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What Does "Let Your Hair down" Mean?

By Kelly Ferguson
Updated May 23, 2024
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The phrase “let your hair down” is an idiom that means to relax or let go of inhibitions. Most language experts agree that the idiom is from the time period when it was only proper for women to wear their hair pinned up on the head in public. They were only allowed to let their hair down to hang naturally when alone, either when bathing or at bedtime. Letting one's hair down, at that time, was reserved for moments when relaxing and behaving less properly were acceptable.

Most of the time, the idiom is not intended to mean “relaxing” as in calming, soothing, or otherwise stress-relieving situations such as quietly sitting to read a book or getting a massage. Instead, it more accurately refers to relaxing social rules and letting go of inhibitions that would normally hold a person's behavior in check. For example, it would be a correct use of the idiom to say that, halfway through a party, you let your hair down and danced for a few songs, when you had been previously too embarrassed to try. It would be incorrect usage of the phrase if you were to let your hair down by slipping into the corner of the room and listen to some calming music in order to relieve anxiety and build your confidence.

Friends may often advise their peers to loosen up and stop worrying so much what other people think. In the example of an anxious individual too afraid to dance at a party, a friend might convince him or her to let go of any inhibitions by saying, “Come on, we are at a great party, let your hair down a little. Everyone else is dancing too and will not notice if you mess up.”

Sometimes, the idiom is somewhat incorrectly used to mean dressing down, or going from formal to informal clothing as opposed to attitudes and social behaviors. An individual might have a routine of coming home from work and letting his or her hair down by changing from business clothes into more comfortable clothing, such as a t-shirt and jeans or sweatpants. It is also possible that, similar to the idiom's origin, you can quite literally let your hair down out of its formal style into a more relaxed, natural and comfortable style. While this is not a technically correct use of the phrase, it is used in this manner often enough that other people will understand the meaning anyway.

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Discussion Comments

By anon353709 — On Nov 02, 2013

Does anyone know where I could find the earliest cited usage of the expression? Only I've heard that the phrase itself might date back no earlier than the 1920's.

By Mammmood — On Dec 21, 2011

@Charred - Well, good for you. You let your hair down, and you didn’t need a sip of booze to do it. The expression just means to loosen up. It doesn’t have to involve alcohol or dancing or singing.

It can be a party where people sit around and play Monopoly and have fun. It’s just part of enjoying life. We must not be so tightly wound up all the time.

By Charred — On Dec 21, 2011

I have to confess when I first read this I didn’t think I’d ever let my hair down yet in the usual sense of the term. The fact is I am a pretty reserved person, and I don’t drink or do a lot of the partying described in the article. However I remembered an example that might apply.

I went to a football game. I am not a sports guy, but I decided to attend an all important high school playoff between two rivals. I told myself I would just go to eat a few hot dogs and take in the atmosphere, without caring who won or lost.

Well, I got sucked in. Soon I was off the bleachers, cheering and rooting for my team as they made one touchdown after another. I must say, it was very unbecoming of me! None of the my friends were around so I didn’t care.

By discographer — On Dec 20, 2011

@Sara007-- The idiom might not be used as often as it used to but people are never going to stop letting their hair down! I see it every week during happy hour. Everyone comes out of work, ready to have some fun and some of the calmest and most serious personalities during work hour can act like kids!

As long as there are rules, requirements and norms, people will always need opportunities to vent and do things they normally wouldn't do. I think 'letting your hair down' is a good way to describe it.

By serenesurface — On Dec 20, 2011

@wander-- I agree with you. I understand the idiom well because I went to private schools all through primary and secondary education where there were really strict rules. We had to wear a uniform and keep our hair out of the way which meant that we almost always tied it back or braided it.

So during semester breaks when we went home, we let our hair down, both literally and contextually. I used to do everything I couldn't do at school like go to parties, watch movies, eat junk food and listen to loud music. Oh and I let my hair down too of course!

By wander — On Dec 19, 2011

When I was teaching English as a second language I was surprised that this idiom was so hard for my students to get. I guess to understand letting your hair down you really need to have some cultural context. I actually had to get into the history of how women used to have to keep their hair up all the time in order for them to really get the picture. It is interesting how the idiom has gone from a way to express relaxation to one that shows your getting ready to let all your inhibitions go.

By letshearit — On Dec 19, 2011

@Sara007 - I don't know if the idiom letting your hair down is quite gone yet, as I just heard my friends use this expression the other day. My friends were chatting about going to a nightclub on Friday night, and they were pretty excited about letting their hair down after a long work week.

For myself, I don't use this expression, as I feel it is more one adopted by females. It would seem pretty weird if a guy used this expression, even though the idiom has become such a big part of our everyday language. I still think that to let your hair down, even metaphorically, you need long hair.

By Sara007 — On Dec 18, 2011

Letting your hair down always struck me as an older idiom, as I don't really hear many people use that phrase these days. My friend actually had a 50s themed party and used that phrase on her invitations to set the mood for the evening. I thought the image of a 50s housewife letting her hair down for a few cocktails was quite fun.

I think that the spirit of letting your hair down will continue to be a part of our culture, though the phrase itself may fade away completely in time. I rather like the phrase, so hopefully it isn't done for too soon.

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