Post-election food for thought: Why do all the Republican women have hair that looks like THAT?

Well, it's over, and time to settle down for a good, long talk about Republican women's hair.

We saw a lot of it during the last six months, especially at the convention: Seas of blonde, straw-like, ratted, puffy hair sprayed severely into place. It turned up locally, too. Every time KVOA did a story on a Democratic event in the state--Edwards holding a rally here, for example--they followed it with a totally unnecessary "rebuttal" by a Republican woman, always with the hair.

One could not help noticing that, while fiercely independent, your typical Republican spokeswoman looks remarkably like every other seriously Republican female you've ever seen on TV. She is stern in way that suggests barely contained outrage.

Her voice is not dulcet. She's wearing a classic wool suit in Nancy Reagan Red, accessorized with pearls and a wedding ring. But her crowning glory is the hair, a modified pageboy last seen on women under the age of 60 from the late '50s through about 1968. Bouffants were all the rage back then: Think Kim Novak or Pussy Galore.

It's a look that worked back when Russians were Communists and bombs were atomic. But then things changed, and so did fashion.

My theory is that puffy hair's current popularity among right-wing women is only partially a badge of militant un-hipness, although that's certainly a factor. At heart, it's a variant of Texas big hair. (There may be some Margaret Thatcher in there as well. Who can forget the spun-glass aureole of arguably the meanest woman of the 20th century?)

It has often been observed that Texas is the last bastion of the big ol' cotton-candy hairdo, and the reasons for its survival there are interesting. Fashionable Texan women need stiff, humidity- and-tornado-defying confections that can take everything their environment has to throw at them, including a strong insistence that women look different from men. Back in the day, Texans had special trouble coping with the concept of long-haired guys. It may be that the bouffant, which no male other than a drag queen has ever worn, helps draw that girl-boy line in the dust.

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Anyway, my guess is that the immediate cause of Republican hair is the presumed advantage of looking like a Texas Republican, which at this time in history is as Republican as a gal can be. The suit, on the other hand, is standard Professional Woman and descends from Jackie Kennedy's Chanel, reinforced by the dress-for-success wisdom of the late '70s: "Sweaters make you look like a secretary." The pearls are simple old-money emulation. A pearl choker makes any woman's neck look like a stump, but what's beauty compared to rank?

Wait, you say--Laura Bush, the epitome of Republican womanhood, wears the suits and pearls, but she neither bleaches nor meringues her hair. True. As queen, she can do as she pleases. She also has good hair: Thick, shiny and "manageable." Bouncin' and behavin' hair, with the emphasis on good behavior. Unlike Theresa Heinz Kerry's soft, curly mop, Laura's locks are never out of control. But that's a road that, unlike some others, we will not go down.

Laura does conform to another, very exclusive hair rule: First Lady Color. Personally, I found the most transfixing moment of Ronald Reagan's god-king funeral rites the part with all living ex-presidents and first ladies packed into a couple of pews. There was a great overhead of this historic grouping that revealed nothing much except that the official hair color of presidential consorts is a subtle, coppery dark blonde. Betty, Rosalind, Nancy, Hillary and Laura (highlights) all have it. (God bless Barbara Bush for getting old and looking it.) From above, they looked like quintuplets at church. This is a flattering and not totally implausible hue favored by older women from news anchors to ladies in nursing homes, although your Aunt Mary doesn't have access to the colorists available to the famous.

And that brings us back to the blonde thing, which, to tell the truth, I don't know quite what to make of. Is the Clairol saying "I'm so family values, so respectful of my man's desires, that I'll faithfully do hydrogen peroxide to please him?" Or is it nostalgic, an expression of a desire to return to the cheer line, where everything was happy and simple? Contrary to popular opinion, pop-culture semiotics are hard.

Next column: Is Ann Coulter a man?

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