Miss Blair’s School for Modern Young Ladies by Sabrina S
Josephine Blair blessed the day her favourite aunt died and left her entire fortune to her favourite niece, Josephine. Of course, Josephine was devastated when Aunt Pearl gasped her last breath in the fair year of 1926, but the resulting financial gain meant Josephine could abandon her post as prim, old-fashioned governess to three horrible middle-class brats and pursue her dream – that of running her own boarding school.
Josephine herself was a child of the times. Born at the turn of the century, she embraced the 1920s and all they offered with the exuberance of youth: jazz, raised hemlines and the delectable freedom of the chemise dress, and cigarettes. It was very difficult for her to fit the mould of governess and she’d been sacked by a couple of employers for being too modern. She shocked her parents’ generation by happily wearing trousers, which she found practical and comfortable, on her days off from her governess position. And most of all she horrified her mother by cutting off her respectable long black hair into the shortest of Eton crops the day after she received her inheritance and quit her job.
Josephine sat in the barber’s chair and, waving a fistful of money, persuaded the barber to cut her hair off.
“But Miss,” wailed the barber, who’d never cut off so much long, thick hair in his life, “you may regret it afterwards! It will take years to grow again!” He flexed his razor anxiously.
“Just cut it off,” Josephine assured him. “I won’t have any regrets. I’ve been waiting to do this for years.” She shook back the sheaves of silky black hair and watched with joy as the barber picked up his big scissors and made the first sorrowful cut, hacking off her hair at her nape. Crrrrunnnnnnccchhh! Crunnnnnccchhhh! Josephine felt a slight tug at the back of her head, and then the barber held up a handful of hair and looked at it disbelievingly before dropping it to the floor.
She grinned at her reflection in the mirror as the barber wet her hair and began to clip it shorter and shorter.
“As short as yours at the back,” she commanded, running her fingers through her hair and finding it still too long for her tastes after he’d cut her nape to an inch long. Sighing, the barber pushed her head forward.
The rapid sound of scissor over comb rattled in her ears as hair rained over her shoulders and neck. It felt funny, having her hair cut so short. The action of the comb running up her nape was both ticklish and sensuous. The scissors swiftly crept up the back of her head. Josephine felt the resulting crop with satisfied fingers.
Then the sides of her head were attacked, and Josephine’s neat little ears laid bare. Higher and higher the barber snipped up the side of her head, cutting off heavy clumps. Josephine’s eyes widened as she watched her hair shrink away to a pelt that lay close to the sides of her well-shaped skull. Finally the long top of her hair was blended into the sides, and a long, sideswept fringe created, which the barber drew back from her forehead with pomade and a comb.
Josephine couldn’t believe her reflection when she stood up and shook the last of the clippings from her face. She was wearing a pale cream blouse with grey flannel trousers, and looked like either the sexiest schoolboy in existence or the most elegant tomboy on earth. Whatever the case, she caught her breath, never dreaming the harsh haircut would make her look so good.
“Magnificent!” she gasped, tipping the barber almost the cost of the haircut, and leaving the shop with his eyes following her slim, androgynous silhouette with undisguised longing. Never again would he dissuade a woman from a haircut if they looked as superb as Miss Blair afterwards!
It took Josephine six extremely hectic months to have her school ready to accept its first pupils. She bought a huge, rambling Victorian house in Sussex, and banished the dark paint within in favour of light pastel colours. She estimated she could take up to 50 girls in dormitories and bedrooms without building onto the house. The bedrooms themselves were decorated in light tones and had new central heating installed, and Josephine chose new comfortable beds upon which she lay pale chenille counterpanes. Her pupils would be encouraged to bring photos and mementoes from home, so every bed had a bookshelf above it. Josephine watched with satisfaction as new bathrooms were built with hot showers and bright white tiles, and the walls changed within the house as necessary to provide classrooms and a large dining room.
Josephine shamelessly used every contact she could think of to send brochures to. She took out advertisements in The Lady and Tatler and Country Life, and was rewarded with thirty pupils booked to start in the autumn. Finally she engaged three teachers, handpicked for their youth, their intelligence and experience, and their delight in all things modern.
Miss Thelma Stone with her bright red bob and sturdy legs would be sports mistress and also matron; Miss Andrea Greene, hiding blue eyes behind thick glasses, a heavy blonde fringe and a china doll bob, would make mathematics interesting; and Mademoiselle Aline Charbonneau was the epitome of chic with an Eton crop that rivalled Josephine’s own in its short elegance. Every pupil would have a grounding of French style as well as the French language. In addition, the luscious Mademoiselle had trained as a beautician and a hairdresser; she would be an asset to the school.
The day before the first term started, Josephine, in trousers tucked into riding boots, walked around her school one last time. She was savouring the peace but also looking forward to the next day, when her first pupils would arrive in their fashionable chemise dresses and learn their first lessons about being modern young women.
Harriet Haydon nervously repacked her trunk for the seventh time. Painfully shy and a little overweight, she was fourteen, and had never been to boarding school before. Her parents had hired a governess until now, when they decided it was time she mixed more with girls her own age, girls who might have suitable brothers one of which Harriet would be encouraged to marry in a few years’ time.
Mr and Mrs Haydon were in the process of social climbing so fast they were falling off the rungs of the ladder. They didn’t have enough money or the right contacts – yet! – to send Harriet to Roedean or anywhere equally top notch, but Miss Blair’s school, with its promise of exclusivity, tuition and social graces, had appealed to both their ambitions for Harriet and their bank balance.
“Do I really have to go?” Harriet chewed on the end of one of her long brown braids.
“Of course you do!” snapped Mrs Haydon, painting her lips crimson and patting her face with powder. Her hair had been chopped off into a bob the week before and she was still unsure whether she liked it; it no longer hid her weathered face. Heaven forbid that her little Harriet should cut her lovely hair though! Mrs Haydon believed that girls should look like girls, and keep their hair long. She thoroughly approved of the soft blue chemise uniform and cloche hat that Miss Blair’s School supplied. Harriet looked quite the young lady, and the chemise hid the roll of fat around the girl’s midriff. “Schooldays are the most important days of your life; you make contacts that last forever.” She didn’t add that she’d hated her own schooldays immensely and the best any of her fellow schoolmates ever achieved was marriage to a man who made a pile out of piles (he had patented a new ointment for haemorrhoids).
Mrs Haydon accompanied her daughter on the train to her new school. Harriet sat at the window, looking mournfully at the green fields passing by. She’d give anything for her life to stay the same: the boring lessons with Miss Pratt, the claustrophobic atmosphere of the village where everyone knew everyone else’s business. Boarding school sounded like hell; she would get teased for her fatness. Harriet shuddered at the thought of communal showers and getting undressed in front of other girls. She chewed on her plait again.
“Stop that!” Mrs Haydon hissed, smacking the hand that held the long plait to her daughter’s lips. “Now you mind you brush your hair properly at boarding school. One hundred strokes every night. I won’t be there to do it, remember.”
Harriet nodded glumly. In a way she’d be glad. Her mother had no regard for knots and simply dragged the brush through them, making Harriet wince.
Finally they arrived at the station and were met by Miss Greene, who piloted the big 10-seater touring car that Josephine had bought for the school. Mrs Haydon sat grandly in the back, prodding Harriet to sit up and act like a lady.
“We’ll teach her that at school, don’t worry!” called Miss Greene cheerfully from the driver’s seat. She drove very fast down the country lanes, beeping the klaxon at every corner.
Mrs Haydon shook Josephine’s hand at the front door of the school, admiring the headmistress’ elegant silk dress and shining short hair. If Harriet learned a fraction of Miss Blair’s style and deportment she’d be happy. She left her daughter in Josephine’s care and strode briskly back to the car, taking up Miss Greene’s offer of a lift back to the station.
“You’re the last to arrive,” Josephine told Harriet. “I’m going to hold our first assembly this evening, so come with me and meet Mademoiselle Charbonneau first. She’ll fix your hair up.”
Fix my hair up? wondered Harriet. Weren’t her plaits neat enough?
Josephine chatted to her newest pupil as they strode briskly through the house. Trousers would be acceptable wear for prep and weekends, she said, which delighted Harriet. She knew her mother would be shocked to learn that she’d sent her precious daughter to a school which actually encouraged the wearing of trousers.
“Now, Harriet, once Mademoiselle has finished with you, you may go to your dorm, which is called Marigold and is on the first floor. You may unpack your clothes and belongings, and join everyone in the Great Hall at 6 pm.”
Harriet closed the door marked “Beauty Salon” behind her, and gasped when she saw the scene before her eyes.
The smart black and white tiles on the floor were covered in hair – mounds of it, inches of it, pounds of it, brown, blonde, red, straight, curly, all of it with one thing in common. It was – or had been – long.
In the middle of the hair mountain sat a chair, a barber’s chair, all shiny and new.
On the chair sat a quivering girl of about Harriet’s age, with a cape wrapped firmly around her neck. Her long locks lay over her shoulder, and were crinkled where they’d been plaited. A woman stood behind the chair with comb and scissors in her hands.
