A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Hairdressing

La Toilette by Eva Gonzalès, 1879.

In my previous post, A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Hair Care, we discussed brushing, washing, oiling, and pomading the hair.  These steps were essential in a 19th century lady’s hair routine.  However, in the Victorian era, it was not enough to have clean, healthy, lustrous tresses.  Those tresses must be twisted, rolled, plaited, and pinned into suitably fashionable styles.  Dressing the hair in this manner was practically an art form and, as the styles were always evolving, it required a lady – or a lady’s maid – to pay constant attention to changing trends in fashionable coiffures, as illustrated and explained in any one of the numerous 19th century lady’s magazines.  In this post, we will address the basic tools of Victorian hairdressing, as well as take a brief look at popular styles throughout the Victorian era.

The Basics

In her 1840 book, Female Beauty, as Preserved and Improved by Regimen, Cleanliness and Dress, author Mrs. Walker describes the implements a lady will need for styling her hair.  In addition to a soft brush and combs with teeth of varying widths, she recommends hairpins, curling tongs, a selection of hair combs, pomade, and false hair.

Advertisement for False Hair, 1898.
Advertisement for False Hair, 1898.

False hair came in a variety of forms, including invisible tufts, comb tufts, plaits, ringlets, and pads.  Used to add height, thickness, or simply as fashionable adornment, false hair was meant to blend seamlessly with one’s own hair color.  This was often easier said than done.  For an exact match, many women made their own hairpieces.  In her book Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day, author Madeleine Marsh explains:

“Dressing table sets included a ‘hair tidy’ (a screw-top container with a hole in the lid) which was used as a receptacle for what must have been a considerable amount of hair from the brush.  This could then be combed out and transformed into additional hairpieces (familiarly known as ‘rats’) – cheaper and a much better colour match than buying in the false ringlets and pads necessary to create the more complicated Victorian and Edwardian hairstyles.”

To curl hair, Victorian women employed curling tongs.  These were heated directly in the fire and, as a result, it was difficult to control the temperature.  Hair was frequently scorched or burned off completely.  In the 1881 book, Sylvia’s Book of the Toilet: A Ladies’ Guide to Dress and Beauty, the author advises on the safest method for using curling tongs:

“The best mode of applying the curling tongs is as follows.  Fold the hair, having slightly damped it, over the frizzing or curling tongs, having previously carefully wrapped these round with a roll of thin brown paper.  Or, do the hair upon stout crimping pins, or braid it in and out of a loop of thick cord; fold a piece of thin paper over the crimp, and the pinching iron may be used in safety.”

Ivins' Patent Hair Crimper, Godey's Lady's Book, 1865.
Ivins’ Patent Hair Crimper, Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1865.

Though new hair products were always on the market, the basic hairdressing items listed above did not change much throughout the Victorian era.  Equipped with brush, combs, curling tongs, false hair, pins, and pomade and armed with a variety of trimmings – such as beads, ribbons, feathers, and fresh flowers – a lady could create almost any style from 1837 through 1901.

1830s and 1840s

During the late 1830s and into the 1840s, hair was usually parted in the center, pinned up or braided in the back, and then coiled or curled into ringlets on each side of the face.  Hair was worn close to the head and frequently smoothed down to completely cover the ears.  The styles during these years were plain and could be severe looking, but they were very much in keeping with the stark, Gothic gowns that were fashionable at the beginning of the Victorian era.

Lady's Magazine, 1837.
Lady’s Magazine, 1837.

The 1837 edition of the Lady’s Magazine describes three popular styles that year (with accompanying plate above):

“The style of coiffure of the first three heads is precisely the same, the first being ornamented with a bandeau of pearls — the second which gives the coiffure in front with flowers, and the third likewise with flowers, giving the back of the other two.  The hair for this coiffure is brought in smooth bands, as low as possible, at the sides of the face, where after forming a kind of chignon at each side, it is turned up again (see plate); the back hair is tied very low, and formed into a single coque or bow, surrounded by braids and circles of hair, an ornamented arrow runs through the whole; three full blown white roses are placed at each side of the face.”

1850s and 1860s

Moving into the 1850s and 1860s, hairstyles were much less severe.  Hair became fuller and more feminine.  It was plaited, twisted into large rolls, or swept back into a chignon or a hairnet.  Hairnets, including the popularly advertised “Invisible Hair-Net,” were made of fine silk that was virtually indistinguishable from one’s natural hair.

Godey’s Lady’s Book, March 1864.

The 1864 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book provides an illustration of two typical 1860s hairstyles (see above plate).  Called the “Clarissa coiffure” and the “Morny headdress,” Godey’s writes:

“The Clarissa coiffure.  The hair is rolled off the face in front, and the ends braided.  The back hair is arranged in a large bow, very low on the neck, and covered with a net.  The ornaments are peacock feathers.

“The Morny headdress.  The hair is rolled over a cushion in front, and arranged in a waterfall at the back, round which is twisted a heavy plait.  The comb is of black velvet and gilt.  The coiffure is compose of black barbe and lilies of the valley.”

1870s and 1880s

Hairstyles in the 1870s were longer and fuller, thus necessitating greater use of hairpieces.  The 1873 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book includes an illustration of various coiffures, hairpieces, and decorative combs.  As you can see, hairpieces are pre-styled in rolls, plaits, or curls so that they can be easily pinned or combed into a lady’s existing coiffure where needed.

Godey's Lady's Book, 1873.
Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1873.

By the 1880s, hairstyles had grown higher.  The back and crown were often plaited, twisted, and coiled, sometimes into loops tied with ribbons.  The 1885 issue of the Domestic Monthly reports that “basket plaits” were also quite fashionable, as was the French twist.  The front of the hair was worn loosely waved or arranged into short curls or puffs.  It was also becoming popular to wear a fringe of hair (or bangs) cut across the forehead.  In Sylvia’s Book of the Toilet, the author addresses this somewhat controversial trend, writing:

“Some persons continue to consider it ‘fast’ to wear a fringe of hair on the forehead.  This is a mistake, for it has now become an almost universal custom to wear it, and what is general can never be ‘fast.’”

Basket Plaits, Domestic Monthly, 1885.

1890s through 1901

By the end of the Victorian era, hairstyles had reverted back to those intricate coiffures popular in the early 1830s.  An 1897 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book reports:

“The 1830 fashions in hair-dressing have been revived, and once more women will wear the elaborate puffs, curls, and crimps which were affected by the belles of that period.  This will necessitate the addition of false locks, and naturally the hair-dressers are encouraging the adoption of the extremely overloaded coiffure.  Tall combs, coronets, jeweled pins, and flowers will be added to the imposing structure, with besides plumes and aigrettes.”

The Weaker Sex by Charles Dana Gibson, 1900.
The Weaker Sex by Charles Dana Gibson, 1900.

These full, feminine styles, often appearing to be piled up on top of the head in voluptuous disarray, were typified by the hairstyle known as the “Gibson Girl.”  Inspired by the satirical cartoons of Charles Dana Gibson, the Gibson Girl hairstyle was all the rage during the 1890s and early 20th century.  In the above plate illustrated by Charles Gibson, you can see the classic Gibson Girl hairstyle.  The below portrait is of Gibson’s muse, Evelyn Nesbit, sporting a modified style with two ringlets draped artfully over one shoulder.

Portrait of Evelyn Nesbit, 1900.
Portrait of Evelyn Nesbit, 1900.

In Closing

It is impossible to cover every variety of Victorian hairstyle in a single article.  Nevertheless, I hope the above information and images have given you some insight into the hairstyles and hairdressing methods of ladies in the Victorian era.  And please remember: just because a hairstyle was described in a 19th century fashion magazine does not mean that the average Victorian woman wore her hair that way.  As in every era, there was a gulf between the fashions of the working class and those of the upper classes.  In addition, there were plenty of women (just as there are today) who kept the same hairstyle for decades.

**Author’s Note: This article was originally published on the English Historical Fiction Authors’ Blog in January.  It is the second in my series of Victorian Lady’s Guides.  You can click through to the other guides below. 

A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Hair Care

A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Skin Care

A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Perfume

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Blackwood’s Lady’s Magazine.  Vol. XV.  London: A. H. Blackwood, 1843.

“The Coiffure.”  The Domestic Monthly.  Vol. XXIII.  New York: Blake and Co., 1885.

Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine.  Vol. I.  London: S. O. Beeton, 1866.

Godey’s Lady’s Book.  Vol. 16 – 17.  Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1838. 

Godey’s Lady’s Book.  Vol. XXXIV.  Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1847.

Godey’s Lady’s Book.  Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1864.

Godey’s Lady’s Book.  Vol. CXXXV.  New York: Godey Co., 1897

Ladies’ Companion.  XXVIII.  London: Rogerson and Tuxford, 1865.

Lady’s Home Magazine.  Vol. XI.  Philadelphia: T. S. Arthur, 1858.  

Lady’s Magazine and Museum.  Vol. XI.  London: Dobbs & Co., 1837.

London Quarterly Review.  Vol. XXVII.  New York: Leonard Scott, 1846. 

