From Cup to Curl: How to Get Fabulous Historical Hair Using Straws

Big Hair was a Big Deal Long Before Dallas and Dolly Parton!

Those of you that browse my rambling frequently are well aware that I am hair illiterate. Indeed, I know next to nothing about taming my crispy, unruly mane. Yet, I am slowly teaching myself a few tricks here and there, and the internet has been a boon for my boring locks.

As a strong adherent to the old cliche that “every curly-haired girl wants straight hair and every straight-haired girl wants curls,” I have dreamed of lovely curls since childhood. When I was very young, my mother had tightly permed 1980s poodle hair (her words, not mine!), and I remember playing with her pink plastic hair pick, pretending I had a perm that needed fluffing, too. I am infinitely envious of those glamorous 1980s superstars like Bernadette Peters and Whitney Houston who had curls so luscious no scrunchie could contain them! A perm is still on my wish list (even though everyone who survived the 80s or who has naturally curly hair tries their best to talk me out of it).

Besides wanting crazy amounts of day-to-day curls, my historical costuming adventures have reenforced just how important curls have been throughout the ages. The 1980s do not hold the monopoly on excessive amounts of curl! Indeed, many eras require spiral curls to achieve the right look:

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An Unknown Nobelwoman painted by the wonderful Jacob Ferdinand Voet modelling a 1670s hairstyle.

This lovely Portrait of a Lady by François Henri Mulard displays the shorter spiral curls popular during the Regency era.

This mid-19th century teenage girl has possibly the most enviable set of sausage curls in the history of mankind! I found her photo (and the one below) while I was researching Victorian haircare and have been obsessed ever since!

This unknown beauty from the 1870s perfectly demonstrates the decade’s fashion for intricately curled and mounded hair.

Other eras benefit from the volume brushed-out curls can give, especially late 18th century and early 20th century hairstyles:

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, late 18th century, demonstrating the infamous “hedgehog” hairstyle.

Miss Carlyle and Miss Clarke enjoy tea Gibson Girl style while attempting to balance the hair piled fashionably high on their foreheads.

Many of these looks were achieved through wigs and hair extensions. Buying and selling human hair has been big business for centuries and one of the greatest criticisms of hair fashions was the fact that many styles often meant that the majority of the hair on a woman’s head was not her own, but that of a complete stranger! Much of the hair used to make switches and wigs came from peasant girls in rural areas, so a princess might literally have the hair of a pauper.

Fancy hairstyles and the hair switches required to complete them, circa 1867

 Unless you are lucky enough to be gifted by nature with thick, voluminous locks, hairpieces, rats, rolls, and wigs are all part of a modern historical costumer’s hair arsenal. There are plenty of awesome tutorials with tricks to boost the volume of your natural hair with socks and hair rats or make yourself a completely new hairdo using a wig. Jen of Festive Attyre always has beautiful big Georgian hair thanks to a combination of curling her own hair and adding in a hairpiece:

 I can barely handle my own hair, so rats and hairpieces escape me and wigs are a whole ‘nother beast entirely. I do have a squishy net doughnut that I use to help me make buns, but otherwise, I have very few hair-boosting tools (indeed, I didn’t have a hairdryer until my sister bought me one for my birthday this year). My go-to to get the volume I crave has long been braiding. I used a single braid to get fluffy 1890s “New Woman” hair:

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How to Get No-Fuss Fluff for the New Woman

I have been known to wander around the apartment complex looking like this:

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To get to 1890s/1980s worthy fluff, you must first re-live the 1990s.

If I braid my whole head like this, I am rewarded with glorious poofy hair that looks like it was crimped:

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Enjoying the irony as Mother Nature wearing faux foliage in the middle of a Taco Bell.

However, it’s not curls. I’d attempted pin curls a few times over the years, but I never got them to work satisfactorily, so for Georgian Picnic this year, I decided to try something new. I had been stumbling around Pinterest as one is wont to do at 3am when I started seeing all these pins about straw curlers and the photos made my jaw drop:

AAAAAAAAAAAAAA! SO GORGEOUS!

Most the the tutorials I found were for African American hair and I worried that my pale, limp locks wouldn’t be able to support the curls thanks to their lack of texture, but I decided to try it anyway. Anything for those spirals!

I found this tutorial and when I saw the curls she got at 6:06, I freaked out!
CURLS! SAUSAGE CURLS! JUST LIKE 1860s GIRL’S SAUSAGE CURLS!

 I think I would have fallen out of the chair if there wasn’t a cat in my lap digging her claws into my thigh for dear life. The day before Georgian Picnic, I bought a cheap pack of 100 straws for about $1.50 at Walmart and commenced experimenting. I was aiming for a hairstyle like this:

Portrait of Jane Horley by Rolinda Sharples, circa 1815-20

So I separated the front half of my hair and curled it, leaving the back uncurled (I put it up in a bun). I didn’t use any products in my hair before, during, or after. I did have slightly damp hair when I began.

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My hair in its natural state.

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I bent the straws and held them in place with bobbie pins, murdering quite a few in the process. Long metal hair clips would probably work better. You might even have some and not know it! Check your sewing kit. Fabric clips and hair clips are quite similar.

I will admit that I had a little trouble rolling the hair onto the straws. Most of that just springs from my inability to roll hair (hence why curlers, pin curls, and any other type of curl had thus far been unattainable). I rolled my hair over itself instead of all along the straw like in the video. This worked for my purposes in the end, however, because Regency curls are short anyway.

I slept on my straw-filled hair, but as I would later find out, the straws work their magic in only a few hours. When I took out all the straws, this is what I ended up with:

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My hair is much longer in front than a Regency woman’s would have been, so my curls hang lower than most portraits show.

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After phutzing with the ringlets a bit.

This is the hair I attended Georgian Picnic with. Since it was my first attempt, it was a bit messy, but it did suit the romantic aura of the era pretty well.

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Photo courtesy of Festive Attyre

When I got home, I separated the ringlets with my fingers just to see what they looked like looser and I was rewarded with light, fluffy, fairly natural-looking curls:

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I lost about 1/2 of my hair’s length to the curls, mostly due to the way I wrapped them around the straws. If you wrap the hair more evenly over the straws, you won’t lose as much length.

The curls had good volume and made a nice Gibson Girl pouf pretty easy. I wish I’d taken a photo! Since I’d gone this far, might as well go the extra mile and brush everything out!

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Helloooooooooo giant hair of my dreams!

I’m only a few hairpins, some hair powder, and one fabulous hat away from this:

Portrait of Catherine Clemens by George Romney, circa 1788

I am so excited to have finally found a curling method that works for my hair! The curls held well until I had to wash my hair the next day, so they are perfect for long events. They survived wind, rain, and my hat in great condition. I tried them a second time for my dress photoshoot and only left the straws in my hair for about two hours. The final curls were a bit looser, but still held up to outdoor photography. Plus, I’d gotten a bit better at winding the hair around the straws, so the results were much smoother:

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I also did fewer curls to save time and ended up liking the look much better.

So  my straw curler experiment was a complete success! There are skinny wired-foam curlers that work similarly, but I never got them to work as well as these good ol’ Wally World drinking straws– a cheap and effective solution!