Updated: Sep 19, 2019
Authored by B Mataua
Every morning I wake up, albeit slowly, get out of bed and make my way to the bathroom. I look into the mirror and see dishevelled hair with one side especially messy from sleeping on my right side. I quickly wash my face and brush my hair into a ponytail, something that is second nature to me and has been a habit since my mother put a high ponytail with a scrunchie in my hair for primary school and set me off with my minnie mouse lunch box. The ponytail is powerful and versatile with a variety of styles from the high polished ponytail that Ariana Grande is known for or the recently trending low ponytail with a nice wave highlighted with hair accessories. Or it can be the go-to after a shower and you need your hair out of the way. But have you ever stopped to wonder where the easy look came from? Well the ponytail is an everyday go-to in popular culture, and you would never guess why! It comes down to Pablo Picasso meeting Sylvette in a small provincial town in France and life magazine.
Pablo Picasso is known to have his muses, in fact, many of his works are defined by his muses from the Gilot era to the Roque era, times of bliss or turbulence in the famous artists life. One such time was when a young 19-year old French youth moved next door to 72-year old Pablo Picasso. By this time, Picasso was a well-known famous artist. At the time, Francoise Gilot, his romantic partner of over a decade, recently left Picasso with their two children in tow. Many art historians criticise this particular artistic period as a passing phase that had very little relevance to history, however I would wholeheartedly disagree.
Sylvette, now Lydia Corbette (Sylvette officially changed her name following her first marriage), was a young French teen who was dating a British painter Toby Jellinek. They lived in a small town Vallauris near Cannes, where he worked as a sculptor, carpenter and painter in 1954. Prior to moving there, Sylvette's father told her of the latest parisian trend of the ponytail. At the time, ballerina's in Paris were sporting the high ponytail for two reasons, one practical and one historical. The first reason was, their long hair was out of the way as they danced and practiced. The other reason was because in a recent dig in Greece, amphora's were found that depicted noble woman with the high ponytail. Sylvette's father told her of this latest trend and as a consequence, Sylvette started sporting the high ponytail in Vallauris while living with her British boyfriend. This style caught the artistic eye of Pablo Picasso.
To her surprise, while enjoying a late lunch with her friend on her terrace, Picasso comes bounding in with a sketch of her and her ponytail taking center stage. He then asked if he could paint her, flattered she accepted and posed for the famous artist. Their relationship developed into a platonic muse and artist relationship where he would draw and paint her, until he met Jacqueline Roque and subsequently married her in 1961. Sylvette would ask to be painted or sketched without the ponytail, but Picasso refused stating that he only saw her with the ponytail. The summer of 1954 was filled with images of Sylvette in various poses sporting the ponytail from the suggestive to the cubist portrait, the power of the ponytail was visually represented in his paintings and drawings of the young Sylvette.
During the latesummer of 1954, a series of works featuring the young Sylvette were displayed in Paris with a warm reception. Those that viewed the exhibition were impressed by the range and progressive style of Picasso's work from detailed, naturalistic portraits to experimental Cubist works. This period became known in the media as Picasso's 'Ponytail Period' and Sylvette herself became an iconic image, muse and model. The image became an influence to all young women, including a young Brigitte Bardot and Audrey Hepburn whom was often seen with a ponytail. This became quite a debate called “the poodle vs ponytail” conversation. In fact, the debate made it to LIFE magazine.
Ever since, the ponytail has been a symbol of feminism and power that date to its ancient classical roots where powerful ancient women sported the hairstyle. The ponytail is more than a ponytail, it's a cultural revolution for powerful women, a fact parisian ballerinas gravitated towards in the late 1950's. This was following what seemed a lifetime of war, devastation and the cultural stripping of Europe. The 1950's indicated a time of wealth, prosperity, stability and familial values that were an antithesis to wartime Europe but followed a time where woman took the yolk of responsibility during wartime periods where their men were taken either by war, sickness or starvation. At the time of the ponytails popularity in the 1950's, there was a large debate between what Life Magazine termed the poodle hairstyle and the ponytail that was sported by young teens. At the time, the popular hair style was what I dub the 50's housewife look where the hair was a wavy poodle like do that was shoulder length. Very practical and reminiscent of the 30's and 40's hairstyle. The big debate was whether it should even be a popular hairstyle or should really stay with the equestrian occupation. You can see what style one and is prevalent today.
In 1959, Barbie sported the high ponytail with a curled bang and in 1972 Naomi Campbell showcased the high waist length ponytail in a fashion show. Since 1954, the ponytail has been a powerhouse style in popular culture that has transcended age, culture and geographical area. It is a symbol of powerful femininity and a historical reference to our ancient cultures and history. The ponytail will remain as a pop culture icon while simultaneously representing feminist power as much as it did back in the 1954 debate of poodle vs. ponytail. I hope it remains a power symbol where fashion represents more than glittery nonsense but symbolic feminist power through design.