So the hardest thing for me to understand about the Beatles’ arrival 50 years ago, from a firmly post-Beatles lifetime, is not any of this stuff, because whatever, critics don’t get things all the time, and particularly adult critics don’t get teen culture all the time. “Adult critics don’t get teen culture” is right up there with “something something teens sex oh noes” for stories they could recycle endlessly to keep newspapers running forever without having to think about it.
No, what I don’t get is: people thought their hair was long. Go look at the pictures, they’re all over major news outlets. That is what people in February of 1964 thought was “long hair” on men. That. It’s like, maybe a couple inches longer than Ed Sullivan’s hair? It was cut with a scissors instead of a clipper? Therefore “long hair”?
This was a world that had seen ten million portraits of Jesus as a white dude with shoulder-length hair. This world had seen the Founding Fathers, the Cavaliers, Confucians, Little Lord Fauntleroy. And circa 1964 Beatles hair was long?
The thing that is so profoundly weird about the 1950s and 1960s in America, fashion-wise, is that there was this historically bizarre confluence of affluence, female skill with needlework, and expectation of conformity. That exploded after–yes, there’s “this year’s style,” “this year’s colors,” we may grumble if we have a hard time finding shirts as long as we want or pants as narrow, but the range of choice is stunning, and the amount that’s accepted–sometimes accepted as mildly dumpy or unfashionable, but accepted all the same–once you’ve left the world of high fashion is staggering. Before that period, mass communication and mass affluence just had not reached that peak where very many people had more than a few things to wear.
So the Beatles showed up and everyone apparently went, “GASP LONG HAIR THOSE SHAGGY SHAGGY MEN MY GOLLY THE SCANDAL.” And it’s not that I find it hard to understand why having long hair was scandalous, although a bit of that too. It’s that they did not have long hair. It’s that I find it so hard to grasp a world where the range of permissible was that tiny.