Lifting Skirts and Loosening Ties: What goes under an Edwardian Dress?

It takes lots of work (and layers) to look this fabulous!

Lovely Lady wearing the latest French fashions, circa 1905-1906

I am undeniably addicted to eBay, especially when it comes to antique garment shopping! Well, recently, due to temperatures in southern New Mexico hovering around 85°F, I’ve been admiring the lighter side of fashion: Edwardian summer dresses. We’ve all seen those lovely white Edwardian gowns covered in tiny pin-tucks or frilled with lace. Many of them are quite sheer and would be quite scandalous without something underneath! Of course, all the young ladies weren’t running around in see-through gowns. No matter how sheer an extant dress may seem, showing this much skin in public was out of the question:

(image originally from Vintage Textile, but the listing has since been removed)

So, if Edwardian didn’t “flaunt what their mamas gave ’em”  in these unlined sheer dresses, what did they wear?


Lots of pretty, frilly, fluffy, fabulous layers!

H&W Co. Wedding Ensemble Corset, Chemise, and Drawers, circa 1903

Firstly, an Edwardian lady would have donned a camisole or chemise to line her corset (ladies didn’t wear their corsets against bare skin) and a pair of drawers. Edwardians adored lace and pin-tucks and already you can see that obsession begins the moment a lady puts on her underthings! Along with her camisole and drawers (or equally gorgeous slip) comes the classic, long-line Edwardian corset. Since this corset is earlier in the period, it is not tubular like later designs. Instead of trying to mold the body into a stream-lined column, this type of corset–an S-bend or straight front–emphasizes the curve of the back and the bosom, though not as wildly as fashion illustrations may have you believe. Here’s another S-bend corset, an excellent example of how it shapes the body differently than older corsets:

Bon Marché S-Bend Corset, circa 1904

The bend in the back pushes out the rump, which is why Edwardian ladies have little “bustle bottoms” without having to wear an actual bustle. Many Edwardian dresses have extra gathers in the back for this reason. However, if a lady stopped at her corset, it would still show through her dress in a rather unflattering manner. Over the first layers of camisole, drawers, and corset, a well-dressed lady needs even more layers!

H&W Co. Wedding Ensemble Camisole and Petticoat, circa 1903

 Look at all that sumptuous lace! If you ever need an excuse to be frilly, dressing up in a sheer Edwardian gown is the perfect ploy.

To get the right look, another camisole, corset cover, or even a bust improver if she was a little “less than plush” up top added to the popular full, loose-front look, called a pouter pigeon. To fill out the bottom and flare out the skirt, at least one frilly petticoat is necessary, but two or more add extra “rustle.” Yet even with all these pretty pieces, we’re still not done getting dressed!

What’s missing? Why the sheer overdress, of course!

(and all the accessories, but seriously, that’s a whole other post!)

H&W Company Wedding Ensemble, circa 1903

“Large ensembles of bridal attire rarely survive intact, a fact that makes this group of eighteen pieces unusual and special. This set shows what a bride of 1903 considered to be essential garments for her wedding day and night. The set was made and worn by donor’s mother, Iza Bernice Shelton. Miss Shelton married Dr. Abel Wilson Atwood on July 7, 1903 at the home of her parents in Brooklyn.” – The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is the epitome of the sheer white dress. In this case, it is a wedding dress, but many turn-of-the-century white gowns you see probably weren’t wedding dresses. White was an exceptionally fashionable choice for daywear in the 1900s, especially in summer. All those layers might seem rather excessive in the heat, but bear in mind that many of these fabrics are very light, especially compared to the very heavy fashions of twenty years before in the 1880s. However, to top off your warm-weather Edwardian look, I highly recommend a stylish fan!


Find of the Month: Large Edwardian Day Dress

December 2012

Okay. Confession time. I’m not a huge collector of Edwardian clothing. It’s not really my style–all those dangly fronts and long-but-not-long-enough/short-but-not-short-enough sleeves just don’t jive with my normal aesthetic– so I rarely browse through Edwardian clothing. HOWEVER, I love nautical/military/anything with buttons. And late Edwardian fashion was all about those things!

