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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Big Hair in 18th Century France

In writing Refiner’s Fire, book 6 of my American Patriot Series, I’ve been doing a lot of research on fashion so I can describe my characters’ look accurately. While Jonathan Carleton is temporarily back among the Shawnee in this installment of the story, the woman he loves, Elizabeth Howard, is in France, the ultimate fashion center in the second half of the 18th century. So today let’s take a look at the hairstyles that were de rigeur in that country at that time. In my next post, we’ll take a look at
makeup—another fun topic for us ladies.

What was the ideal of feminine hair in the 18th century? The preference was for wavy or curly hair that was black, brown, or blonde. The latter was especially fashionable while Marie-Antoinette was queen, during the period when Refiner’s Fire is set. Chestnut and strawberry blonde were also popular colors, though bright red hair was unfashionable and was usually dyed a more acceptable color.

Marie Antoinette
We often think of wigs being the height of fashion in the 18th century, but they were primarily worn by men, not women, whose hair was supposed to appear  more “natural.” The tête de mouton (or “sheep’s head”) style shown in the portrait above was most popular in France in the 1750s and early 1760s. Actually, I think it’s adorable!! It featured defined twists of curls that were arranged in rows across the front and top of the head, and generally was powdered.

In the 1760s height began to be added, generally about 1/4 to 1/2 the length of the face and egg shaped. In the mid to late 1770s, during the time of my series, really big hair became all the rage, with a height of 1 to 1 1/2 times the length of the face and styled in a shape that looks pretty much like a hot air balloon, like the example at right. This effect was created using toques—cushions—made of fabric, cork, wool, tow, hemp, cut hair, or wire attached to the top of the head. The natural hair was curled, waved, or frizzed (ratted), pomaded and powdered, and piled over and around the cushion, then ribbons, pearls, jewels, flowers, feathers, ships, birdcages, and other items that evoked a theme were added. Below is a fun video that will give you some idea of how these hairstyles were created. These elaborate creations could be worn for days or weeks at a time. Imagine dancing, walking around, or even going to bed with that on your head!


Obviously professional hairdressers—coiffeurs—became a necessity if one was to achieve just the right look. It must have taken hours just to have your hair styled, makeup applied, and clothing put on. But the toilette, or dressing, had an important function for women of the royal, aristocratic, and even high-level bourgeois classes in France. It was a daily ceremony performed in front of privileged persons, with the lever being the men’s equivalent.

Then there’s the matter of hair powder. White wigs originally became popular among the higher classes because they were expensive and rare. Originally used primarily as a degreaser, white hair powder began to be used to color both wigs and natural hair since it caused less damage than dyes. The powder was made from a variety of materials, with the poorest quality being corn or wheat flour, and the highest finely milled starch filtered through a sieve. Generally it was white, but it also came in brown, grey, orange, pink, red, blue, and violet, all colors that would be equally at home on heads today. Keep in mind that when white powder is applied to dark hair, it results in shades ranging from light to dark grey, not the bright white of the costume wigs you see in films. And when it’s applied to very light hair, it produces a brighter blonde effect. As shown at left, the person was covered with a cone-shape face mask and a fabric smock, and the powder was applied to the hair or wig with a bellows. A puff was used for touchups, and a knife for removal—how that was done, I have no idea!

Well, hasn’t this been interesting! Wouldn’t you just love to go through a dressing ceremony every day in front of an audience? Or are you grateful that we don’t live in that day and age? Please share your thoughts!
~~~
J. M. Hochstetler is the daughter of Mennonite farmers and a lifelong student of history. She is also an author, editor, and publisher. Her American Patriot Series is the only comprehensive historical fiction series on the American Revolution. Northkill, Book 1 of the Northkill Amish Series coauthored with Bob Hostetler, won Foreword Magazine’s 2014 Indie Book of the Year Bronze Award for historical fiction. Book 2, The Return, received the 2017 Interviews and Reviews Silver Award for Historical Fiction and was named one of Shelf Unbound’s 2018 Notable Indie Books. One Holy Night, a contemporary retelling of the Christmas story, was the Christian Small Publishers 2009 Book of the Year and a finalist in the Carol Award.

12 comments:

  1. Great post and I enjoyed that tutorial, too! It males my head itch to think of how dirty their hair and scalps could become.

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  2. Oh, that's the truth, Debra! I remember how in the big hair days of the 1960s when I was in high school girls would rat up their hair, cement it with hairspray, and sometimes leave it in for a week. There were rumors about roaches and other critters being found in some of them! ACK!! Thanks for stopping by!

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  3. Fun post, Joan. Now I need to take my curlers out and fix my rather pedestrian hairstyle.

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    1. Well, our pedestrian hairstyles are a whole lot easier in our busy lives than going through all that, Janet. Add getting dressed and putting on makeup, it have taken at least all morning to get ready for the day back then!

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  4. Boy, so glad that's not the fashion now days! We'd all be "ducking" to get in the door! I wonder if Elizabeth wore her hair like that? NO! No! don't tell if she did!
    Sigh! I'm still waiting!

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    1. I totally agree, Bev! Bue we have our follies too. What women will do in the name of fashion. lol! Ain't tellin' about Elizabeth, but I am hurrying to get Refiner's Fire done, and you'll be the first to get a copy. :-)

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  5. Wonderful, fun post Joan!

    Whew, I cannot imagine having to go threw that everyday, or for a fancy ball/dinner! Or to walk or dance with all those items piled on top of all that big-hair!

    When I was a teenager in the late 1960's-1970's, teasing hair high was pretty popular. I teased the top of my hair, if I had the time, but not too puffy.

    Blessings, Tina

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    1. Hey, Tina, thanks for stopping by. I remember those days too. Never did tease my hair as I didn't like the look, but I admit I did go to some trouble to tame my curly locks--vainly--to get the straight look that came afterwards. What we'll do for style!! We're never satisfied. Lol!

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  6. I remember talking about those hairstyles harboring critters in my Jr. High history class ( to a cute boy) and being reprimanded by the teacher for whispering. That was in the early 60’s.

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    1. How funny, Paula! Love that story, especially since it involved a cute boy. LOL!! I was disciplined for whispering when I was in 1st grade by being banished to sit outside the classroom door--and the principal came by and asked why I was out there! How humiliating--but it didn't stop me from whispering again! Unfortunately, no cute boys were involved. :-(

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  7. Great blog post! I also enjoyed the video. What an ordeal!

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  8. Always wondered how they did these styles! Great Video also!
    I can remember my Mama teasing her hair to get the volume up in it and what a mess to undo!
    Linda Marie Finn
    Faithful Acres Books
    faithfulacresbooks@gmail.com

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