2023 was, no doubt, the year of the bow. We saw ribbons everywhere and on everything, from the runways to the red carpet, and in unconventional scenarios, like tied into croissants for artistic purposes and as cheeky decor for mac and cheese. Designers like Sandy Liang, Simone Rocha, and Balmain used bows in their Fall 2023 collections, while celebrities like Olivia Rodrigo, Sydney Sweeney, and Jodie Turner-Smith sported bow-adorned ensembles. The bow also played a significant part in beauty trends — almost everyone had one in their hair, from Sarah Jessica Parker and Hailey Bieber to countless TikTokers showing off hair bow tutorials (the hashtag for #hairbows amassed 264 million views). At the 2023 Met Gala, Karlie Kloss, Priyanka Chopra, and Emily Ratajkowski were just some celebs who wore black hair bows to pay homage to Karl Lagerfeld. And Margot Robbie notably wore multiple versions of the accessory in the year’s blockbuster hit Barbie.
The pipeline to bow frenzy was evident, with hyper-feminine TikTok trends like the coquette aesthetic, Bridgerton-inspired regencycore, cottagecore, and balletcore all capturing the fashion zeitgeist in recent years. The return of twee and indie sleaze also played a major part in its resurrection. Some believe that bows might be reaching peak trend status, but the fact is they’re a classic, versatile design motif that will never really go away. Hair bows, in particular, are an ornamental accessory used to denote femininity; take, for example, pop culture touchstone characters like Minnie Mouse and Ms. Pac-Man who both wear bows.
Despite the current ubiquitousness of the accessory, hair bows actually have a long and storied past. “The history of bows ties back — pardon the pun — to the history of ribbons, which have been around as long as humans have been weaving, since neolithic times. Ancient men and women alike wore their hair bound with ribbon, often tied in a bow knot, which, by nature, is easily untied,” explains Isabella Moritz, a fashion scholar who is part of a group of graduate students from the Fashion Institute of Technology curating an exhibition called “Untying the Bow,” open March 1-24, 2024, at the Museum at FIT. (Talk about vintage — the Metropolitan Museum of Art even has a set of gold Sumerian hair ribbons from 2600-2500 BCE in its collection.)
Hair bows have held a deeper meaning throughout their existence aside from being a fashionable accessory. They were even used for relationship status or as courtship rituals. According to Moritz, between 1590 and 1650, there was a trend called “love locks,” in which men (and sometimes women) wore a single lock of hair that was longer than the rest, that would hang over one shoulder and have a ribbon tied in a bow or rosette on the end, to represent having the love of another. Between 1600 and 1800, men would court women by gifting them ribbons bought at fairs (called “fairings”) to tie back their hair or adorn their clothes.
Some may also associate bows with private school bluebloods and preppy style, but long before Princess Diana wore pussybow blouses in the 1980s, bows had a connection to royalty. In the 1680s, French noblewoman Marie Angélique de Scorailles, Duchess of Fontanges kicked off a new hairstyle trend called — appropriately — the fontange, which started as a pile of curled hair with ribbons and bows just above the forehead but ended up evolving into a higher and more extravagant look. The fontange would serve as a precursor to Marie Antoinette’s signature pouf a century later. The queen’s hairstylist, Leonard Autié, was said to have spent 20,000 francs on ribbons for the infamous royal’s hair alone.
Eventually, ribbons and bows would evolve past their associations with royalty and go mainstream, thanks in part to the Industrial Revolution. “By the end of the 1700s, new looms were invented so that many ribbons could be woven simultaneously, making ribbons cheaper and more accessible, which is why in the 1800s, bows began appearing on everything in extreme amounts,” says Moritz. In fact, ribbons and bows became the go-to decorative trim for the Regency and Victorian eras as they heavily adorned caps and bonnets, dresses, bustles, ascots, and more. The advances in manufacturing also allowed any Victorian woman to participate in the trend of wearing a single ribbon around the neck — a predecessor to the choker. Bows weren’t as dainty in France’s Alsace–Lorraine region. A traditional headdress resembling a massive bow called a “schlupfkapp” was worn by Alsatian women. (Centuries later, in 2023, a similar style would be worn by the model Gabbriette in a Betsey Johnson campaign).
