Yet another insult fate has added to injury in the story of how I should have been born 125 years before I was, thus living out the plumb of my days in the late Victorian era, is the fact that I have 19th century hair. Yes, I do. Everything about my hair, from the volume to the texture to the amount of it lends itself to 19th century hairstyles. See?
But what exactly is 19th century hair, and why would I want it anyhow?
Well, it’s beautiful, for one. For another, it’s extremely intricate and time-consuming. And it is an ever-evolving off-shoot of the fashions of the era. In fact, hairstyles throughout the 19th century changed deliberately and consciously to fit with the overall fashion and philosophy of the time.
Every good Jane Austen/Regency fan is familiar with the sleek, upswept styles that typified the beginning of the 19th century. These close, tight styles tend to make my head ache just thinking about them, but they have a regal elegance to them that cannot be denied. That classical look was deliberate. The fashion in both women’s wear and hairstyles of the first part of the 19th century were reflections of the rage for all things Classical. There is a great deal of similarity, albeit with a Regency twist, to the hairstyles of Greek and Roman sculpture, the tight curls and the way hair is arranged to frame the face.
As with fashion in general, styles gradually began to shift. By the 1820s women were beginning to part their hair in the center and those gentle, face-framing curls of antiquity were becoming more pronounced and scooting lower. Meanwhile, the bundle of curls at the crown of women’s heads were expanding in size and scope. When they weren’t being covered by hats, that is. In public women wore hats, and out of necessity copious amounts of hair needed to fit under haberdashery.
With the increase in the volume of skirts that progressed from the 1820s through to the layers and layers of petticoats in the 1840s and finally into the enormous hoops of the 1860s, women’s hair had to change. Tight, delicate styles would have looked silly compared to the dresses just below them. The center part stuck around and the expanse of smooth, straight hair at the front of the head leading away from it got bigger and more pronounced. The side curls got downright ridiculous, if you ask me.
But if you were a mid-19th century woman, you craved the sleek look that exploded into riots of ringlets. This is also where hair began to be dressed up. The back of the head still had to be covered by a hat in public, but braids and twists gradually began to work their way into the design. So did flowers, ribbons, and lace. It was the Austrian Empress Elizabeth who first began dressing her hair with flowers, and where an empress went, the rest of Europe and the world quickly followed.
Fashion in the mid to late 19th century was largely dictated by not only empresses, but princesses and other crowned heads. The dresses designed for the likes of Empress Elizabeth, Queen Victoria’s daughters, and the French Empress Eugenie changed everything almost overnight. A lot of the changes were the result of the fashion design work of one man, Charles Worth, who is known as the father of haute couture. Yep, he’s the one who said “I’ve got an idea. Let’s pull all of these ridiculous full skirts back and pin them together at a woman’s backside!” And the bustle was born.
Hairstyles had to adapt once again to this change of focus. The center part remained, but hair got bigger, more elaborate, and was also pulled towards the back of the head. Ornaments were still worn in the hair, but by the 1870s in particular the long, curled, draping look became popular. Not only did the style in which hair was worn count, the amount of hair a woman had was vitally important. So, of course, fake hair and hair pieces, pads and “rats” became part of the design.
One fascinating article I read suggested that the move from small, tight, relatively modest hair to huge, flowing, ostentatious hairstyles was a reflection of the change in the importance of women in public life. In the early part of the 19th century it was ideal for a woman to be demure. By the ascension of Victoria and her continental counterparts, women may still have been “the weaker sex”, but they were rulers and celebrities and their rights were expanding.
Another important invention for hair in the 1870s was the Marcel iron. A Marcel iron is more or less a curling iron that is heated in a small stove. I’ve used them before, and you might be surprised to hear they are a hundred times easier to use and more effective than electric curling irons (provided you’ve been keeping an eye on the heat and don’t burn someone’s hair off). With this handy new invention, “waved” hair became all the rage. From the end of the 1870s through the 1880s the style was for waved hair pulled back from the forehead and gathered into elaborate designs at the crown of the head.
An interesting side note before we get to the crème-de-la-crème of 19th century hairstyles is the evolution of bangs. Curls that framed the face were popular in the Regency, but as that wretched, flat-head look took over in the 1820, bangs were suddenly a no-no. They began to make a comeback in the 1860s though, but only very small wispy curls and only if you were an extremely fast woman. However, the trend that respectable women wouldn’t be caught dead sporting became the fad in the 1880s. Small, curling bangs were what every modern, forward-thinking woman wore.
And then, by the 1890s, hair went all out. The pompadour came into fashion.
We’ve all seen it, that wonderful, classic Gibson Girl look. There are several reasons this is an important style. It may seem “done-up” and elaborate to our 21st century eyes, but it was actually considered scandalously natural at the time. The aim was to make your hair look as free and light and airy as you could. Of course, for most women this “natural” look was achieved with pads and fake hair rolls. Women would save the loose hairs from their hairbrushes and work them into “rats” that could be added to their style to achieve the look.
My hair, on the other hand, does that on its own. Yep. Don’t hate me. I have so much hair and it’s only getting curlier as I age, that just a little teasing and a few well-placed pins and I can have a hairstyle what would make the average 1890s woman green with envy. Maybe that’s why I like that style so much. Alas, it’s lost in this 21st century era of flat-ironed hair. My hair won’t be tamed like that for all the world. I’m waiting for the pompadour to come back!
Some of the sites I used for research: