Hair styling is not one of my talents, so, logically, one would assume that I might turn to wigs to make up for my skill deficit…until, of course, you hand me a wig…
Part of my problem is that wearing and caring for a wig still requires some level of hair competency and, frankly, I just am not a wig person. I am a hat person. A hat/bonnet/veil covers a multitude of hair sins!
She may or may not be wearing a giant plastic claw clip and three glittery butterfly barrettes underneath…
However, there are a few eras when hairdos outshone (or overshadowed) the hats. One of those eras is the 1870s. If you love fancy hair and lots of it, the 1870s is the decade for you!
The 1870s were all about big hair, big curls, big braids, and big lies. Fake hair was pretty much required for a properly full 1870s look. Most fashion-conscious women owned at least one switch of hair that wasn’t theirs. Indeed, nearly every fashionable hairstyle involved different hair extensions lie tiny curled frizzettes (fuzzy, short bangs) or even huge braids and entire chignons made of someone else’s hair:
Variety of fashionable hairstyles and the hair extensions (called switches) used to create them, circa 1867.
Ten illustrations of different types of wigs and hair pieces, Revue de la Coiffure, circa 1875
There were also all manner of Victorian hair “hacks” invented to help create the elaborate updos in vogue, not unlike all the “As Seen On TV” bun makers and curling contraptions we have today.
Hair dressing combs from Revue de la Coiffure, circa 1878
These combs were sold with instruction pamphlets so ladies and their maids could create stunning hairstyles with “less effort.” I can feel my hair knotting up just looking at them!
A later Edwardian ad for Hair Switches and Chignon Forms from a 1912 Sears, Roebuck, and Co. catalog
As my Simplicity 4244 Natural Form Era project inched closer to completion, I realized that I was going to have to do SOMETHING with my hair in order to properly top off my new 1870s outfit. Hair can really make a or break an outfit, especially a historical one. I wanted to do Simplicity 4244 proper justice, and, honestly, crazy-huge hair has always been my unattainable dream. I figured it was time to give some proper historical hairstyling a try!
I assessed my skills: I could make a high pony tail and I could curl it. Oh, and I could use one of those mesh donuts to make a smooth faux bun, like I did for the DFW Costumers Guild’s outing to Dracula:
Confession: Christopher actually curled my hair. I just stood there and wept silently at my ineptitude.
Since then, I have learned to operate the curling iron on my own, so now I can make passable spiral curls! Huzzah! I also learned the value of sectioning hair, like parting it from side to side and dividing it to make simple braids. It all sounds so ridiculously basic writing it down, but considering I struggled to make a high “Barbie” ponytail for years, the skills many women take or granted are huge victories for me! With these few triumphs under my belt, I found inspiration in both historical and modern hair tutorials:
“Details d’une coiffure en cheveun” hairstyle guide from 1873
Explicación del peinado a dos cogas (Guide for a hairstyle with two rolls), circa 1866, from La Moda Elegante
Modern bridal hairstyles like this one by Ulyana Aster (especially with hair jewels), remind me of Empress Sissi’s hair.
Many of the tutorials I found were for women with thick, textured/curly, or extra-long hair. My natural hair is thin and slick, but fairly plentiful. It is all the same length and doesn’t hold curl really well, but will make a nasty knot in an instant (teasing is not my friend).
24 hours after cowashing and air drying in the Great Texas Blow-Dryer (sweltering sunshine and western wind). It’s not a dream to style, but it is now much easier to work with than before I began cowashing and using homemade dry shampoo, which more closely mimic historical hair care methods.
With a little experimenting, I came up with an 1870s hairdo that can be done in less than 30 minutes, alone, with minimal tools and techniques. I figured there must be other ladies out there that struggle with historical hair, so I shut myself in my horribly lit bathroom for half an hour to make a photo tutorial.
My hair is below-shoulder length right now, but the method I came up with will work for shoulder length hair, too.
General Hairstyle Suitable for 1867-1880
You will need:
1 ponytail tie/elastic
1 smaller hair elastic
A curling iron
Hair pins, bobby pins, or a snap clip
Step 1: Brush your hair back into a smooth, high ponytail at your crown and secure it with a hair tie.
You can experiment with the height of your ponytail so it works best for your hair length and comfort. If you choose to wear a hat/cap/bonnet, make sure it will sit properly over the ponytail. You might need to raise/lower it accordingly.
Step 2: Divide your ponytail into two sections–top and bottom– and bundle the top section together with a hair elastic.
The top part of your ponytail will become the twist and the bottom part will become the falling curls. Divide the hair according to your preference. Dividing it evenly in half will result in a fuller top twist. Taking only a third of the ponytail for the top will result in a fuller set of curls in the back.
Step 3: Curl the bottom section of your ponytail into ringlets.
For best results, use a 3/4 inch or smaller curling iron. Mine is 3/4 of an inch and it is about as large as you can go for good period ringlets. Curling irons in the era were generally smaller or women would use rag curls, another option is you have the time. Here are some photos showing Late 1860s-1870s falling curls in a few different sizes and styles: large and tumbling, medium and neat, and small and tight.
Step 4: Twist (or braid) the top section of your ponytail.
