Tuesday, August 18, 2015

From the Archives: The Truth about the Big Hair of the 1770s: Part One

Tuesday, August 18, 2015
Isabella reporting,

This post, and the second part that will appear here on Thursday, are among our all-time most popular blog posts. Unfortunately, they're also among our most plagiarized and "borrowed" as well, and hacked versions have appeared all over the internet, without credit to us or to Abby Cox and her ground-breaking, hands-on research. Here's the original - accept no substitutes!

Even people who don't know anything about 18th c. women's fashion know about the hair. Towering hair styles, wigs filled with maggots, clouds of powder making everyone sneeze - EVERYONE knows that!

They may know it, but that version isn't quite right. Negative myths about past-fashion like maggot-filled wigs and rib-breaking corsets are so easy to accept because they're self-congratulatory. We're so much wiser now in 2014, aren't we?

The truth about the elaborate hair styles of the 1770s is actually more interesting than the myths, and makes more sense, too. Yes, it's an extreme style, first worn at the French Court before traveling to England. It's a status-fashion, too. The complexity of the styles showed that the wearer had both the leisure-time to devote to her hair, and most often the wealth to employ a professional hairdresser or accomplished lady's maid to achieve it. The height framed the face, and balanced out the full skirts of the period, creating a proportion that was much admired at the time. (Anyone who believes modern fashion is beyond extremes like this need only recall the huge power-shoulders popular in women's clothing of the 1980s.)

The Duchess of Beaufort, above left, is going for the height of formal hair, with a very large hair style given a dusting of pale powder; her natural brunette color is just showing through the powder.

Big hair was considered stylish for less formal wear, too. Mrs. Vere, upper right, is simply dressed. Her hair is not powdered, and while it's free of ribbons and hats, it is still piled and pinned to a towering height.

Nor were the tall hairstyles limited to the upper classes. From contemporary prints and paintings, it's clear that women who aspired to fashion - maidservants, actresses, milliners, and mantua-makers, as well as the mistresses of wealthy gentlemen - also copied the taller styles. The bar maid, middle left, crowns her hair with an elaborate cap, the better to beguile her customers.

What astonishes me is that these styles were, for the most part, not wigs, but the wearer's own hair. Nearly all Georgian gentlemen cropped their hair short and wore wigs, but few women did. Women did not cut their hair, but let it grow as long as possible. This hair was augmented with pads and rollers (more about these in Part Two), and if necessary enhanced with false curls and switches. Further embellishment came in the form of plumes, caps, hats, swags of ribbon and strands of faux pearls.

Of course, the caricaturists had a field day. The extreme hair styles were exaggerated even more, like the lady, bottom right, who is wearing an entire flower garden (including a folly) in her hair. You'll find another print here, and here. Not only could such prints make fun of the tall styles, but they also mocked the vanity of women and the foolishness of French fashions: a triple-win for the caricaturists.

But how did those women in the 1770s make their hair do this? Thanks to some of my good friends (including mantua-maker's apprentice Sarah Woodyard, bottom left) from Colonial Williamsburg, you can find out in Part II here.

Top left: Detail, Duchess of Beaufort, by Thomas Gainsborough, 1778, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.
Top right: Detail, Mrs. Vere, by Nathaniel Dance, 1770s, private collection.
Middle left: Detail, The Pretty Bar Maid, 1778, printed by Carington Bowles. Walpole Library, Yale University.
Middle right: Detail, The Flower Garden, printed by Matthias Darly, 1777. Walpole Library, Yale University.
Bottom left: Photograph courtesy of the Margaret Hunter Shop, Colonial Williamsburg.


MrsC (Maryanne) said...

Thank you, for telling the truth. It is so annoying that a story of extreme that probably appeared in a broadsheet is taken as the way everyone lived. And big hair isn't that hard - I do it to perform all the time and I LOVE it!

Cynthia Lambert said...

Most people actually look good with big hair. I predict that it will return soon. And anyway, pixie cuts are becoming passé, thank goodness. I for one do not wish to look like Peter Pan.

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

Thank you - I look forward to part II.

In the late 1960's I worked with a woman whose hobby was ballroom dancing. Her improbably black hair was huge! She said it was only taken down once a fortnight when she went back to the hairdressers, and I certainly never saw any evidence to the contrary!

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