Saturday, April 3, 2010

18th c. French hairstyles for women

While men wore wigs in 18th c. France, they were outdone many times over by the women, whose headdresses reached a ridiculous extravagance - and rose to a height of 3 feet! Technically, these were not wigs, but their natural hair supplemented by extensions. These tall coiffures were often modelled over cage frames or horsehair pads, and were heavily scented, starched, and powdered. They were decorated with ribbons, feathers, flowers, beads, jewelry, silk, lace, and figurines made of fabric or papier maché. They caused headaches, from the weight during the day, presumably, but also by requiring women to sleep in awkward positions. And they were fire hazards. The time it took to create them meant that weeks went by between stylings - during which women had to protect their headpieces from infestation by vermin! In contrast to mice nesting in the horsehair, the presence of birds was occasionally invited: occupied birdcages, garden scenes, and model ships were incorporated into some designs. One of the best-known was called À la Belle Poule, and commemorated the victory of a French frigate over an English ship in 1778, which began the French involvement in the American War of Independence. French queen Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) was known to have worn her hair styled as a vegetable garden and a scene in support of the smallpox vaccination. A duchess was said to have worn portraits of her 5 children in her hair, and another woman's coif carried a replica of her husband's tombstone.

These elaborate themed hairdos - popular in the courts of French kings Louis XV (1710-1774) and Louis XVI (1754-1793) - became symbolic of the decadence of the French nobility. Distrust of things Continental led English women, who at first eagerly copied them, to disdain these styles. Writers editorialized and engravers satirized. The "vertical climb"* of hairstyles was caricatured with a man taking shelter under one, hunters shooting at a flock of birds nesting in another, and other images of the hair dwarfing the woman it is meant to decorate. There was much to poke fun at, since stylists had to use ladders, doorways had to be heightened, and women were forced to stick their heads out the window when riding in a carriage - and were forced to forgo the theater altogether. Meanwhile, peasants starved as the flour they needed to bake bread was diverted to powder hair. This inconvenient trend had passed by the 1790s...

*Even if you follow no other links, do look at this one!

1 comment:

  1. Mme. Quigley you did it again! I just put the finishing touches on a beheaded courtesan doll in a topheavy powdered wig, with Versailles gardens in the background. Uncanny timing.


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