Nitty-Gritty Gibson Girl: Fluffing Flat Hair without Rats or Hairspray

March 27, 2014

From Capellini to Fusilli!

Hair is the hardest part of costuming for me. It’s an essential component for any full look, yet it escapes me. My family is low-maintenance, so we never bothered with fancy hairdos. My father has naturally wavy hair, but my sister and I both inherited our mother’s soft, but decidedly fine and straight hair. Truthfully (as my long-suffering mother can attest), I didn’t even let anyone put my hair up in so much as a ponytail until I was in third grade and then it never came down again. Down and wild or ponytailed and smooth has always been my modus operandi. Doing anything else with it is a lot of hassle for a hairdo that will go limp in a few minutes even with half a can of hairspray flooding it from root to tip.

The Dream


The Reality

I have practiced more over the years, but curls, puffs, rats, and hair products remain firmly out of my realm of expertise. The curling iron laughs at me. Pincurls don’t stay curled. A perm is a distant dream.  So what can a stright-fine-greasy-yet-dry hair girl like me do to create all the fluff a stylish historical vixen needs? Braids, baby! Braiding your hair to get the needed volume is an old trick from the days before mousse and hairdryers.

Enid Bennet, circa 1920
Frizz is your friend!

I like having my hair braided. However, I can’t wait to undo them because when I take braids out, I get full-on poodle fluff! They give you that frizzy, fly-away volume that works perfectly for 18th century and Edwardian hairstyles!


I took this picture after wearing two braided pigtails all day.

What follows is my slap-dash Gibson Girl Pouf experiment.
This method works best for hair that is shoulder-length or longer. It’s by no means a perfect system since it started as an experiment, so keep that in mind. What works for me may not work for your hair, but it’s worth a try if you’ve also struggled with the puff!

 I have a very firm center part (naturally) and years of wearing a ponytail has trained my hair to fall back and flat. This causes my hair to gap around rats and flop around my ears. It’s also oily– yes, I have tried all the treatments; I’m just naturally that way– and smooth, so pins don’t stay in for long. Recalling the miraculous fluff of my post-braided hair, I decided to perform an experiment. To retrain my hair, I braided it upwards, towards my face. That’s key to getting volume into the roots. I did that to my whole head, braiding up and forward.

101_8162YAY! I did illustrations!
(because I honestly and for true didn’t expect this to work, so I didn’t take many pictures)

The point of these braids isn’t to create neat little plaits for day wear, so looks don’t matter.


Thank heavens!

I did the front half of my head in four sections: front (bangs), sides, and crown. The back I braided and smooshed into a vaguely bun-like shape. To keep my sexy braids in check, I coiled them into mini buns.



Thus making them even sexier.

If you can braid your hair wet, then do it that way. I don’t like messing with wet hair. Wet just makes it more tangly. Instead, I braided my hair then took a hot shower to soak it. After that, I tackled some projects for a few hours until my hair was dry enough that it wouldn’t sop the pillow. Then I went to bed.

I have (tried) sleeping in curlers and pin curls before and found it impossible. I thought that the giant bulky braidy-buns would be bothersome, but aside from the neighbor’s decision to practice drums at 2 am, I slept well.

My hair was still damp in the morning. If you have a blowdryer, you can dry your hair that way, but I don’t have one at the moment. Instead, I entertained the neighbors by sitting out on the front porch eating yogurt. They have become accustomed to my weirdness, I believe, and didn’t bat an eye.

Once your braids are dry, you can follow almost any of the many Gibson Girl pouf tutorials, including adding rats and hairpieces for even more volume. My method uses your own hair as a “rat” and involves no back-combing (teasing) because brushing out back-combed hair is the devil. I didn’t take any pictures of the adventure that occurred after the braids had finally dried. Hair is challenging enough without wrangling a camera one-handed at the same time:

Illustrations to the rescue!