To get a nice, pretty loop, I loosely twisted the top section. If you have fuller/longer hair, this section would look extra fancy braided. Braids were all the rage during the 1870s– the bigger, the better!
Step 5: Loosely loop the top section around the back of the ponytail and secure the end in front/underneath.
This sounds tricky, but it’s really more complicated to type/photograph than to actually do. You just drape the twisted top section over the curls in the back, making a nice, languid loop. Then secure and hide the ends. I used a snap clip to secure mine, but a more subtle and period-correct method would be to use hairpins or bobby pins. If your hair is really long, you might even be able to loop it twice or make a bun!
And that’s the end of my basic 1870s style!
You could stop here, or add a decorative comb or some flowers to dress it up. The style is very similar to this lady’s, especially if you separate the ringlets a bit with your fingers:
Kate Beckinsale…Is that you?!
However, I felt that my hair was a little too smooth and flat to look really 1870s-chic, so I decided to buy a hairpiece!
My first idea was to buy a fancy bun cover, like these:
Big braided buns are so totally 1870s that I just KNEW that if I could get one, I would look so incredibly fabulous that clouds would part, angels sing, and unicorns would frolic around me! However, I was dangerously close to my event deadline and most of these glorious chignons are only available directly from China. I couldn’t find a braided bun sold by a US seller, but I did find a large, curly one I thought might work okay and the seller advertised that their stock was shipped from the US and could arrive in 3-5 days.
After placing my order, I got an apologetic email informing me that they actually didn’t stock my color in the US despite what the listing said, so it shipped directly from China anyway. I was miffed that I paid extra money for this style because I thought it was US stock, only to have it ship from China like the fancier, less-expensive versions I actually wanted. My order did arrive in time, though, BUT, it was nothing like the color in the picture! It was waaaaaay too dark. I think they sent me the next color down.
The one on the left is the color I ordered (light brown). The one on the right is closer to the color I received (dark brown).
So close, and yet so far!
So I paid more and waited longer for an item that I couldn’t use. I was disappointed to say the least– and rather heartbroken because I had invested so much hope into it, dreaming of solving my historical hair woes for good. Honestly, it is a super cute hairpiece that could have worked so well if it had been the right color!
After so much anticipation only to have my hopes dashed, I was really worried I wouldn’t find a good hairpiece in time for the event.
Still, I knew I needed something to complete my hair. I crossed my fingers and bought a little curly wiglet from Jamie’s Hair World on eBay. They assured me that they were US based (my item shipped immediately from California), and my item would arrive in a week. They were right!
Doesn’t it look like a hairy cell phone cover? It’s about the right size and shape!
My camera sucks at capturing true colors in the awful florescent light of my room. The color is accurate to the color chart’s “Medium Golden Brown.” It is synthetic hair and is not overtly shiny. The texture is what I would call “quality Halloween wig,” not particularly soft, but not crunchy.
Before I show you how it looks on, here’s the main listing picture:
The picture does not lie. You can make a pretty darn sexy mullet with it:
This is fresh out of the package with no fluffing or styling which is why I call it my “curl loaf.”
While it might seem hideously wrong for the period, this wiglet is perfect for late Victorian hairstyles. Victorians loved big, curly bangs just as much as party girls in the 1980s! According to an article from 1894, full, curly bangs like this were called “Titus” bangs and were available as hairpieces just like mine (see Figure 31). If the Jamie’s wig model above just curled her “party in the back,” she’d be a dead ringer for the Victorian Goddess of Curly Bangs, actress Sarah Bernhardt!
If you collect Victorian Photographs on Pinterest, I can guarantee you that, at some point, you have seen or even pinned a photograph of Ms. Bernhardt. If by some miracle you haven’t, this webpage is full of her photos and portraits. Go forth and adore!
So despite its dubious appearance, the reason I chose this little wiglet is that it’s extremely versatile. Besides being worn as bangs, the pictures also show it styled as a curly chignon:
And I decided to place mine at the top of my head to give my otherwise flat hair the tall, voluminous look of classic 1870s hair.
Unlike many hairpieces which have only a few basic color choices, Jamie’s Hair World offers this hairpiece in over 20 hair colors! My hair does this funky natural ombre thing–brown at the roots that lightens to strawberry blonde– so I didn’t quite know which color would work best for me. Since I was going to wear this nearer to my roots, I chose the Medium Golden Brown. It was a good match!
It’s super easy to put on. You just snap the little bottom combs open and clip them shut into your hair. Mine stayed perfectly in place through a whole evening in theater under my heavy tiara and didn’t budge all day in the blustery Texas wind at the Cowgirl Museum.
As I said, I’m not very adept at working with hair or wigs, so the addition of a small hat instantly hides any of my styling shortcomings and completes the look.
This wiglet is quick, easy, and works exactly as I wanted it to. The color match was true to life as were the product pictures. As a bonus, I caught mine on sale for $15, though it is currently priced at $18 including shipping, a little more expensive than other hairpieces directly from China, but the color choices, quality assurance, and quick domestic shipping are wonderful perks. The styling and texture are very convincing in real life even with my lack of styling skills. Overall, I would give this Mona Lisa Wiglet from Hair World by Jamie a very satisfying 4.5 out of 5 rating! The perfect hairpiece for beginners!