You can tell that hairdresser/archaeologist/YouTube personality Janet Stephens is an unusual woman by her choice of reading material: “I read Vogue and Bazaar for work, and I read scholarly work for entertainment,” she says. Stephens styles hair at Baltimore’s Studio 921, but she’s better known outside of her hometown for tutorials faithfully re-creating historical updos on YouTube. She focuses mostly on the hairstyles of Roman women in the first century A.D.
Few examples of ancient women’s hairstyling practices remain — given their feminine and quotidian nature, few were ever even recorded — but it is known that slaves called ornatrices styled rich women’s hair at home. Poor women likely employed friends or sisters to do their hair. No evidence exists that public, for-pay hair salons, like the one where Stephens works, existed in ancient Rome.
In her videos, Stephens plays the part of ornatrix for her hair models, using as-authentic-as-possible hair tools like horn combs and bone needles. Her revolutionary observations about women in antiquity are the result of pure grunt work. She doesn’t have a Ph.D., she doesn’t read Greek or Latin, but she’s blown the academy’s collective mind with historical discoveries made in her basement.
Stephens wasn’t particularly interested in antiquities before a 2001 visit to Baltimore’s the Walters Art Museum. In most museum setups, portrait busts line the walls elevated above eye level, as if they’re looking down at visitors. But at WAM, the ancient busts sat in the middle of the room, so Stephens was able to get a good look at the back of their heads. “Since I’m a hairdresser, I stand behind people’s heads all day,” said Stephens. “That’s where the hairdressing happens. If you can’t see the back of the head, you’re never going to figure out the hairstyle.”
On that day at WAM, Stephens developed an obsession with the back of Julia Domna’s head. Domna, a late-second century/early-third century empress, had a bewitching, gravity-defying hairstyle. The front is curly but appears to be brushed back smooth, resulting in deep waves. The back is tied in a geometric knotted bun comprised of concentric braids forming a perfect spiral. Determined to figure out how it worked, Stephens began researching historical references, experimenting with a mannequin head in her basement laboratory at night like a Dr. Frankenstein-cum-Chaz Dean.
She was stumped. “If I had been able to re-create it using hairpins, I could have gone on my merry way and just watched TV for ten years,” said Stephens. Instead, she got crafty in her underground-bunker salon. Looking for styling clues in translation, Stephens discovered that the Latin word acus was sometimes translated as “hairpin” and other times as “sewing needle.” Something finally clicked when Stephens came across a citation for acus in the 1986 edition of Charlton T. Lewis & Charles Short’s A Latin Dictionary. In a tiny citation at the bottom of the definition for acus, she found a note for a passage on hairdressing from the second-century Roman grammarian named Sexus Pompeius Festus. In Latin, Sexus Pompeius Festus wrote, “Acus dicitur, qua sacrinatrix gel etiam ornatrix utitur.” In English, that translates to “Needle, that which the clothmender and the hairdresser use.”
To borrow an ancient phrase: Eureka. Roman women did indeed sew their hair up with needle and thread, using the same tools a tailor would. Stephens published her findings in a 2008 article in The Journal of Roman Archaeology called “Ancient Roman hairdressing: on (hair)pins and needles.” A hairdresser and her mannequin head schooled the notoriously stuffy community of antiquities scholars.
In 2011, Stephens’s friends and husband, an Italian professor at Johns Hopkins, encouraged her to apply for a fellowship to the American Academy in Rome. She didn’t get the fellowship, but something better happened: She made her first demonstration video and posted it on YouTube. She continued making videos, bypassing the tedious publishing process, still dogged by her first experimental passion, Julia Domna. She didn’t believe that Julia, or other Roman empresses, wore wigs because of how often their hairstyles changed in portraits.
Stephens made her hypothesis known at the American Institute of Archaeology’s 2012 annual meeting. She brought with her a crude homemade poster and four mannequin heads on stakes to demonstrate that Julia Domna may have been going bald, not wearing wigs. The academy, schooled again. “I was mobbed,” said Stephens. “I felt like a rock star.”
She had found her groupies. At the same AIA meeting in 2013, she presented a poster on the seni crines, the six-braided and cloth-covered hairstyle of the Vestal Virgins, gaining recognition from The Wall Street Journal. Stephens is the first known person in the modern world to re-create the hairstyle. The corresponding YouTube video has over 101,000 views.
Stephens’s most loyal fans, however, find her not at academic conferences, but in their bedrooms on YouTube. Her discoveries have been a windfall to the ancient Rome-obsessed pockets of the internet. Her dissertation on wigs, for example, brought a much-needed confirmation to online history nerds that experts had been misapplying literary examples to real people for centuries.
Before Stephens’s work, scholars largely ignored women’s hair — as they ignored most things about women — while translating. For example, in a passage from Ovid’s Art of Love, a narrator begs his female lover to get her hair redone after he beats her violently. “[Stephens] notes an intricate, braided hairstyle that has been sewn into place is extremely stable,” said a blogger by the pen name Livius Drusus, who runs thehistoryblog.com. “In order to tear her hair out of its stitching, the narrator has to have used a great deal of physical force.” If the translation doesn’t explain that, the hair-pulling brutality of the narrator reads like hyperbole, rather than an admission of his abuse.
Stephens’s work is devoted to ancient women who’ve been relegated to the margins, but it’s also helped women living in this century. Latin and women’s-studies teachers tell her she’s made antiquity interactive for their long-haired students. She’s also found a fandom in recreational Roman historical reenactors and those who reenact ancient customs for religious or cultural reasons, like Neopagans.
A lot of things have improved for women since Julia Domna’s day, but the little rituals of female domestic life still aren’t treated as culturally significant. So there’s something magical about the comments on Stephens’s YouTube videos, like “Honestly, my dream is to rock some of these ‘dos at the grocery store or the gym” and “I tried this today (without the curling part since I had a bad hair day) and it looks really good.” Stephens isn’t just a rare bridge between classics scholars and online beauty junkies — she’s also managed to connect the women of antiquity with the women of today.