First, undo the braid at your crown. Comb it gently to fluff it up. Clip a bobby pin to the ends (or a small elastic) and roll it. This roll is going to act as your “rat,” so it doesn’t need to be perfect. For a Gibson Girl pouf that puffs over your forehead, pin the roll close behind your front braid. If you want height at the crown for 18th century styles, place the roll further back. You could also add a seperate rat into this roll to puff it up even more.101_8165

Once you’ve got the crown roll secure, undo your front braid and comb it gently to fluff it. Roll and secure it behind the crown roll.101_8166

Undo and fluff your side braids, rolling and arranging them to your liking behind your top roll.101_8168

Make a bun with your remaining hair if you haven’t already. Finally, chocolate time!

Here are my results:


Doing my best “Dracula” face. I was trying to do the fang-over-the-lip look, then remembered that Van Helsing may still be out there…better to just smile oddly and hope he doesn’t notice…

My Gibson’s fluffy and messy because OMG I HAVE POOF AND I WANT IT ALL!

I was more concerned with retraining my hair to stop lying flat than I was with how neat and tidy every hair was. The retraining was a sucess! My hair will actually stand up on its own and support itself!

I didn’t use hairspray or anything on it and it still looked decent three hours later:



Here I’ve undone the bun and let the back down for a softer look.

I am obviously not a hair expert, but for a first try experiment, I am so pleased! This method requires a lot of preparation, but now that I know it works, I can work on refining it. A hairdryer would make life sooooo much easier…

The key to a good hairdo, especially some of the more complex historical styles, is finding what works for you. There are all types of hair, all sorts of styles to choose from, and different skill levels for each. Some people are naturally adept at the art of coiffures. Others (like me) would rather focus on other things. Experimentation is the best way to figure out what will work for you!


More Gibson Girl Tutorials:

Edwardian Hair Mysteries Solved – Part 4 – Beginning Styling

The Seamstress of Avalon: Gibson Girl Hair: A Tutorial


This braiding method also works perfectly for Regency and 1880s hairdos if you have bangs, fluffy styles of the 17th century, and frizzy Elizabethan poofs if ringlets refuse to cooperate. Even guys can get in on the act (Shakespeare Pouf, anyone?).

Hint: The more/smaller/tighter you make your braids, the more fluff you can achieve.

6 Responses to “Nitty-Gritty Gibson Girl: Fluffing Flat Hair without Rats or Hairspray”

  1. Nancy N Says:

    Fabulous, PC! If you want even more volume, you can try my cheat–I took an old skinny dynel braid that no longer matched and used that as my “rat-roll” crown wise around my head and brushed my frizzled locks back up over it to make a pouffy bun. Lasted all day and looked grand under a leghorn hat!

  2. Melanie S. Says:

    This is wonderful! I have hair exactly like yours–fine, soft, slippery, oily roots/ends damage easily, so I put it up all the time. But, when in costume for my first-person history programs, I struggle to get an authentic look for c.1895-1898. I use a hairpiece to add volume as I have been growing it out from shoulder-length for several years. It is now almost halfway down my back (needs to be trimmed every 4 weeks or else!), but the volume just isn’t there no matter how long I’ve ever had it over my lifetime, even when it was to my waist. Your tutorial is giving me hope. I have used a version of your braiding trick, which I find works best in the humid weather, but I didn’t go to the extent of braiding UPWARDS. I think that may be the crucial difference. Thank you so much for writing this.

  3. Loved all your photos – the funny ones and the pretty ones and you do look so pretty in your lovely hairstyle with all the flowers.

  4. Great article! I have the same hair and will definitely try this myself.

  5. Leia Tilton Says:

    Liz, this article was exactly what I needed! I am not as adapt at sewing as you just yet but I have some fun items I have purchased on sale from various sites to get me by as I improve with my sewing. My outfits typically come together rather nicely, except the hair! Most recently I have been doing a simple bun but keeping it flat and boring on top and loser around the lower sides and bottom so it looks somewhat acceptable for 1890-1900’s under my favorite straw skimmer. This process works well enough for under a hat but I have have not been able to manage any updo’s sans hat! So, I am so very eager to try your braiding idea!!
    And speaking of being weird and causing neighbors to scratch their heads in wonderfof the wacky girl next door… Try not only wearing corsets daily, Victorian attire at least once a week for regular outings, errands, etc, but doing all that with pink, purple and blue hair!! Hehe. ;-)

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