novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS is about how HAIR is used to convey different aspects of what it means to be a woman!! The protagonist changes her hair to symbolize a change she wants to make in her life. Her less-tightly-wound sister is always letting her hair fall, effortlessly, to her shoulders. And so on. (You'll just have to read the book to know more.) As women, hair matters to us; we say something about who we are, through our hair choices. So this is a cool dictionary! Thank you!!
How cool, Barbara! That's sounds like a great story.
What a great post! So incredibly thorough. The only thing I can think to add is black hair that has a blue sheen to it.
I find the descriptive hair phrases particularly helpful.
Yes, Sharla was amazing at this. This post is a summary of 17 pages from her "magic notebooks."
This is a great list! I want to point out one spelling error in the descriptive phrases. "Cupie" curls are actually "Kewpie" curls. Kewpie dolls were very popular in the early to mid 20th century. Spell check probably won't catch that.
Excellent catch, Belinda! I made the change. 🙂
Great idea, but this post was pretty exclusionary of POC har descriptors and I think it was neglectful to leave this out of the conversation (I'm a while lady, but I pay attention to this stuff).
Just for example -- there's a difference between dreadlocks (not even on this list) and locs, with an important distinction:
"With the trans-Atlantic slave trade in full force during the 1600-1800s, Africans brought to America (and other places around the globe) were unable to perform their normal hair grooming practices, and so arrived looking unkempt. After traveling months on ships with no hygiene available, hair appeared matted and locked. It's said that slave owners referred to the "dreadful" sight of the captives, thus the term "dreadlocks" and its negative association." (https://www.byrdie.com/locs-or-locks-400267)
Hair and the description of hair is such a huge part of the black community in particular, and has so many connotations for other non-white cultures as well, it was remiss to not include at least some links for white writers to explore, ESPECIALLY if you ever plan to write a POC character.
This post is a great place to start: https://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/post/94390338957/describing-natural-hair
Erin, I appreciate you taking the time to leave this thoughtful comment and point out this oversight. I've added that excellent link to Writing With Color into the post. Although many of these descriptors apply to hair from any ethnic background, the post did not pay special attention to hair from persons of color. Thank you for speaking up!
It should be noted that these descriptors come from Sharla Rae's personal notebook and she tended to write early American historicals with a focus on Norwegians and Texans.
Thanks so much for visiting us here at Writers In the Storm.
Erin, I thought you might enjoy this book a friend of mine wrote for her daughter, Ava. It speaks about African-American hair in a very unique way. (Her daughter attends school in an Orange County district that is predominantly of Asian and Middle Eastern descent and Caucasian.)
Better than Thesaurus.com!!
Thanks, Karen! And things just got even more comprehensive some some great links in the comments. 🙂
spiral curls, popular in the 80s, but some of us have that in our natural curly hair
I think you're missing the mullet.