Also, how can you say no to a 100 year-old black dress for $25?!


Edwardian Day Dress, circa 1910-14

Check it out! This gem of a dress was made for a stout woman, comparatively speaking. It’s so hard to find extant clothing in larger sizes. 22 inch waists are little a dime a dozen, but a 32 inch waist? Priceless!


Measurements: 40″-32″-50″
I had to pad the booty of my dress form because it’s even flatter in the rear than I am. Still didn’t get the hips quite right…


Size comp shot! This dress was made for a woman a tad bit shorter than me (about 5′ 4″). Also, you can see the extent of my “professional photo studio.”
P.S. I’m wearing my Rago waist nipper. Super pleased with it!

The dress is silk which is, sadly, ripping to shreds in the unlined skirt. The bodice has faired better since it is lined with black cotton. There are glittery black glass buttons on both the bodice and on the skirt. Plus…




The dress has a very plain back. The bodice back was all done in one piece and the skirt has small, pleated gores for walking ease. The dress is in sorry shape right now. I need to re-attach most of the trim (the thread tacking it down crumbles at a touch) and the hooks and eyes are held on only be loose threads and some kind of voodoo…

134_3235 134_3252 134_3254 134_3256

I have high hopes for it, though. I may make all the conservationists angry and fix this lovely up well enough to wear again! Can’t you just see it with some American Duchess Gibsons?

American Duchess “Gibson” Heels for 1900-1920…Coming soon!

Dying Dyes: What You See Isn’t Always What Was

Fugitive Dyes

Here’s the word of the day: Fugitive. No, not a criminal on the run, but fugitive dyes. They’re shifty like crooks, escape their bounds, bleed, run, and time can rob them of their colors. They can be hiding anywhere: in your closets or the collections of even the most secure museums.

Fugitive dyes are unstable. Made from pigments that are not light or color fast, they can fade even if they are well taken care of. One of the most famous examples is this black mourning dress worn by Queen Victoria on the day of her accession to the throne:

Queen Victoria’s Privy Council Dress, circa 1837

That’s a black dress?!
Well, not anymore, but it was.

Originally, this dress was a deep, shimmering black, but the fugitive dye has aged poorly. Black dyes have been historically notorious for fading, usually to this rusty brown. Some black dyes also fade to blue or even purple, depending on the dye used. These changes can be tracked using chromatography, the science of pigments and coloration. You can actually watch the changes at home if you cut a strip of coffee filter paper and make a fat dot at the bottom of the strip with a washable black marker. Put about 1/2 inch of water in the bottom of a glass and dip the end of the coffee filter with the dot into the water. As the paper soaks up the water, it will travel up the fibers through the marker spot, carrying pigment particles with it. Depending on the marker, the hazy streak that forms above the dot will be orange, blue, or purple.


Click here to check out more detail instructions on how to do your own chromatography experiment at home (the kids love to make butterflies with it).

Black isn’t the only fugitive dye. Many natural or early chemical dyes are prone to color changes and fading. Another excellent example of a non-black fugitive dye is in this beautiful 1860s silk gown (which recently sold on eBay):

Silk Dress, circa 1860-70

Buttonhole Detail on 1860s Silk Dress

The bright violet buttonholes look out of place on this sienna-brown dress, but they give a big clue to the original color: a gorgeous, soft lavender. Indeed, this rustic gown was once a flashy purple. There are a few spots of original color visible in the folds of the skirt, as well as vestiges of it along the hem. The most startling remains of the color can be found in the armpits, which, I will admit, upon first viewing appeared to be bleached. But as the seller pointed out and examination of the photos confirmed, the light purple “stains” are actually well-preserved patches of the otherwise degraded dye!

