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The Rococo period (from about 1730 – 1790) was a time of fashion excess, emanating from France around Europe. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, once the size of the hooped petticoat had reduced a fraction, the focus turned to hair.

From 1760, hair was piled on top of the head, near the forehead. Initially dark hair was fashionable, with various dyes being used to produce it (such as homemade dyes made from elder berries and wine, or lead combs). Then it became fashionable to powder hair with starch in order to make it appear lighter. The hair was initially smeared with pomade (a kind of hair gel for the 1770’s), and then powdered with a white, grey or pastel shade of powder, which stuck to the pomade.  A secondary function of the pomade was probably to hold the hair in an increasingly vertical position, enabling the wearer to have the hairstyle unchanged for a considerable length of time. Indeed, one hair-dresser reported that one lady customer had not “opened” her hair for nine weeks!

As the height of the hair increased, it became necessary to affix a pad of horsehair or sometimes a wire structure on top of the head, with the subject’s hair being swept up over the top of this. Sometimes extra “hair” (or hair-like material) was added to cover the structure adequately. Once the fashion had reached these extremes, the offices of hairdressers became increasingly sought after, and their purses became extremely heavy! In France, the popular court hairdressers worked for days on end prior to a ball.

“A Hint to the Ladies to take Care of their Heads” Copyright The Museum of London

The Duchess of Devonshire was reputed to have, in some way, contributed to the excesses of this fashion in the mid-1770’s, beginning the fashion with her hair arranged in a three feet tall tower. In addition to this, in 1775 the Duchess begun a fashion for wearing ostrich feathers in the hair. Coupled with the already tall nature of the hairstyle, adding ostrich feathers that were four feet long would have made the height of the head-dressing an amazing seven feet! This may give some credit to the assertion that lady’s coiffures were so tall that they had caught alight on the candelabras in the ballroom, though it might be more believable to think that the offending candle might have been on a wall sconce in a drawing room.

The creations grew in size and were also often adorned with other decorations, such as pastoral scenes, ships in full-sail, or a windmill that turned. Whist they may not have been strictly a common occurrence, the hairstyles seem to be well known enough to have their own particular names.

In Germany, it was reported that there was “a new kind of headdress of this kind known as English Garden, and this is indeed an apt description. Not satisfied with wearing a garden in their hair, the ladies go further and entire landscapes are now built on top of the head. Here one may see a lady wearing a village, there one with an entire wood, then again one with a large meadow, or with a great bridge, or with windmills. One must conclude that these edifices are very roomy because the artist has taken the opportunity to increase their value by adding some mechanical contraption; he has, where suitable, installed hidden organs, which from time to time play by themselves, or canaries which sing. What further limits such unnatural headgear may reach only time can tell.” (Haude-Spenersche Zeitung, 1775, a German journal)

A lady with her coiffure propped up by an Indian servant (maybe to help her neck pain?)

By the mid 1770’s, coiffures had become extreme, creating great strain on the neck, and were the topic of many satires of the day. There were reports that the mouth was the midway point from the floor to the top of the head, though perhaps this included the height of the feathers or other adornments.

Whilst some have suggested that there is little truth to the satire prints of the eighteenth century, surely the exaggeration begins from the truth, but probably extends itself beyond the truth in a similar way to Chinese whispers. It is also possible that these extremes in fashion were seen only once, maybe by the illustrator, and then promptly portrayed in print, so that the print represents the exception, rather than the norm. Either way, satire was created to exaggerate the idiosyncrasies of the subject, and did not have to represent the actual truth.

A lady with an enormous coiffure. It is so large, that she managed to steal items of value by hiding them inside it!

In 1776, the Gentleman’s Magazine published an article (maybe more of an advertisement) for a hair-dresser, which gives some insight into the common practices that occurred in this period.

