Heads up: why powerbands are not just for Sloanes

Nothing screams ‘I’m posh’ quite like a headband – but the look once loved by princesses is back, and this time round it is surprisingly wearable

High street headbands from Asos, H&M and Zara
High street headbands from Asos, H&M and Zara. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Sometimes a trend runs in the background for a while before it really hits. You might spot it on celebrities, on the cover of a magazine or on the bus. And then, suddenly it registers on the radar of wider culture. In the case of the headband, that was last week in parliament when Carrie Symonds, the partner of the prime minister, sat watching proceedings wearing a large, flocked, navy headband.

As the Daily Mail wrote the next day – in a feature asking: ‘Are you posh enough for a powerband?’ – there is something decidedly upper-crust about this item. Other fans include: the sisters with names worthy of Waugh Lady Alice and Violet Manners; Princess Beatrice, who wore one to a garden party, and Cressida Bonas, Prince Harry’s ex, who wore one to Princess Eugenie’s wedding.

They aren’t the first cohort of young, aristo women with a penchant for the powerband. The velvet headband became a cliche of the 1980s Sloane, along with a Barbour, loafers and a pie-crust collar. Sarah Ferguson, Princess Diana and Princess Caroline of Monaco were all partial to one. Peter York, author of the 1982 Sloane Rangers’ Handbook, even implies that headband-wearing may be inherited.“By descent, she [Symonds] is the sort of person who would have worn one,” he says. “Symonds’ mum would have very likely worn one.”

I do struggle to think of my mum – more inclined to the artistic school of dressing – doing the same. It’s fair to say that I am not posh enough for the powerband. I have never knowingly been to a garden party. I haven’t even watched The Crown. I certainly don’t dress like a Sloane Ranger – I’m more likely to be found in a band T-shirt or hoody, and I am rarely out of trainers. I am, however, always interested in finding out how the other half live (or, at least, do their hair). So I try the headband out.

I wear a straw version to dinner at my sister’s house (this passes largely without comment, although my boyfriend says it looks “a bit Handmaid’s Tale”) and to hang out with friends on Saturday. One of them says it looks like I have borrowed sunglasses from Star Trek’s Geordi La Forge and pushed them up to my forehead, which is novel. Commuting home on a drizzly Monday, I wear a green one, decorated with punk studs. Standing in a packed carriage, I think a woman nudges her friend and laughs at my headband. I don’t blame her.

Carrie Symonds, the partner of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Carrie Symonds, the partner of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photograph: Victoria Jones/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

My takeaways? The reactions are fine – but it takes a while to get used to having a huge great thing on your head. To use an entirely non-posh word, it just feels a bit extra, like wearing a crown when you’re doing the weekly shop. Going to work in a striped number with pearls, I end up tying my hair back and matching my clothes to the headband. Off comes my usual sweatshirt and gold hoops, replaced with an old Chloé blouse with wide sleeves and some diamante cross earrings. Pretty posh. For me, anyway.

Headbands are doing a roaring trade. At Net-a-Porter, the global buying director Elizabeth von der Goltz says accessories sales have increased by 19% in the last season, with “headbands having a moment” and Matchesfashion.com and Asos say they are popular, too. “Padded headbands are the biggest hair trend this summer,” says Aisling McKeefry, head of design for Asos. “We’re drawing references from regal headwear but updating the styles,” she says. A Prada one will set you back £170, and a Dolce & Gabbana jewelled one is an eye-watering £975, but Asos has queen-worthy styles without the royal price tag: a pearl one is only £12. Zara has styles for around £17.

Prada’s spring/Summer 2019 shows in Milan
Prada’s spring/summer 2019 shows in Milan. Photograph: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

As well as Princess Beatrice and friends, powerbands can be traced to the catwalk. For spring/summer 2019, every model at Prada wore padded designs, from pink satin to black and beaded. Brands including Erdem, Dolce & Gabbana and Simone Rocha have had them, too. The more ornate ones have also been linked to the Renaissance being so hot right now – a portrait of Anne Boleyn from circa 1533 has the then-queen wearing a very 2019 pearl headband. Accessorize is selling a simple, black style called the Boleyn for £9.

Headbands have history before 1533. Fashion historian Tony Glenville says they can be traced back to the Greeks and Romans, and from medieval times, head-dresses – similar to Boleyn’s – were used by women to tie long hair back. Until the 20th century, women did not commonly cut their hair, he says.

The alice band we know today originates in John Tenniel’s illustrations for 1871’s Through the Looking Glass, in which Alice wears a ribbon to tie her hair back. Glenville says this image means the headband has always been seen as a “simple and youthful style” and in the 1920s they were worn, across the forehead, by the Bright Young Things. You could argue the Sloanes, attending parties such as the Rose Ball in their headbands and puffball dresses, were picking up on the history of those hedonistic rich kids. “The original idea is about simplicity and practicality,” says Glenville. “The ribbon holding long, luxuriant hair back.”

While there have been other headband moments since the 1980s (see Blair Waldorf in Gossip Girl), York says the trend is properly back now because – in common with most fashion revivals – enough time has passed between revivals, and we’re able to see the charm of those 80s references. This is certainly true for Emma Elwick-Bates, contributing editor of American Vogue, and headband aficionado. “To me, the style recalls young Diana and Fergie, at ease and joyful,” she says. “And my perennial fashion favourite - Princess Caroline.”

Tamu McPherson and Anne Boleyn
Tamu McPherson and Anne Boleyn. Composite: Getty Images & Rex Features

Yet as York says: “Toffs don’t dominate people’s imagination in the way they [once] did.” Indeed, a survey of current celebrity culture finds several headband wearers who like me, probably don’t have Ascot on their yearly calendar. The US model Chrissy Teigen, for instance, has made HOTD – headband of the day – happen on her Instagram Stories since 2018. Zendaya – a hair icon for me as Rue in Euphoria – wore one to the Met Ball in May.

Diana, Princess of Wales.
Diana, Princess of Wales. Photograph: Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images

And they are big with influencers who are – in theory at least – a meritocratic breed (the merit being based on your ability to look nonchalant while wearing a catwalk-fresh outfit and posing in the middle of a road). Pernille Teisbaek, Tamu McPherson and Veronika Heilbrunner all wear headbands, as does Camila Carril, who has 146,000 followers, and excellent standing-in-the-road skills. Carril pre-ordered the pink Prada headband from the SS19 collection, and it is still a favourite. She says they provide a finishing touch: “The other day I was going for dinner and I wore a gorgeous, floral Zimmerman dress,” she says. “It was pretty on its own, [but] I felt the need to have an accessory to complement it.”

Camila Carril street style.
Camila Carril street style. Photograph: Saira MacLeod/REX/Shutterstock

It’s this idea that could make headbands work for people like me, who are a bit allergic to dressing up. In theory, could I do my bit for sustainability by recycling an old outfit and adding a headband (which I could also buy second-hand)? And would it mean I had “A Look” despite minimal effort? Elwick-Bates bought a Prada padded band last year, and she says it has become central to her wardrobe. “It [the Prada headband] rang in the new year, but came into its own in Richard Curtis season come May,” she says. “Several weddings later, I still love it.”

Whether it is through sheer laziness or a way to be more Teigen, I’m starting to think the headband could be reclaimed beyond those who appear in Debrett’s. I’m going to give it a try this party season. If you see me on the tube, try not to laugh.

This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. All our journalism is independent and is in no way influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative. By clicking on an affiliate link, you accept that third-party cookies will be set. More information.