Area of Preserved Fugitive Dye on 1860s Silk Dress

Lavender, like black, is a color known to be especially prone to discoloration, though almost any color can be achieved with fugitive dyes. Most fugitive fabric dyes fade to differing shades of tan, especially natural dyes, but fugitive dyes are not limited to very old garments. Many modern handmade rugs and vintage garments (like this 1940s cotton tablecloth) are affected. The effects of fugitive color are not limited to dyes and fabrics, but are exceptionally common in paintings. Artists love to experiment with pigments and even common colors, such as indigo and red lake are prone to fading. One of the best examples is this painting by Robert Campin:

“Virgin and Child before a Firescreen” by Robert Campin, circa 1425-30

 Though her flowing robe appears to be a light blue-tinted white, the fabric was originally intended to be a rich purple. It is common practice for painters to layer washes of pigment to build deep, dimensional colors. In this painting, the underlying wash of red lake has faded, leaving behind only the consecutive layers used for shadowing. The other red pigments in the painting are made of different (considered then to be lower-quality) pigments that have, ironically, remained colorfast through the centuries.

Modern artists may opt to use fugitive colors’ transitory properties to their advantage, creating works of art that are meant to fade and change. However, if the piece was meant to last, fugitive dyes are a major challenge. There are many factors (chemical reactions, water, etc.) that can cause dyes to change color, but light is the most common. UV radiation is especially harmful, but even incandescent and florescent lighting can wreck havoc on unstable colors. Humidity-controlled darkness is the safest place to store most pieces.

For more information about and examples of fugitive dyes, check out these articles:

“The Fugitive Color” on Artist Daily

“The Fast and the Fugitive” on Grackle & Son

“A Safflower Frock Coat” on Reconstructing History

“Collecting Historical Tablecloths” on The Vintage Table

“c. 1910 Silk Dress” on Adventures of a Costumer

“The Weeping Dress” by Martha L. McDonald

Dinner Dresses I would NEVER Wear to Dinner


It’s the time of year to enjoy all kinds of overindulgences, especially at the dinner table! For such feasts, wearing your loosest jeans/sweatpants and a not-white shirt (cranberry sauce stains like no other) is the modern norm. In the past, however, fancy dinners required fancy clothes! Corsets, manners, and the meals themselves– served in courses– would have made a historical dinner party a much different adventure than today’s free-for-all feasts. Women, especially those lucky enough to be rich, would often change clothes multiple times a day, switching between a morning dress, afternoon dress, and an evening dress or ball gown, depending on the occasion. As the 19th century continued, the use of occasion dresses increased to include visiting dresses, promenade dresses, walking dresses, and dinner dresses.  The heyday of the dinner dress began around 1870 and turned into a full-blown trend by 1910, so many of these wonderful, festive gowns are from those eras.

American Silk Dinner Dress, circa 1841-46

American Silk Dinner Dress, circa 1870s

Jeanne Hallée Dinner Dress, circa 1894-96

House of Worth Dinner Dress, circa 1897-1900

Rouff Dinner Dress, circa 1900-03

Dinner Dress Attributed to Callot Soeurs, circa 1908

American Silk Dinner Dress, circa 1910-12

If they are all so beautiful, why won’t I wear any of these dresses to dinner? Well, truthfully, I would love to wear all of them, but with our family track record of globs, blobs, and escapee forkfuls of buttered potatoes, it would probably be best to avoid wearing such fine dresses to any family get-togethers!

There have many Thanksgiving celebrations in late fall throughout many cultures. The first official, nation wide celebration of Thanksgiving in the United States occurred in 1863 after a declaration from President Abraham Lincoln. His hope was that a united holiday of peaceful thanks, prayer, and brotherly celebration would help calm a shattering nation. However, it was not until many years later in 1941 that F.D.R. moved Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November in an effort to boost the national economy and morale.

After stuffing yourself with tasty foodstuffs, take a moment to appreciate your blessings and indulge in a smile!

The History of the Bikini

She worn an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow polka-dot…

School is almost out! I am excited beyond words (even though I still work through the summer). Summertime means three things: lemonade, heat waves, and swimsuit season. I was talking with some friends the other day and the topic swung around to swimsuit season. We all bemoaned the fact that were had less than stellar track records with swimsuits. “It’s that darn bikini!” All the gyms have ramped up their advertisements on the radio, taunting us with phrases like “get bikini ready” and shaming us for hiding our soft middles behind “boring one-pieces.” It’s amazing how this tiny, barely-there piece of clothing could so radically affect our lives!

Discover where it all started here!

Elle Magazine’s slideshow takes you from the first two-piece suits in 1913 all the way to today. As you look through the photos, you’ll notice most of these sexy bikini ladies are not flat twigs like today. It’s wonderful to know that you don’t need washboard abs to look amazing in a tiny two-piece!


Summer’s almost here!

Queen Alexandra and all her Edwardian Jewels

Dazzle me, Darling!

The Edwardian Period officially lasted from 1901 and the coronation of King Edward VII and lasted until his death in 1910. However, the timeline for Edwardian fashion is debatable. I believe the Edwardian fashion era extends not only to the beginning of WWI in 1917, but also stretches back to the 1890s, when Alexandra became fashion’s royal guide and the wild, artistic abandon of the Gay Nineties lay the foundation for the Flappers movement 50 years later (Art Nouveau, traditionally associated with Edwardianism, began around 1890, too!).

After the death of Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert,  in 1861, Victoria began to withdraw from the public life.  She had been a fashion icon for years, so her withdrawal left a large inspirational void. In 1863, Queen Victoria’s son, Edward, had married Alexandra of Denmark. Alexandra was beautiful, fashionable and charming: the perfect candidate for fashion’s next muse. Alexandra rocked the tight-laced corset and bustled train of the 1870s and 1880s, covering herself with lace and wearing plenty jewels, including glittering tiaras befitting of her royal status. This picture of her was taken in 1889:

Va-va-voom! Look at those curves– and those gems!  It wasn’t just fashion and the monarchy that was changing. Jewelry during the Edwardian era was much different than the Victorian jewelry before it. Victorian styling favored ornate, heavy designs with large stones and lots of goldwork. Turn of the century jewelry was much lighter, brighter, and happier as European and American cultures flourished. People wanted to have a good time: going to the opera, cheering at cheap theaters, visiting carnivals, traveling the world, and generally indulging in joyous frivolity. Jewelry reflected this optimistic attitude.  Platinum, which had originally been dismissed by Europeans as an inferior metal and was rarely used in jewelry before 1860, was growing in popularity as the skills and technology to work with this difficult metal developed. Platinum, it turns out, looks absolutely fantastic with diamonds and does not tarnish like silver.

It became the most fashionable metal to wear during the Edwardian era, topping even gold as the fashion favorite. Platinum is not as soft as gold and could be shaped into increasingly delicate filigree patterns that were more air than metal. Lace and bows, so popular on dresses, also became fashionable to wear as jewelry.

Edwardian fashion developed a long, languid silhouette– the early stages of what we call “flapper” fashion today. Long strands of pearls, glass beads, or delicate chains that hung to the waist became a staple in every lady’s wardrobe. Often a brooch or watch would be pinned off to the side and the long chain draped over it, accenting another favorite trend: asymmetry and idealized natural forms.

Popular Motifs and Materials in Edwardian Jewelry

I’ve already covered the most iconic motif and material of the Edwardian era– diamonds and platinum filigree– but there are plenty of other designs to tickle your fancy and brighten up your outfit!

Pearls and Gold

History’s favorite gem, pearls never go out of style! Gold was still widely used in the Edwardian world even as platinum exploded in popularity. Gold jewelry became lighter and lacier alongside its silvery competition and was still the most popular metal for long drop necklaces called lavaliers.

Flowers and Enamel

Edwardians loved flowers, especially pansies, roses, dahlias, and daisies. They wore them everywhere they could: tucked into their sashes, pinned to their necklines, spilling from their hats, and blooming on their brooches, bracelets, necklaces and earrings.

Enameling masters like the world-renowned House of Faberge revived the popularity of enameling on jewelry, especially realistic florals and miniatures. You’ll notice the back of this locket– one of the most common pieces of Edwardian jewelry– has a pattern of wavy lines engraved under the enamel background. This technique is called “guilloché” and became very popular again in the 1950s, so you can find inexpensive vintage pieces pretty easily!

Hearts and Turquoise

Hearts are another timeless motif. One of the most popular charms and brooch styles during the Edwardian period was a puffy heart paved with seed pearls, diamonds, garnets, or turquoise cabs. Turquoise was rapidly rising in popularity after remaining an obscure gemstone throughout much of the European world. Most Victorian turquoise was Persian in origin, preferred for it’s uniform blue color. Turquoise from the American Southwest gained popularity late in the era as train lines to New Mexico and Arizona introduced tourists to Native American jewelers, but such jewels were treated more like curiosities rather than fashionable accessories until the 1920s.