There is lately arrived in this city, it is said, a very extraordinary person from Siberia, whose name, we learn, is Iwan Peter Alexis Knoutschoffschlerwitz, and a native of that country, who offers his service to the ladies in the important business of hair dressing, which, by his advertisement, he says, he executes in a manner peculiar to himself, rejecting the use of black pins, hair-cushions, and the like cumbersome materials, so dangerous in their effect, by communicating disorders to the brain, from the effluvia proceeding from the head, when heated by those cushions, and large bundles of false hair, that have been cut from the heads of persons who have died of fevers, palsies, apoplexies, scrophulous disorder, or under salivations, or even, though less hazardous, of those who have ended their days at Tyburn. He assures the ladies that he makes no use of human fat, or of any grease whatever, as he fills the hollow of the hair with soft aromatic herbs, which prevents the disagreeable effect of that perspiration now so generally complained of. He dresses hair in every mode, and engages to make any lady’s head appear like the head of a lion, a wolf, a tiger, a bear, fox, or any exotic beast which she would chuse to resemble; but he does not confine himself to beasts; for to any lady who would prefer the form of a peacock, a swan, a goose, a Friezland hen, or any other bird, he will engage to give a perfect likeness. He will likewise give any colour to the hair that a lady may judge most suitable to her complexion; for as every single hair is an hollow tube, though imperceptible to the naked eye; he, by injecting a certain liquid, communicates the finest shades, and renders the use of powder unnecessary, which will, besides, be a great saving of bread-corn. Ladies whose hair begins to indicate a time of life which they would wish to conceal, may be secretly and safely accommodated. He will charge their locks into a fine chestnut, blue, crimson, or green, according to the mode that may most generally prevail.

His wife is a milliner, and she hopes that her own merit, added to that of her being a foreigner, will engage the favour of the ladies. She makes caps of any size, from 20 inches to 3 feet high, which, being composed of certain elastic springs, will give way when a lady goes into her coach or chair, without discomposing the form, rising immediately to their original height when the lady get out of her coach. She has likewise substituted, in the place of those modem ornaments of radishes, and other garden-stuff, aromatic spices, which, independent of the decoration, have an admirable effect in keeping the head clear of those little vermin which the compound of grease and powder is so apt to produce.

As fashions fluctuate, Mrs Knoutschoffschlerwitz is prepared for any change, having already made some pattern caps, of a low moderate size, which do not take the head out of its proportion, but preserve its due equality to the rest of the human form. To those caps she has given an air of softness that adds a delicacy to the features of the fair, freeing them from that boldness and ferocity, which, in the present mode, the other sex so much complain of. She has had already the honour of dressing a few ladies in that taste, who, she has the pleasure to find, have been particularly admired by the men; but as she does not presume to attempt stemming the torrent of fashion, she is ready to supply all those ladies who are still desirous of carrying their heads high, with caps, as she has already mentioned, of any dimensions.

She has brought over a number of live ostriches, peacocks, &c. that ladies who mean to persist in the use of feathers, (though the fashion is now exploded in Siberia, and throughout all Russia,) may be accommodated to their taste, and she will engage to ingraft them with the natural hair, without rendering the operation the least painful. In like manner, gentlemen, whose sculls are, from age, become rather a little too bare, and yet cannot submit to the Gothic taste of covering them with wigs, may have natural hair inserted, in as sure and easy a manner as they are supplied with teeth, and which will hold many months without renewal. Any gentleman or lady, under this predicament, may be served by the year, on very moderate terms.

The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol 46, p.360, 1776

One wonders just how new hair was inserted into the scalps of bald men…

What is your favourite fashion extreme? The disposable underwear of the 1970’s? The flapper fringe dresses of the 1920’s? The big bustle of the 1880’s? The 18-inch waist of the 1860’s – in Gone with the Wind?

Does it compare with the excesses of the Rococo period?

Related Posts

The Rococo: The Extremities of Hoops in the 1740’s

Sources and Relevant Links

Dr Johnson’s London: Everyday life in London 1740-1770, by Liza Picard – buy on Amazon

Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, by Amanda Foreman – buy on Amazon

The Gentleman’s Magazine, Google Online Resources

Pictures of satires were found at American Revolution.org

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