by Denise Weimer
As a researcher of mainly 1800s fashion – whose Colonial writing so far has focused on the frontier – I confess to harboring a curiosity of ignorance on the subject of 1700s high court fashions. Chiefly, the opulent ladies’ hairdos. Anyone else willing to admit the same? Let’s explore this quirky topic together, and for those experts among us, please feel free to add interesting tid-bits in the comments section. This post will focus on maintenance and basic style, while my April post will delve more into decoration.
My initial survey on big hair of the 1770s uncovered some pertinent basic information. As expected, fashion tended to flow from France to England. Simpler 1750s fashions like tête de mouton (“sheep’s head”) with tight curls in rows on top gave way to more egg-shaped creations in the 1760s. By the next decade, a much taller, pyramid shape prevailed. The opulence of style served to balance the wide paniers of the skirts. While men of the 1700s often wore full wigs, women employed partial wigs or false hair heaped on padding or toques constructed of fabric or cork. These forms might be shaped like a heart or spear.
Maintenance of the tresses included irregular washing with just water or soap. The drying effects of the soap sometimes required pomade for shine. Mostly, pomatum (animal fat plus fragrances – one recipe called for mutton fat, pig lard, essence of lemon and clove oil) was worked in, then power was added. A wealthy person might use finely ground starch of beef or sheep bones plus orris root for scent (The Toilet of Flora, 1772), while a poor person might make do with corn or wheat flour. Professional powder application included the use of a bellows and face mask and smock.
While stories of careless hussies sleeping in their ‘dos using large pins and night caps for days on end gave rise to rumors of mice and vermin invaders, a conscientious lady probably did her hair daily. With a good ladies’ maid or coiffeur, this process should have taken no more time than a modern application of blow dryer or curling iron.
Some online sources consulted: Démodé: Historical Costume Projects & Research Sources, Specializing in the 18th Century, “Women’s Hairstyles & Cosmetics of the 18th Century: France & England, 1750-1790. Two Nerdy History Girls Blog, “The Truth about the Big Hair of the 1770s,” August 18, 2015. On Pins and Needles Blog, “Le Pouf: Fashion and Social Satire in the 1770s-1780s,” by Landis Lee, February 1, 2012.