Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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

Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Isabella reporting,

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, I have the answers, plus more photographs, in Part Two 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...

I do it all the time now I know how - not for 18th C but for drag! Having big hair is pretty addictive too :)

Helena said...

"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." And what about the beehive hairdos of the 1960s? I was reminded of them by some of the portraits you've included.

Drayton Bird said...

I remember the beehives. I can promise none of them had nasty little creepy-crawlies hiding in them, which I believe was true of those in the 18th century.

Vienna La Rouge said...

I believe the only time "creepy crawlies" were present in 18th century hair or wigs, was if there happened to be fleas in the household (which happened occasionally, and still happens today since so many families have multiple pets). The color we know as 'puce', a sort of green beige color, was also called 'flea'. It is rumored to have been invented as a popular color for the petticoats of open robe gowns in the French court, during a particularly nasty flea infestation.
If a lady's hairpieces or a gentleman's wig was left to sit in storage too long with the pomade/powder on it, it would indeed attract mice and all kinds of pests. The pomade used was sometimes made with a base of animal fat, so you can imagine this attracted hungry creatures if it wasn't washed out regularly.

Vienna La Rouge said...

Also, we shouldn't forget lice and bedbugs. Still as common as it was then, just slightly better managed. Yet with all our modern conveniences, they are still a problem.

Anonymous said...

In response to Vienna La Rouge I just wanted to point out that puce is a brownish red color sort of like a maroon. It was named after flea blood I believe.

Unknown said...

As I recall they had special sleeping headrests to prevent the hair from messing up.

Karen Anne said...

I remember seeing in Look or somesuch a photograph of the female stars of The Opposite Sex (the 1956 film) resting on slanted boards between takes, so as it not mess up their gowns and hair.

Karen Anne said...

Who would believe this photo is on the web -


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Elias S. Nilsson said...

The hair styles of aristocratic women in the 18th century are really beautiful, but it would be too disgusting and terrible if they had lice on their heads.

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