Monday, October 27, 2008

Her Crowning Glory

Ha! I’ll bet you thought this was going to be another post about Queen Victoria, didn’t you?

But today we’re going to talk about something completely different: hair.

The beginning of the 19th century coincides with a revolution in fashion that touched not only clothes, but personal style as well. Before the French Revolution in the 1790’s, hair was…well, weird. For formal occasions, women’s hair was made into enormous sculptures three and four feet high, supported by wire frameworks and additional hair (ew!) and decorated with everything from fruit and flowers and taxidermied birds to model ships engaged in naval battles. Oh yes…and don’t forget the powder. Everyone, men and women, wore grayish white powder that obscured their natural color. And even for everyday, hair was still dressed high and powdered.

But the Revolution helped usher in a reaction against this silliness. At first short, curly, tousled hair, called “mode a la Titus” (see right), became the fashion for both men and women—it was about as far from the old style as one could get.

This look remained popular for a long time, but within a few years was gradually modified by the rage for everything classical. Simple “psyche knots” (at left)—hair coiled or braided then pinned into a bun on the back of the head hearkened back to ancient Greek and Roman statuary.

These styles remained popular through the 1810s and 1820s. By the 1830’s more elaborate hair, once more to the point of silliness, like that of this demure young lady at right, became fashionable.

Walk into any supermarket or pharmacy today and you see aisles full of hair products. But supermarkets—and the shampoos and rinses and gels and foams there are a modern invention. What would a typical 19th century girl have used to keep her hair beautiful?

From Decorum, an 1877 publication:

“Vinegar and water form a good wash for the roots of the hair. Ammonia diluted with water is still better.

“Nothing is simpler or better in the way of oil than pure, unscented salad oil, and in the way of a pomatum bear’s grease is as pleasant as anything. Apply either with the hands or keep a soft brush for the purpose, but take care not to use the oil too freely. An over-oiled head of hair is vulgar and offensive….Those whose hair is glossy and shining need nothing to render it so; but when the hair is harsh, poor and dry, artificial lubrication is needed….

“For removing scurf
[dandruff] glycerine diluted with a little rose-water will be found of service. Any preparation of rosemary forms an agreeable and highly cleansing wash.

“The yolk of an egg beaten up in warm water is an excellent application to the scalp.

“Many heads of hair require nothing more in the way of wash than soap and water.”

Hmm. Why does this sound more like a cookbook than beauty advice?


Addie said...

We have some crazy hairstyles today that people think are popular!

QNPoohBear said...

Wow! Fascinating. I visited Colonial Williamsburg over the summer and spent some time at the wig makers and they had some fairly normal styles compared to the example you posted!

Marissa Doyle said...

I LOVE Williamsburg--I spent a year there at William and Mary. And yes, the 18th century hairstyles were definitely more extreme on the European side of the pond!