“Ah, you must be ‘Arriet!” said the woman in a lilting voice. “I am Mademoiselle Charbonneau, and I will cut your ‘air when I have finished wiz Claire ‘ere.”
Harriet gulped. She had trouble speaking. “B-but I don’t want my hair cut,” she squeaked, backing away.
“But ‘Arriet, eet is ze rule of ze school,” Mademoiselle explained. “Did nobody tell you? Zis is a school for modern young ladies. Modern young ladies do not wear ze hair in plaits, zey wear ze hair in a bob. I ‘ave cut 14 bobs in ze last two days,” Mademoiselle said proudly. “Zere is only you and Claire left with long ‘air. Sit down, ‘Arriet, I won’t be long.”
Claire started to cry as Mademoiselle positioned her head straight and slid the scissors into her thick fair hair.
Harriet’s eyes widened in shock as the woman closed the scissors well up Claire’s neck, in fact ABOVE her hairline. The blades, as they closed, made a crunching noise that was as painful to Harriet and Claire as fingernails sliding slowly down a blackboard. A thick lock of hair fell to the floor and Claire’s white neck was revealed. The girl lifted a hand from under the cape and mopped her eyes with a handkerchief as Mademoiselle attacked her hair a second time, letting over a foot of hair drop on top of the mound on the floor. Swiftly the woman moved to the left side of Claire’s head, and crunched through more hair, cutting it off at the earlobes so Claire was left looking very lopsided. But not for long. Before Claire could let out another sob Mademoiselle was snipping under her right ear, cutting off all the long hair and letting it slither over the cape and onto the ground.
“For you, Claire, I weel shingle ze back,” Mademoiselle said conversationally. “While all you girls ‘ave to ‘ave your ‘air bobbed, I try to create an individual style for each of you. Claire’s ‘ead is well shaped and will suit a shingle,” she said to the two girls.
“W-what’s a shingle?” wondered Claire as her head was pushed forward and her vulnerable neck bared to the world.
In response Mademoiselle began to cut her hair scissor over comb, snipping it so short at the hairline it was almost shaved. She worked her way up the girl’s nape, letting the hair get longer the further up she went. Her scissors flashed like castanets, snipping so quickly the sounds almost ran into each other.
Harriet’s legs had turned to jelly as she watched Claire’s locks get decimated. The girl looked almost naked without her veil of long hair. And – worst of all – SHE’D be next! Harriet wished she could go home with all her heart. She’d happily go to a school where trousers were forbidden if only she could keep her hair!
Claire was set free five minutes later, the bob getting one last trim and her neck dusted of hair clippings.
The room was cleverly designed so that she who sat in the barber’s chair couldn’t see the looking glass. The victims of the school rules could only see their new haircuts when they stood up.
Claire took one look at herself in the mirror and screamed in horror. Incoherent with tears, she stumbled to the door, feeling her shorn head with one hand.
Mademoiselle shrugged. “She is very ‘ighly strung, zat one,” she told Harriet. “Most of the girls ‘ave been good bout their ‘aircuts. Many actually wanted bobs but zere muzzers wouldn’t let zem ‘ave zere ‘air cut. And many of ze girls ‘ad a bob before zey came ‘ere.”
“My mother doesn’t want my hair cut off,” Harriet said boldly, her heart thumping.
“Well, she must not ‘ave read the information about the school very well,” retorted Mademoiselle, “It is stated in ze rules which are sent out with ze travelling directions.”
It was unfortunate for Harriet that in her case, the school secretary, Miss Pringle, was having a bad day when she mailed out to Harriet’s parents. Her catarrh and chilblains had combined to make her miserable, and the how-to-find-the-school instructions for Harriet’s parents were missing that fatal sheet which stated the wearing of trousers and the necessary bobbed hair.
Harriet was led to the chair and sat down on the bright red leather, her heart thumping. Instinctively she began to chew the end of her plait as the cape was fastened tightly around her neck.
“Ah, so you chew on ze ‘air!” Mademoiselle said cheerfully, “Well, we ‘ave a remedy for zat!”
And with that she sunk her big shears into the base of Harriet’s plait, severing it under Harriet’s ears so it fell down, the end still firmly between Harriet’s teeth. Harriet opened her mouth in shock and the plait slid to the floor.
Before she could say a word the other plait was hacked off and handed to her ceremoniously by a smiling Mademoiselle. “Zere, ‘Arriet! Zat was so quick you didn’t notice I was cutting your ‘air! Now we geeve eet some style.”
