The Beauty and Evolution of 19th Century Hairstyles

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?

My hair as it was styled for my brother's wedding back in December

My hair as it was styled for my brother’s wedding back in December

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.

Unknown Woman - Francois Gerard, circa 1800 - Wikicommons

Unknown Woman – Francois Gerard, circa 1800 – Wikicommons

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.

Anthelme Lagrenee - circa 1820 - Wikicommons

Anthelme Lagrenee – circa 1820 – Wikicommons

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.

Princess Alexandra of Bavaria - 1845 - Wikicommons

Princess Alexandra of Bavaria – 1845 – Wikicommons

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.

Franz Winterhalter - Empress Elizabeth of Austria - Wikicommons

Franz Winterhalter – Empress Elizabeth of Austria – Wikicommons

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.

Mary Curtis Richardson - 1880s - Wikicommons

Mary Curtis Richardson – 1880s – Wikicommons

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.

Classic Gibson Girl design - 1891 - Wikicommons

Classic Gibson Girl design – 1891 – Wikicommons

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!

Me with my new "sisters"

Me and my hair with my new “sisters”

Some of the sites I used for research:


14 thoughts on “The Beauty and Evolution of 19th Century Hairstyles

    • I didn’t even realize I had curls until my late 20s. I had always been taught to brush my hair with a bristley brush, which just made it thick and frizzy. It wasn’t until my cousin (who has the same hair genes but much curlier) pointed out to me that she only combed her hair with a large-tooth comb when it was wet and when I tried doing that too that I noticed the boing! I’m glad I did!

  1. Loved this look at nineteenth century hairstyles. I was a Civl War civilian reenactor for years and had to wear that center parted flat headed style, usually under a cap or bonnet at reenactments. I rolled the hair at the back of my head into a simple bun to keep it under control. But my hair is naturally very full and wavy.

    • Thanks Susan! And more power to you for putting up with Civil War era hair. I just don’t understand how anyone saw that as attractive. Then again, in the 1980s we thought giant bangs and frizzy perms were attractive! It sounds like your hair would also have worked perfectly for 1880s & 1890s styles.

  2. What a wonderful post. I love how hairstyles evolved and since my book is set in 1870’s Colorado, it’s nice to know what looks might be appropriate for various women in the book.

    • You’ve got all sorts of scope for fantastic hairstyles in Colorado in the 1870s, Cindy! Actually, I thought they did a good job on Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman with Jane Seymour’s hair for exactly that time. I want her stylist! 🙂

  3. My hair is straight, thick and fine. It will not stay in a braid, a ponytail, an updo or bun even with copious amount of hair spray. Love the blog, Merry, but I I think they only time my hair was fashionable was in the late 60s and among the hippies, and I missed it.

  4. Love this blog topic. In a former lifetime, I was stylist and as a history lover, I loved research old styles too. Thanks all the great info.

    • Thanks Sharla! It’s fun to analyze the fashion trends of bygone eras, isn’t it. I could go into so much more depth on any one of those decades of the 19th century….

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  6. I really liked the overview of hair 🙂 Thanks for that! I’d like to point out one thing, women have worn flowers (real and fake ones) in their hair for a long time before Elizabeth of Austria. 🙂 So she didn’t ‘invent’ it or even popularize it. 🙂

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