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If the world can accommodate a museum about the cultural history of shoes, surely it could manage one about the opposite end of the human body: hair and its accessories.

Hair, and what we do with it, is the quickest way to announce (or alter) identity. It's a signal of mood and character, a statement of what we believe, a reflection of wider social events and values. "We are the only animal species that has hair that can continuously grow, so we use it to express differences in gender and age and class," explains Geraldine Biddle-Perry, co-author of Hair: Styling, Culture and Fashion. "It is a part of our bodies that is continually on show, and so we play with it, adding connotations and meaning."

When I think about all the people I have interviewed over the years, they figure in my mind as a gallery of hairstyles, which act like messengers speaking volumes about even the most reticent subjects. Singer/songwriter Imogen Heap, for instance, looked like a tall, willowy tree with a huge nest of messy hair festooned with flowers and fabric butterflies; her 'do was a reflection of her creative spirit – a wild thing, clearly. The obvious hair plugs of Burt Reynolds, meanwhile, spoke to an endearing vanity.

Recently, I met Sandy Powell, the Oscar-winning costume designer (Shakespeare in Love, The Young Victoria), on the set of Disney's new live-action revision of Cinderella; her hair, a boyish, bright-orange pixie cut, was a statement of bold independence and celebration of fashion possibilities (indeed, the slim 52-year-old had paired it with a form-fitting blue dress, a chartreuse shirt underneath, a big green scarf, shiny gold oxfords and a bright orange cuff on each wrist).

When a person in the media spotlight doesn't give interviews, his or her hairstyle often becomes a substitute for a quote – that is, it's another way to assess character and personality. To wit: recent media commentary about Cressida Bonas, the girlfriend of Prince Harry, who is said to be on the verge of popping the question. Bonas has been sighted several times wearing a scrunchie in her long hair, which has caused a torrent of discussion about what kind of person she is. (A scrunchie, in case you have chosen to forget, is that ugly-but-handy elasticized thing that held a thousand topknots in the eighties.)

Her hair accessory of choice is widely seen as anti-fashion and anti-grooming, even though design houses such as Missoni and Marc Jacobs have launched high-fashion scrunchies in the past few weeks, for $95 and $35 apiece respectively, in an attempt to revive them.

Dubbed the Scrunchie Queen, Cressy B., as she is known in the British tabloids, is seen as the opposite of the Duchess of Cambridge, another interview-avoiding royal consort whose hair regularly makes headlines. Her long mane could be read as a statement of the couple's new style of royalty, always carefully groomed, but one that is nonetheless modern, young and free-moving (Not for her the stiff, hair-sprayed helmet that won't budge in a breeze.)

There have been other notable scrunchie wearers over the years, of course. Sarah Jessica Parker regularly tied her hair in one in the eighties, but that was before she honed her style identity. (A memorable episode of Sex and the City even posited a scrunchie as a source of conflict between Carrie Bradshaw and one of her beaux.) When Hillary Clinton repeatedly donned one during her time as U.S. Secretary of State, however, it only helped her image – clearly, saving the world is more important than taking time to get a good blow-dry.

Throughout history, in fact, hairstyles and accessories have pointed to larger societal issues. A Rosie the Riveter bandana was practical during the Second World War because it prevented women's hair from getting caught in factory machinery, but it also carried a moral value: Feminine flourishes had no place during wartime. The Afro, meanwhile, was a flag of rebellion and an activist statement for human rights in the sixties. And in both the twenties and the sixties, the bob could be seen as an assertion of women's rights – the shearing of expected feminine attributes such as long, flowing hair.

In a recent BBC documentary called Bouffants, Beehives and Bobs: The Hairstyles That Shaped Britain, Mark Hayes, international creative director for Vidal Sassoon, describes a parallel between "aerodynamic" beehives and the space race of the sixties, while the long, free hair of the seventies signalled the loosening of sexual mores.

If Cressida Bonas's hair could talk, perhaps it would say, "I don't care what you think of me." As one fashion editor on Cressy B. scrunchie-watch sniffed, "She could be a future princess but this dressing down looks like she can't be bothered." Exactly right. As an aristocrat herself – her mother is Lady Mary-Gaye Curzon, a society beauty of the sixties and daughter of the 6th Earl Howe, godson of King Edward VII – she is relaxed about looking the part of a royal.

Her defiant scrunchie-wearing also has the British press salivating for juicy stories that fulfill the archetypal antiprincess narrative. "This girl's got huge entertainment potential," one style observer wrote, suggesting (one assumes) that she will flout other sensibilities by showing up bra-less in a sheer top or something. (It has been reported that she completely understands Prince Harry's naked partying in Las Vegas.)

Perhaps, though, her scrunchie is just a beacon of her beauty and youth – a "populist tiara," as Biddle-Perry puts it in a telephone interview. "You can't be working-class or old and wear a scrunchie. You would just look worn out. It is seen as the mark of a girl next door, a contrived messiness."

A testament to the Era of Casual Everything, from sex to Fridays, the scrunchie is a practical, quick-fix solution – an Aspirin for the hair. It is for this reason that I like to think of the Cressy B. scrunchie as the willingness of a possible princess to be disarmingly normal – which is a fresh statement in itself.

Follow Sarah Hampson on Twitter: @hampsonwrites