The punishment of shaving a woman’s head had biblical origins. In Europe, the practice dated back to the dark ages, with the Visigoths. During the middle ages, this mark of shame, denuding a woman of what was supposed to be her most seductive feature, was commonly a punishment for adultery. Shaving women’s heads as a mark of retribution and humiliation was reintroduced in the 20th century.
During the second world war, the Nazi state issued orders that German women accused of sleeping with non-Aryans or foreign prisoners employed on farms should be publicly punished by shaving their heads, and making them socially untouchable.
In France, the same wave of head-shaving took place in the late spring of 1945 when forced labourers, prisoners of war and concentration camp victims returned from Germany. Revenge on women represented a form of expiation for the frustrations and sense of impotence among males humiliated by their country’s occupation. One could almost say that it was the equivalent of rape by the victor.
A large number of the victims were prostitutes who had simply plied their trade with Germans as well as Frenchmen, although in some areas it was accepted that their conduct was professional rather than political. Others were silly teenagers who had associated with German soldiers out of bravado or boredom.
But many victims were working in the German camps to make a living. While many were young mothers, whose husbands were in German prisoner-of-war camps. During the war, they often had no means of support, and their only hope of obtaining food for themselves and their children was to accept a liaison with a German soldier.
After the humiliation of a public head-shaving, the tondues ― the shorn women ― were often paraded through the streets on the back of a lorry, occasionally to the sound of a drum as if it were a tumbril and France was reliving the revolution of 1789. Some were daubed with tar, some stripped half naked, some marked with swastikas in paint or lipstick. They would be in tears, hanging their heads in shame.
There was a strong element of vicarious eroticism among the tondeurs and their crowd, even though the punishment they were about to inflict symbolised the desexualisation of their victim. This “ugly carnival” became the pattern soon after D-day, which continued for years after World War II had ended.