Romanticized Bohemian Style and Garnets

The bohemian movement as we know it began in the late 19th century with the alternative lifestyles of the era’s blooming artistic and intellectual population. The name began as a term for Romani Gypsies and was made famous by the association with the roaringly popular opera La Bohème beginning in 1896. More traditional Edwardians may have initially frowned on the non-traditional lifestyles of the bohemians, but the culture’s ornate fashion was infinitely mysterious and fascinated the general public.  The perfect gemstones for this trend are aptly named “Bohemian Garnets,” mined in what we now call the Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia). These seductive, wine-colored garnets were often rose-cut and set in the popular pavé style, covering the surface so that the back metal was nearly invisible.

Animals and Insects

Animals are always popular motifs, but their use in jewelry changes during the Edwardian period. Realism with stylized accents replaced the old fashion for more stereotypical animal designs. Dogs, always popular in jewelry, are joined by cats and birds as popular motifs (it’s so rare to find cats in jewelry before 1890 because they were still shaking off their negative reputation). The bird became the most popular animal to depict because of it’s graceful beauty, but also because it was adopted by feminist writers as a symbol of Women’s Suffrage.

Insects had been popular since the 18th century. A craze for natural specimen collecting began around 1800 and became a world-wide hobby for Victorians. By 1900, the trend for collecting butterflies from the jungles and beetles from the Egyptian desert for display was beginning to wane, but insects blossomed as a fashion statement. Spindly spiders, jewel scarabs, delicate butterflies, and elegant wasps (they called tight corsets wasp waists for a reason!) were huge favorites.

Feathers and Haircombs/Tiaras

Alexandra of Denmark’s signature tiaras soon became a favorite piece of jewelry for America’s royalty– wealthy industrialists– to copy. Many of these tiaras, including this one, were fitted with clips or rings in the back to hold an abundance of feathers, especially peacock feathers (Here’s another tiara from the period that still has its feathers). Birds were the quintessential Edwardian motif, so it makes sense that feathers would be popular, too. Just look at their hats!

Circles, Diamonds, and Arts and Crafts

The Edwardian era was the heyday of the circle. Art Nouveau designs were based entirely on the curve as the perfect creation of nature, shunning straight lines as the construct of man. However, by the time of the Titanic in 1912, Art Nouveau was beginning to give way to the Arts and Crafts. The naturalistic, flowing forms of the 1900s were beginning to shift towards geometric designs and stylized lines that would soon morph into snazzy Art Deco. The Arts and Crafts style is the bridge between Art Nouveau and Art Deco. It still emphasized being handmade with care and skill, but unlike Art Nouveau, it embraced straight, architectural lines.

All these gems and jewels are definitely upper-class, but machines made mass-produced jewelry of similar style but of inexpensive materials available to the public. Sterling silver or pot metal plated with rhodium was used in place of platinum and gold electroplating and gilding was done over brass to give the glow of gold without the high cost. Many of these pieces are still inexpensive today, perfect for those of us who want museum pieces but don’t have $2,000 dollars to spend on this beautiful brooch:

But (here comes the shameless self-promotion) I have a gilded  Edwardian enamel pin that I wore in a production of The Miracle Worker listed on Etsy for 98% less:

There is plenty of Edwardian or Edwardian revival jewelry available on Etsy, Ebay, at flea markets, consignment shops, or even in your mom’s jewelry box! One of my jewelry standbys is a long string of interesting beads. I usually just go to the bead shop, find a 32 inch strand of beads and wear them straight out of the store– after paying, of course! : )

This is the companion article to Costuming on a Budget: Edwardian Edition

I’m really looking forward to seeing all the costumes people will be sporting this spring! between the anniversary of the Titanic, vintage wedding season, Civil War reenactments, and Renaissance fair, there’s plenty of history to get excited about this season. If you go to an event this spring and have a blog entry about it, feel free to post it in the comments. I’d love to see what everyone’s been working on!