Harriet knew EXACTLY how Claire felt at that point. The cold steel of the scissors rested for a moment against the back of her head, almost two inches about the hairline. Harriet gulped. Heavens, it was going to be short! Short indeed, probably the shortest bob in history, she thought glumly as she heard the blades crunch into her hair and felt her neck go cold without the warmth of hair to cover it.
“I cut you a special bob, as you are ze last one,” said Mademoiselle. “Zis bob weel be very, very short in ze back, and longer at ze sides.”
There was nothing to be done but endure it, thought Harriet, feeling the scissors creep over the back of her head. To her surprise she found she was perversely enjoying the knowledge that her hair was being cut off. It didn’t hurt, wasn’t particularly unpleasant, and it made her head feel much lighter without the long plaits dragging from it. And there was always the knowledge that her mother would be extremely annoyed to discover a shorn daughter.
Harriet smiled to herself, feeling the scissors travel behind her left ear. The crunchy sound was louder as the teacher lopped off her hair just to the bottom of her earlobe.
Now the plaits had been cut there wasn’t nearly as much hair as Claire’s to fall on her cape, but Harriet watched in wonder as a good three inches or more dropped onto her lap. Mademoiselle combed the other side and began to cut it away as well, starting near Harriet’s cheeks and cutting towards the back of the girl’s head.
“Are you going to shingle the back?” Harriet asked, realising she’d like to find out how it felt to have her hair cropped close at the nape like Claire’s. She could feel tendrils still long on her neck and nape, and knew they would have to be shorn.
“In a way,” answered Mademoiselle mysteriously. She pinned up the bob at the back to the top of Harriet’s head, leaving the remaining hair at the nape exposed and ready for cutting. She walked away and Harriet couldn’t see what she was doing.
Then Harriet heard a humming noise. She had no idea what it was.
“You must ‘old very still,” Mademoiselle ordered, tilting Harriet’s head forward.
The humming noise came closer. “I ‘ave been dying to try zees out,” Mademoiselle said conversationally. “Zey are my new clippers, zey are electric and you are ze first person I use zem on.”
What? Harriet almost jumped out of the chair, but the woman had one firm hand pressing on top of her head, and the other holding the humming clippers at the base of her neck.
Harriet gasped as the clippers moved up into her hair. They growled and snarled as they bit her hair off. The blades tugged and tickled a bit as they moved up her head, shearing away her hair. She felt them move up and up to that funny bone at the back of her head. It felt like she was being completely shorn and she wondered if she had any hair left on the back. Again and again the electric shears stroked up her neck and her nape, and, frighteningly, close behind her ears.
Just as Harriet was becoming distinctly nervous about just how much hair she actually had left on her neck – was she shaved to the skin? – Mademoiselle switched the clippers off and picked up a big brush to dust the hair clippings off her victim’s skin.
Mademoiselle silently regarded Harriet from all angles, nodding occasionally. Finally she said, “I zink we are nearly finished, ‘Arriet. But to carry zis style off, you need a frrrringe.”
Harriet almost burst into laughter. Her mother despised fringes. They were the mark of the working class, the shopgirl. Never had she been allowed a fringe, her hair having been swept neatly off her face with an Alice band or kirby grip, or locked tightly into her plaits.
Mademoiselle combed the front of Harriet’s hair over her eyes. It reached, barely, to her top lip. Harriet closed her eyes and waited for the sound of the scissors to apply the final decimation to her classic, long-haired little girl hair.
She felt the blades slide into her hair halfway up her forehead. They closed together with an efficient SNICK! once, twice, three times. Harriet opened her eyes and her hair wasn’t hanging in front of them any more.
“Zere, ‘Arriet. You are done!” declared Mademoiselle, dusting Harriet’s lightly freckled nose with the soft brush. She uncaped her final pupil and helped her out of the barber’s chair.
Harriet gasped when she saw herself in the looking glass. She looked years older, and the way the super short bob curled onto her cheeks made them look thinner. Her fringe sat smartly in a straight line well above her eyebrows. And the back! Harriet gulped as she felt it with an exploratory hand. It was barely half an inch long up the nape of her neck.
Obligingly Mademoiselle held a hand mirror behind Harriet’s neatly shorn head. Harriet looked at her neck. The hair had been clipped so short she could see the artistic wave of her hairline. Halfway up the back of her head the bobbed hair sat in a cap that angled downwards along the side of her head.
Harriet shook her head from side to side and admired the way the bob swung out from her head, then fell beautifully back into position.
