The Polish plait is a type of hairstyle that consisted of neglected, matted hair. In addition to being gross, it was used as a method of traditional Polish healing dating back over 400 years. According to Polish folklore, the “matting” of hair can encourage and collect illness leaving the body.
A medical condition
Known as Plica Polonica in the medical community, Polish plait is a rare condition in which the hair becomes irreversibly entangled.
The mass of hair that results is often sticky and moist. It is sometimes accompanied by lice, inflammation of the scalp, and often a very foul odor.
Who would ever want hair like that?
Believe it or not, people actually used to grow a Polish plait on purpose. In early 19th century Poland, matted hair was commonly worn by both genders.
It became popular enough that people started to “artificially” turn their hair into a plait. By using wine, sugar, boiled herbs, and wax, they could accelerate the matting process.
The early history of horrible hair
While matted hair typically plagued the peasantry of the day, it was believed that a plait acted as an “amulet”, pulling illness away from the body. Why? Because people thought that the sticky, smelly matted hair captured diseases that would normally afflict a plait wearer’s body.
It may seem ridiculous now, but back in the early 19th century it was a widely held belief that illnesses were caused by invading evil spirits. By having a long Polish plait, the spirit would instead invade the tangled mess of hair.
After hair was considered “contaminated” by an evil spirit, it was cut and disposed of in a ritual conducted by folk healers.
In the 17th century, people began believing that plaits were actually a symptom of illness. The plait would grow, drawing the illness out of the body more and more.
However back in the 1600’s people would rarely cut off a plait. They thought that it would hilariously come back for revenge, giving the plait wearer an even worse illness than before.
It was also believed that a plait could be caused by a magical spell. As a result it was referred to as “elflock” or Hexenzopf in German (witches’ plait).
Because it was considered poor form to cut a plait off, many people lived with one their entire lives.
Polish plaits go mainstream
Since so many people were living with hair that they never washed nor cut, they began categorizing plaits by appearance.
You had your “male” and “female” plaits as well as the aristocratic “noble” and shoddy “fake” plaits. Some plaits were even considered “proper” while others were “parasitical”, despite the fact that parasites likely lived in most plaits.
The hygiene war of the 19th century
In the second half of the 19th century, medical professionals had enough and struck out against the Polish plait. Physicians tried to curb superstition and poor hygiene by forcibly cutting plaits off of the peasantry (much to their dismay).
A professor named Józef Dietl, who was also a politician in Western Galicia, struck the biggest blow to the Polish plait by discriminating against people who wore them.
Those afflicted with matted hair were forbidden from entering public buildings and could not receive help from charitable organizations. He even proposed fining plait wearers.
This led to a rumor that matted hair would eventually be taxed, causing a near eradication of the plait from the region.
The legacy of the plait is not great, as the Polish word for the hairstyle, kołtun, is now used in Poland to mock stubborn idiots.