Hair To Dye For: Radical Redheads

Famous Red, Orange, and Auburn Haired Ladies
Flaming hot since 1558!

I’m a sorta-redhead. My hair can’t decide whether it wants to be mousy, dishwater blonde or a snappy strawberry (which makes picking out outfits a drag since some colors look good with redheads, but not with blondes and vice versa). My hair’s indecision began when I was just a baby; I have a natural pink mohawk in most of my baby photos thanks to my light strawberry blonde curls piling on top of my ivory skin. My hair turned blonde and straight when I was two, then switched back to curly auburn when I was 16. By junior prom, I was sick of my hair flip-flopping from red-to-blonde-to-brown-to-all-three. L’Oreal Excellence Creme in it’s cute, pink box promised to even out my hair color in just 30 minutes and a shower. Who was I to refuse? Dousing my unruly hair with dye disguised my hair’s spotty nature, and it’s pretty historically accurate at that!

Natural redheads are mutants (with recessive variant genes). Our superpowers are sticking out in a crowd and looking awesome. Many have scorned our powers by flogging us with insults (“Gingers have no souls!”) while others have venerated our hair’s glory with paintings, festivals, films, and flattery. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, redheads are the most flattered of all hair colors: Sixty percent of women who dye their hair do so at home. Of them, twenty six percent choose to go blonde, twenty seven percent go brunette, and over thirty percent choose to become redheads! Feel the power!

Jean Grey: Exploring both sides of the redhead stereotype since 1963.

The see-saw between scorn and veneration has been going on since redheads were first documented in Greek writing. Boudica, the warrior queen, is said to have had long red hair that–in addition to her stature–was a terrifying, powerful sight on the battlefield. The idea that redheads have fiery tempers stems not only from the flame coloring, but also from the politically powerful redheaded women like Boudica who were just as powerful and intelligent as men (if not more). This was naturally unnerving to a society in which women were expected to be subservient. Throughout history– even through the 1950s– redheaded ladies have been breaking rules and changing social norms!

Queen Elizabeth I

Perhaps the most famous redhead in history is England’s Queen Elizabeth I. Born to Hanry VIII’s most notorious wife, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth inherited her father’s golden-red hair. When she took the throne in 1558 at the age of 25, she brought wit and unprecedented political prowess with her. She refused to marry and actively participated in the jurisdiction of her country. Though she was affectionately called the “virgin Queen,” she is reported to have taken many lovers and favorites throughout her long reign. Beloved by her subjects and lauded for her role in England’s victory over the Spanish Armada, Queen Lizzie changed red hair from a fashion faux pas (blonde was the previous preferred color) into England’s must-have shade.

Elizabeth’s striking red hair set off the creamy whiteness of her skin. Light skin was considered to be the most important aspect of beauty and since the recessive gene that creates red hair also causes paler skin and lighter brows, natural redheads in Elizabethan England became suddenly fashionable. Creamy skin and ruby-tinged hair also meshed well with the rich jewel tones and heavy golden ornamentation that prevailed in courtly fashion. Ladies who weren’t in the lucky 4% of the population with the variant gene, there were all sorts of hair treatments:

For coloring the hair so that it is golden. Take the exterior shell of a walnut and the bark of the tree itself, and cook them in water, and with this water mix alum and oak apples, and with these mixed things you will smear the head (having first washed it) placing upon the hair leaves and tying them with strings for two days; you will be able to color [the hair]. And comb the head so that whatever adheres to the hair as excess comes off. Then place a coloring which is made from oriental crocus, dragon’s blood, and henna (whose larger part has been mixed with a decoction of brazilwood ) and thus let the woman remain for three days, and on the fourth day let her be washed with hot water, and never will [this coloring ] be removed easily.

I’ve highlighted the word henna because this particular plant was the primary source of red hair colorant since the age of the Pharaohs! Henna is mostly famous as a skin pigment, but this semi-arid shrub also works as a semi-permanent hair dye and was the most popular way to get red hair until synthetic dyes were invented in the late 1800s.

