I am a teacher, and when wearing a mask at the school where I work, I find it easier to keep my hair in a ponytail. What is the best way to make this look professional? I’d prefer not to turn into a character from “Grease” or be mistaken for a teenager. — Yael, Bronx, New York
The ponytail has been a default hairdo ever since Ancient Greece and 1600 B.C.E., where the look was immortalized at the Palace of Knossos on Crete in the fresco “Ladies in Blue.” A look possessed of multiple personalities and social signifiers, the ponytail can seem like the simplest of possible ’dos while also adapting to changes in culture and social mores — and it has done so throughout history and for both men and women.
In pre-17th century China, for example, men under the Manchu dynasty wore their hair in a queue — a type of long braid from the top of the head — and forced the Han Chinese under their rule to adopt the same style as a symbol of submission. In 18th-century Europe, the ponytail was a sign of the military, with British soldiers wearing their hair in low ponytails while the French sported a low braid.
In the mid-20th century, the ponytail had mostly swapped sexes in the United States, becoming synonymous with bobby-soxers — girls, such as Olivia Newton-John’s Sandy in “Grease,” who wore poodle skirts, saddle shoes and bouncy ponytails. Though it was to a certain extent always a practical, sporty thing, by the 1970s the pony was also a hippie thing for both guys and girls.
Famous ponytail wearers include Barbie; Sandra Dee, the 1950s movie star famous for her pony; Barbara Eden in “I Dream of Jeannie”; Madonna in her “Blonde Ambition” years; and Karl Lagerfeld with his powdered poof.
As to why the ponytail’s appeal has been so long-lasting, the answer is simple: It gets your hair out of your face, requires little upkeep and can be worn by many people. (Also, it tends to pull your skin back, acting as a sort of mini-face-lift.) That’s also why it’s such a good solution for work; it obviates the opportunity for distracting fiddling. And there’s something about a completely bared face that projects confidence and security: You don’t need to hide behind your hair.
At the same time, however, if you want your professional uniform to include a ponytail, you need to professionalize it, so it doesn’t get confused with, say, the sporty pony or the slapdash pony or the performing pony.
To that end, I asked DJ Quintero of the Wall Group, a stylist who has worked with red-carpet ponytail-wearers such as Blake Lively and Lily Collins, what he would suggest. He said there were two key components: placement on the head and how the pony is secured.
“The higher the ponytail, the more casual the look and feel,” he wrote, so for work, “position it anywhere from just above your occipital bone” — the base of the skull, where it connects to the spinal cord — “to the nape of the neck.” Then, he said, take a small section of hair and wrap it around the elastic to smooth the line and communicate intentionality.
And though the most famous contemporary ponytail-wearer of the moment may be Ariana Grande, a better role model for your purposes is probably Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge. She pulls off the polished pony royally.
Your Style Questions, Answered
Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.