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I was listening to a song of Frank Sinatra's called It Was a Very Good Year. A certain part got my attention because I did not quite understand what it meant:

When I was twenty-one, it was a very good year,
It was a very good year for city girls,
Who lived up the stairs,
With perfumed hair,
That came undone,

When I was twenty-one.

What does "came undone" mean in this context?

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  • Picture an attractive female with her hair done up in a sort of "bun" arrangement, held in place with pins. Pulling the pins causes the hair to "come undone" and cascade down seductively. And this action is a sort of stand-in for the then-unmentionable act of her clothes similarly "coming undone". – Hot Licks Oct 29 '14 at 21:41
  • Here undone means untied the hair, and let it flow down – user13267 Oct 30 '14 at 14:46
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The hair is what came undone. In this case "undone" is the past participle of "undo". This is the opposite of "do", in the sense of "doing one's hair", meaning to style one's hair.

Therefore, the listener is being invited to consider what activities might cause one's hair to become messy after they've taken the time to style it...

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  • 6
    While I agree with your general point, I think your analysis is wrong. Came undone is nothing to do with do as in do one's hair: it is the normal meaning of undone as unfastened. – Colin Fine Oct 29 '14 at 22:50
  • @ColinFine The point being that undone as unfastened comes as an opposite of done being fastened? – Pierre Arlaud Oct 30 '14 at 8:36
  • No. Done doesn't mean fastened (though done up does). In this sense undo is the opposite of do up, not of do. – Colin Fine Oct 31 '14 at 0:12
  • @ColinFine (this is from months ago, but just noticed this now) I like the idea of "unfastened", but I'd prefer to believe we're both right - this is poetry after all! – nollidge Dec 8 '14 at 15:02
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To understand songs from this era you have to understand the censorship of the time. Songs could not be explicit - any sexual meaning had to be very guarded and ambiguous.

So the lines

It was a very good year for city girls, Who lived up the stairs,

establish that there was a girl who lived upstairs from him.

And then the ambiguous lines

With perfumed hair, That came undone,

The straightforward meaning is that the girl's hair came undone, during (as it was called at that time) petting.

The more ambiguous meaning comes from the possibility in the listener's mind that the word undone applies to the girl, not the hair. With this interpretation, the lines mean that it was a very good year because he had sex with the girl upstairs.

Such subtlety is common on songs from the 1950's, and had declined markedly by the 1990's. It appears to be becoming more common in the last few years.

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It's the hair which is coming undone, a reference to "letting your hair down", which could be a euphemism for being affectionate or intimate, but in general, relaxed.

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    I'm not sure it's necessarily a reference to "letting your hair down", since it's got enough information to explain itself. – nollidge Oct 29 '14 at 21:06
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"With perfumed hair, that came undone, when I was twenty-one".

When a young man takes a girl out for a date, her hair is usually arranged in some fashionable way, which may have taken her some time to do. After a few kisses, however, it comes undone. Easy to get the picture.

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Undone can mean "unfastened", referring obviously to the letting down of the girls' perfumed hair. The fact that the singer was close enough to the hair for its perfume to have made such a lasting impression suggests he was intimately connected, at least on one occasion, with its coming undone.

An alternative meaning is "ruined, destroyed". In the case of the "city girls", presumably young unmarried women, undone could refer to the destruction of their reputations and social status as a result of their sexual activity. (The song was written in the 1960s and this verse relates to events perhaps in the 1930s or earlier).

Or, more happily, a girl coming undone could perhaps refer to a her emotional composure, in the sense that a restrained and outwardly respectable girl may lose herself in the heat of passion. The listeners are invited to imagine their own scenarios.

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