Queen Elizabeth herself dyed her hair as she aged and her hair became white. The auburn-red of her earlier portraits fades into a light pinkish-orange since henna is a naturally orange dye that only reddens the base color. If the base color is a brown, it tints it red. If the hair is blonde, henna creates a golden strawberry. By the end of her reign, Queen Elizabeth’s hair was fine and white, so the true color of the henna is revealed in her portraits.


The Pre-Raphealites

Red hair gained popularity again in the mid-1800s, culminating with the Pre-Raphealites and their beautiful models like Fanny Cornforth, Alexa Wilding, and Elizabeth Siddal: ladies with deep burgundy and  ginger-flamed hair. The Pre-Raphealite Brotherhood, a group of artists, began in 1848 and lasted for an all-to-brief decade. Their influence on artistic style and fashion was much longer lived. The mauves, greens, and blues of dreamy pre-raphealite paintings were perfectly suited to complement cascading red hair.

Paired with swaths of roses and loosely draped gowns, pre-raphealite paintings recreated classical Greek, Medieval, and folk fashions with a heavy dose of dreamy fantasy quite unlike the rigid world of corsets and hoopskirts in the 1850s and 1860s. There was plenty of controversy surrounding these sensual models, especially considering that many were mistresses of the painters themselves! These ladies appear unfettered by any social, sexual, or fashion restraints in their pictures: clinging silks drenched in rain hug every curve, a corsetless waist is girdled softly with gold, and hair flies around their shoulders freely. Though the fashions might be too much for the everyday Victorian lady, glowing crimson locks were well within the average woman’s reach. The red-haired beauties filling the canvases inspired women to once again run to their nearest druggist for the reddening power of henna dye.


Lucille Ball

No list of spunky, game-changing redheads would be complete with Ms. Lucy! The saucy sit-com queen is famous for her brilliant red mound of spunky curls. From 1951 to 1960, Lucille Ball entertained the world on her TV shows I Love Lucy and The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. Though these are her most famous accomplishments, Lucille’s resume includes much more, including modeling, a brief stint as a Broadway chorus girl, and acting work in films alongside the Three Stooges, Ginger Rogers, and Katherine Hepburn. She’s known for being outspoken and participated in a few small tiffs with social norms, most famously her marriage and divorce to Desi Arnaz.

Ball met and eloped with the Cuban bandleader in 1940. Lucy was 6 years older than Desi, sparking a little social friction since some people thought an older woman marrying a younger man was improper. During her first pregnancy, Lucille continued to film I Love Lucy even though she was showing, but the broadcasting company forbade any mention of Lucille’s “condition” on-air.  Lucille’s and Desi’s first child, Lucie Désirée Arnaz, was born when Lucille was almost 40 years old! Lucille’s second pregnancy, however, is the one she is most famous for. TV in the 1950s was heavily censored and everything that went on air had to be approved by a committee. This time around, Lucille’s real-life pregnancy was worked into I Love Lucy’s plot. In a magnificent segment, she appears on camera, glowing, to surprise Ricky with the news. It was a huge moment in television history.

Even though much of her film and TV work was done in black and white, Lucille Ball’s hair was a key part to her personality and characters. In fact, we associate the color red with her so much, it’s hard to recognize her with any other haircolor:

Here’s a bit of a surprise: Lucille Ball was not a redhead. Lucille Ball was actually a natural brunette/dark blonde, but she dyed her hair using that fabulous plant dye, henna. As her fame grew, so did the demand for red hair dyes, driving the sale of  natural henna color through the roof. The queen of mid-century comedy continued to dye her hair throughout her life, maintaining the titian tint that came to define her.


Today, most hair dyes are synthetic and can be done at any hair salon, or at home with a box kit. The coloring agents come in liquids, foams, brushes, and sprays in every color under the sun! With all these magic concoctions so readily available and inexpensive, it’s hard to imagine that such a seemingly innocuous thing like dying your hair for prom or using a color rinse shampoo before a date could have such a huge impact on fashion and society. What if Elizabeth had been raven-haired? What if Pre-Raphealite painters preferred blondes? What if Lucille had never dyed her hair that brilliant orange-red? Knowing that so much of who you are as a person can be linked to something as simple as hair color makes me wonder: What’s my “true” color?