Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Towering Hair of "The French Lady in London", c. 1771

Sunday, September 7, 2014
Isabella reporting,

After our recent blog posts (here and here) on recreating the exaggerated hair styles of the the 1770s, I've been seeing more examples of the Georgian big-hair everywhere I look. This caricature comes via one of our Twitter friends, historian Sarah Murden of the blog All Things Georgian.

The drawing, left, was made to be engraved as a popular satirical print to be sold in the print-shops of the day. The artist is a Swiss caricaturist, working in London, with the wonderful name of Samuel Hieronymus Grimm (We've seen his prints before on the blog here and here.)  This drawing is called The French Lady in London; in some of the print versions, it also has the additional title of Or, the Head Dress for the Year 1771.

It is, obviously, a satire of the extreme hairstyles and caps that fashionable ladies adopted in the 1770s. The woman's towering headdress not only forces her to bend to enter the room, but it also unsettles the gentleman (who drops a scroll featuring G.A. Stevens's Lecture upon Heads), and terrorizes the cat, the parrot, and the fat little dog on the floor. Behind her on the wall is a large drawing featuring a The Pic [Pico, or Peak] of Tenerife, a famously tall volcano in the Canary Islands whose distinctive shape echoes the lady's headdress.

While her hair is tall, it's her cap that really adds to her height, an elaborate construction of pleated ribbons and lace and what appears to be giant butterfly wings in the front. I'm not sure what the two large posts or pegs thrust into the cap are supposed to be (they don't appear in the engravings.) I'm guessing they're some sort of extra-strong supports - rather like tent-stakes - that the size of the headdress requires to stay upright.

But there's another level of satire here, too. The lady is French, and her exaggerated hair is just one more way that the English can ridicule that country across the Channel. To the average Englishman, French ways and fashions were effeminate and subversive, meant to undermine sturdy English values and fortitude. For much of the 18th c. Britain was at war with France, and prints like this carry a patriotic message as well. Grimm has made sure that his French lady is an easy target, for what better way to treat the enemy than to mock them?

(As a side note: some 18th c. English ladies writing or speaking to close friends used the phrase "the French lady" as a slangy euphemism for their menstrual period - "I'm feeling low this week with a visit from the French lady." Which is, of course, Not a Compliment.)

But as a professional satirist, Grimm knew the value of pleasing all his possible markets. The companion print to this one is called The English Lady at Paris, and he's no more flattering to the sturdy, stolid English lady than to the French one.

Above: The French Lady in London, by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm, c. 1771. Yale Center for British Art.


WillowWinsham said...

That hair gets everywhere! Great post as ever, thoroughly enjoyed.

I wonder if hair on that scale will ever be "in" again?

Julia said...

Maybe those pegs are parts of underlying scaffold (which keeps the whole edifice standing) poking out?

The cap is truly scary. It looks like someone went really wild with a distorting tool in Photoshop.

I'd say within five years we'll see a fashion for updoes and/or teased hair which will be as high as the fashions which spawned this caricature. I've seen some tutorials on YT which made a good start.

And I've come across the English (= perfect in every way) vs French (= smarmy scoundrels ruining our womenfolk with their devious ways) before! And in one of the books of (... reverend silence please ...) Jane Austen, to boot. Mr. Knightly was expressing his disapprobation of Frank Churchill by saying that the latter was only amiable in a French way, but not in English.

And of course, the whole cliché lives on happily in our days, only the couple became a threesome - smarmy French, arrogant Brit, not-so-charming-but-honest-and-true US boy.

Mark said...

The French Lady with this helmet? What is this?

Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket