A Simple Coiffure: Basic Hairstyles for Victorian Women of Moderate Means

Hair styled with a center parting and plaits.
(An Embroidery Lesson by Gustave Leonard de Jonghe, 1864.)

For balls and other formal events, fashionable women of the early 1860s often arranged their hair in elaborate styles with artificial tufts, pads, and false plaits. On a day-to-day basis, however, Victorian women of more moderate means stuck to more practical styles. These styles included firmly pinned plaits, simple chignons, and rolls bound up in a hair net or secured with a ribbon. In today’s post, we take a brief look at some of these styles, specifically those which feature in my Victorian romance novel The Lost Letter.

At the beginning of my novel, the heroine, Sylvia Stafford, is working as a governess. She has no lady’s maid to assist her with her hair, nor does she have the time in the mornings to arrange her tresses in an intricate style. Instead, Sylvia and others like her would generally roll their hair into a simple chignon worn at the nape of their neck or twist it into a plain coil or intertwined sections of plaits.

The July 1860 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book describes a simple coiffure comprised of four, intertwined sections of plaits. To create this style, the hair was divided first from “the centre of the forehead to the nape of the neck” and then by “a transverse parting” made from ear to ear. With the hair in four equally divided sections, the two sides of the front were then plaited back from the forehead. The two sides of the back were plaited as well, with the plait beginning “just above the ear.”

A hairstyle of tightly pinned plaits was perfect for a Victorian governess.
(Plaited Coiffure, Godey’s Lady’s Book, July 1860.)

With the four plaits in place, all that was left was to secure them together. As Godey’s explains:

“The plait of back hair on the right hand side is passed across the nape of the neck, and the end fastened by a hair pin, under the root of the plait on the left side. The plait of the left side of the back hair is brought round to the right side, and fastened in the same manner; and thus the two plaits cross each other at the back of the neck. The plaits of the front hair are then brought round to the back of the neck, where the ends are fastened under the crossing of the plaits of back hair.”

A tightly plaited, well-pinned hairstyle could last throughout a busy work day. It not only served to keep one’s hair out of the way, but also to keep it clean and tidy. Plaits were generally unobtrusive, especially when bound close to the head. An employer was less likely to object to them than to clusters of curls or a more fashionable padded roll (styles which might lead a governess or companion to be accused of “putting on airs”).

Victorian ladies often styled their hair in simple chignons or coiled or interwoven plaits.
(Petit Courrier des Dames, 1861.)

A simple chignon or “bun” was another option for the Victorian lady of more moderate means. All that was needed was a handful of pins. For added security, the bun could be covered with a fine, silk hair net. During the 1860s, “invisible” hair nets were available. Made in the same colours as a lady’s hair, invisible hair nets were a practical, everyday way to keep stray hairs in place without appearing gaudy or ostentatious. They were also quite suitable for keeping the hair out of the way during athletic endeavours. In The Lost Letter, for example, Sylvia wears an invisible hair net when she goes riding.

Hair nets were ideal for riding and other sports.
(Lady’s Riding Habit, Les Modes Parisiennes, 1860.)

I hope the above has given you some idea of how ladies of the 1860s wore their hair on an everyday basis. For information on more elaborate styles, please see my article on Fashionable Coiffures of 1863.

Mimi Matthews is the USA Today bestselling author of The Matrimonial Advertisement, The Pug Who Bit Napoleon, and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law.

Sources

Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. London: S. O. Beeton, 1860.

Godey’s Lady’s Book. Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1860.

The Ladies’ Home Magazine. Philadelphia: T. S. Arthur & Co., 1859.

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John Eyre
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From USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews comes a supernatural Victorian gothic retelling of Charlotte Brontë’s timeless classic.

Yorkshire, 1843. When disgraced former schoolmaster John Eyre arrives at Thornfield Hall to take up a position as tutor to two peculiar young boys, he enters a world unlike any he’s ever known. Darkness abounds, punctuated by odd bumps in the night, strange creatures on the moor, and a sinister silver mist that never seems to dissipate. And at the center of it all, John’s new employer–a widow as alluring as she is mysterious.

Sixteen months earlier, heiress Bertha Mason embarked on the journey of a lifetime. Marriage wasn’t on her itinerary, but on meeting the enigmatic Edward Rochester, she’s powerless to resist his preternatural charm. In letters and journal entries, she records the story of their rapidly-disintegrating life together, and of her gradual realization that Mr. Rochester isn’t quite the man he appears to be. In fact, he may not be a man at all.

From a cliff-top fortress on the Black Sea coast to an isolated estate in rural England, John and Bertha contend with secrets, danger, and the eternal struggle between light and darkness. Can they help each other vanquish the demons of the past? Or are some evils simply too powerful to conquer?

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Wendy
Wendy
3 years ago

I’m afraid this is one area of Victorian style that I could never adopt. I always prefer to wear my hair down, not up and back!

paper doll
paper doll
3 years ago

Fab post as always, Mimi. Thank you for keeping this history known and in such well done manner.. The importance of bonnets for middle class and shawls for the working class, to cover their heads when out, can’t be over stated; particularly for the latter, who had time to fix their hair ? …but also one could not appear out and about with an uncovered head , you would be thought mad.lol

My copy of “The Lost Letter ” is finally on its way!…yay!

Lora M
Lora M
3 years ago

What an awesome post. I love that no small detail is too small for you to research and include in your writing. Thank you for sharing!

Nicol Valentin
Nicol Valentin
3 years ago

The twisted braids are gorgeous! I wonder if it worked with curly hair?

New Natural Hairstyles
New Natural Hairstyles
3 years ago

I don’t know it before reading this article. Thank you for posting.

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