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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.’”
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.”
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.
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.
Godey’s Lady’s Book. Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1864.
© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews
For exclusive information on upcoming book releases, giveaways, and other special treats, subscribe to Mimi’s Quarterly Newsletter by clicking the link below.