She had to admit – it was a super haircut, the kind of haircut she secretly admired in magazines. Harriet felt happier now about boarding school. The modern chemise dress, the cropped hair… she was going to be a different person.
The clock showed six o’clock. Time for assembly. Grinning at herself one last time in the mirror, Harriet bolted for the Great Hall.
Twenty nine newly clipped heads were there before her, and Harriet slipped into the back row, admiring the short, gleaming haircuts that Mademoiselle had created. She listened to Miss Blair tell the school jazz records were allowed to be played in the common rooms and that older girls would be taught to drive a motor car. The final point of assembly was that haircuts would be administered by Mademoiselle Charbonneau every six to eight weeks.
Harriet noticed some of the girls blanch at this and clutch their already short hair, the tearful Claire included. But Harriet smiled to herself, a smile so broad it made the newly shaved hair at her nape tingle tightly against her skin. Personally, she hoped it was nearer six weeks than eight.
Josephine surveyed her new pupils. She silently applauded her French teacher for her artistry with the scissors. Every one of these girls looked far better without her long hair. The little plump one at the back, Harriet Haydon, looked particularly good. When she turned to look at her classmates Josephine could see that Aline had clipped her hair shorter than a boy’s at the back. All the girl needed to do was lose a bit of weight and she’d be very stylish indeed.
Mademoiselle had reported who had been “difficult” about her haircut, and who had taken it in her stride. Josephine was relieved to discover most of the girls had been happy to embrace the look of the 1920s. Now each of the girls was listening to her eagerly. They had applauded the news about the wearing of trousers, the jazz and the motor cars. Not one of them had shed a tear at the news about the regular haircuts.
Josephine was buoyed up, all sparkly eyed and smiling as she dismissed the girls to go to the dining room. Her school would be a success. For a while, at least until someone copied the idea, it would be the only one of its kind.
By the end of its first year, Miss Blair’s School for Modern Young Ladies had been featured in three different magazines. Josephine was no slouch when it came to public relations. She’d invited journalists and photographers to see her neatly trimmed, chemise-wearing pupils, and the resulting articles had been favourable indeed.
The School was booked solid for the following year. Josephine was applying for permission to build two more dormitory wings to accommodate the dozens of girls on the waiting list, girls who longed to wear trousers and drive motor cars, to listen to jazz and have their hair lopped from their heads. Girls whose parents were sufficiently broad-minded enough to agree to their daughter’s pleas.
Mrs Haydon had been livid about Harriet’s haircut when she’d escorted her daughter back to school after half-term, but Harriet herself was pleased with it. As Josephine politely told the girl’s mother, Harriet had to be prepared for the future and to decide for herself what she liked and didn’t like. Harriet said she’d like an Eton crop. Mrs Haydon’s crimson mouth disappeared in a purse that looked like a cat’s bum as a result, but thankfully she left her daughter – now somewhat slimmer thanks to exercise and the excellent food Josephine insisted on serving her girls – at the School.
It’s a success, Josephine thought ecstatically, wandering her light, elegant corridors and seeing the cheerful queue of girls at Aline’s hairdressing salon, some of them clutching pictures of short styles they’d like their hair cut into.
Miss Blair’s School for Modern Young Ladies produced some astounding women. Famous jazz singers and actresses, racing car drivers, explorers, writers, scientists, women who achieved success in business in their own right in a male-oriented world, women who married well and defied tradition in their marriages, bringing their children up to be inquisitive and exploratory and to speak their mind. As the years went on and her ex-pupils kept in touch with her, Josephine swelled with pride at their achievements.
One of the most satisfying stories from an ex-pupil was that of Harriet Haydon. Harriet had graduated from Miss Blair’s School as a tall, slim, elegant creature who spoke fluent French and had a rapier mind. Harriet defied her parents, who wanted her to marry early and prosperously, and became a blue-stocking at Oxford. After graduating top of her year, Harriet decided that the philosophy behind Miss Blair’s School was too good to keep quiet. She emigrated to America, and created her own school for Modern Young Ladies in the wealthy, conservative New England. Those families who didn’t lose it all in the Wall Street crash sent their daughters to Harriet Haydon’s Academy. Harriet charged like a wounded bull and invested her funds wisely. By the age of thirty, she was a millionaire in her own right. By the time she was thirty five Harriet Haydon’s Academy was one of the USA’s most elite girl’s schools, and Harriet had done something Josephine thoroughly approved of – married for love and not money. And like Josephine herself, Harriet never grew her hair long again.
(c) Copyright 2000, Sabrina S. Comments welcome to [email protected]