In the late 1800s, Victorian girls and boys — some who were not yet breeched and still wearing dresses — often wore small hair bows to pin back their curls. By the early 20th century, girls of all ages began to wear bigger bows in their hair. Later, in the 1940s and ‘50s, bows were once again used as methods of nonverbal communication. Teenage girls wore bows as a “code” for their love lives. The May 1944 issue of LIFE magazine showed high school girls wearing bows in their hair, both the placement and color representing their relationship status or interest. A bow on the top of the head meant that the girl was “out to get herself a man,” with the non-subtle placement reminiscent of peacocking. A yellow ribbon was the symbol of a “man-hater.” Meanwhile, a white ribbon warned boys to stay away, as the wearer was someone else’s “witch” or best girl.
The accessory would continue to thrive throughout the rest of the century, but was used to denote youth, innocence, and girlish wholesomeness, especially in pop culture. Judy Garland famously wore a blue hair bow in The Wizard of Oz, Sally Field wore them when she portrayed the precocious Gidget, and Dawn Wells’ girl-next-door Mary Ann wore them in Gilligan’s Island. In the 1960s, French New Wave icons Brigitte Bardot, Anna Karina, and Catherine Deneuve wore hair bows to help define Parisian ingénue style. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Madonna subverted the innocence associated with hair bows by pairing them with bustiers, black rubber bracelets, and lace for a look that was more punk than princess.
The 21st century saw hair bows appearing everywhere again in various sizes and styles — and for different purposes. In the late aughts and early 2010s, Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorf used bow headbands to communicate the show’s Upper East Side sensibility, while Zooey Deschanel and fellow twee purveyors wore dainty hair bows as a tribute to retro-mod fashion. In 2009, when her fame began to rise, Lady Gaga famously wore oversized hair bows, including one made of actual hair. (“Me and my hair bow, we go to bed together,” Gaga once said.) “Wearing a hair bow has always felt girlish and romantic,” says Moritz, “But also like resistance when there are so many people in the world who will try to make you feel like embracing your femininity makes you weak, when, in fact, being a woman, especially one who feels deeply and loves openly, makes you strong.”
Just as they did at the start of the 20th century, bows got bigger and bigger during this time. After becoming a solo artist, Sia began concealing her face behind wigs and gigantic hair bows. And anyone who was part of the original indie sleaze and Myspace eras might have worn an oversized hair bow or two, or can at least recall scene queens wearing them, like Melissa Marie of Millionaires (she still does). Of course, we can’t forget singer JoJo Siwa, who became known for her signature colorful hair bows in the late 2010s.
These days, hair bows still represent style, elegance, and femininity. “Right now, there is a pull to add timeless romance back into clothes, and that includes corsets and puff sleeves,” says clothing designer Samantha Pleet. “Fashion tends to wave through Romanticism trends, and we are back in one of those moments.” Pleet, who frequently uses bows in her namesake line, finds inspiration through her “glamorous” grandmother’s penchant for wearing a chic black bow in her hair whenever she dresses up. “She even has bows hung on the walls of her home. I was inspired to make a bow last fall with extremely long tendrils inspired by the one from her bedroom, and I did it with a rose to go with my Persephone Climbing Rose styles,” says Pleet.
Danielle Priano, celebrity hairstylist and ambassador for Sexy Hair, also points to the fashion’s cyclical nature for the resurgence of hair bows but adds that they have a seasonal appeal, especially during the holidays. When styling her clients, Priano will use a bow to tie a ponytail or in her favorite half-up hairdo. “By adding bows, I feel it often conveys a mix of femininity, playfulness, and winter coziness that truly adds a charming touch to various looks,” she says. Celebrity hairstylist Sophie Gutterman, an ambassador for All About Curls, created a center part, half-up, half-down look with a bow on top, and likes using small bows as accents for a hair-down look. “I’ve added ribbon to my kit, and I like to always keep different color bows on hand just in case a client wants a little extra for their look,” says Gutterman.
Despite bows dominating fashion and beauty scenes for the last year, it’s clear that they are an accessory that will continue to endure. And if the 2024 Golden Globe Awards is any indication, hair bows are here to stay in 2024 — Kate Beckinsale, Allison Williams, and Rachel Brosnahan all wore them on the red carpet. Plus, you can’t deny that they have a certain escapist appeal; the same kind has propelled numerous nostalgic, whimsical fashion and beauty trends since the beginning of the pandemic. Bottom line: Hair bows will always be an accessory that appeals to people of all ages, and once you stop viewing them as a passing trend but as a cute and easy way to have fun with your look, they might even feel freeing to wear. As Gutterman says, "You can add bows and wear pearls any day of the week because, why not!?”