Marsh, Madeleine.  Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day.  Barnsley: Remember When, 2009.

Sylvia’s Book of the Toilet: A Ladies’ Guide to Dress and Beauty with a Fund of Information of Importance to Gentlemen.  London: Ward, Lock, and Co., 1881.

Walker, Mrs. A.  Female Beauty, as Preserved and Improved by Regimen, Cleanliness and Dress.  New York: Scofield and Voorhies, 1840.


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25 Comments on "A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Hairdressing"

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Dorothy
Guest

When I read, “fold a piece of thin paper over the crimp, and the pinching iron may be used in safety,” I was reminded of “the hair came with the papers, and the horrified hairdresser laid a row of little scorched bundles on the bureau before her victim.” Judging the correct heat for the tongs must have been an art in itself!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I think it must have been. No doubt an experienced lady’s maid was familiar with heating curling tongs, but average young ladies on their own–like the March girls–would have run the risk of burning their hair off.

Shannon McEwan
Guest

I remember my mother meticulously collecting the hair from her hairbrush (her hair was quite long). I never really thought about why she did that. I’m wondering now whether it was something passed on by one of her grandmothers? (her mother – my grandmother- habitually had short hair set in a Marcel wave). Thank you for the article – and for the bibliography!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You’re very welcome, Shannon :) Women in the 20th century used rats to make some of the big rolled hairstyles of the 1940s, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the practice of saving hair was passed down to recent generations.

Sarah
Guest

Fascinating post! I did have to laugh when I saw the advert for Ivins’ Patent hair Crimpers. As my surname is Ivinson, I like to think that I must be descended from the genius behind the hair crimper, which would go a long way to explaining why I spent many years of my youth crimping my hair into a magnificent gravity-defying gothic bird’s nest of monumental proportion but questionable taste. Well, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it! ;)

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Ha! Just goes to show that hair crimpers and curling irons can damage your hair in more ways than one ;)

Angelyn
Guest

watch out for that arrow!

Thanks so much for this post!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You’re very welcome :) Isn’t that arrow a nonsensical hair accessory? It reminds me a bit of the odd things people put in their hair during the 18th century.

Dorothy
Guest

I don’t think it is any sillier than any other hair ornament. It was probably considered a reference to Cupid’s arrow.

Shannon McEwan
Guest

“Nothing says ‘sporty’ like an arrow in the hair…” Maybe. The Two Nerdy History Girls did a short piece a few years ago on the symbolism of arrow-hair-ornaments in the first half of the 19th century.

Sarah Waldock
Guest

I was wracking my brains [such as they are at the moment] for where I’d seen the article on arrows. Glad you remembered!

Sarah Waldock
Guest

I recall reading in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books of how she made a ‘hair receiver’ for her Ma to make what she referred to as a ‘switch’ from, to add to her hair. One of Laura’s friends wore a switch, and Laura prevented that young lady’s beau from finding out when he was pulling out pins by making the horses misbehave. Laura herself cut a ‘bang’ or fringe, initially to her mother’s horror, her mother having also been brought up to consider it unladylike to show the ears.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

That scene you describe with Laura Ingalls Wilder, reminds me of a similar scene in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure where, on his wedding night, Jude is horrified to see his new bride removing large pieces of false hair from her head. I’m amazed more men didn’t realize that 19th century ladies were using false hair pieces.

Sarah Waldock
Guest

not just the Victorians, there’s a regency cartoon, I believe by Cruikshank, of a woman making herself young and beautiful from a hairless, toothless old harridan… which of course I can’t find to link to, just because I want it…

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I’ve seen that cartoon! I hate to think how accurate it might have been…

Sarah Waldock
Guest

hopefully exaggerated in putting all false aids to beauty on one woman…

Diana Belchase
Guest

You write such beautiful posts, Mimi. Your detailed research is very appreciated.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks so much for your kind words, Diana :)

jessey
Guest

those hairstyle look elegant
thank Mimi, you made a very good article

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks for commenting, Jessey :) I’m glad you enjoyed my article!

Vickie
Guest

Beautifully done Mimi – so many ways of making your hair your true crowning glory – and thank you so much for reminding me of the ‘Gibson Girl’ – I wore my hair this way when I got married and I felt beautiful.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You’re very welcome :) I’m so glad you enjoyed my article — and that it brought back such happy memories!

authorangelabell
Guest

Such fascinating information! That remark about bangs being considered “fast” made me chuckle. My how times and styles change. :-)

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I thought that quote was interesting, too :) It’s hard to imagine a time when bangs were controversial!

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