Friday, October 24, 2008

Friday From The Collectors - October 24

Knowing History

Melissa Strobel

In The Swan's Shadow
Dressing Up In Strange Clothes Since 1992

An often overlooked aspect of a woman's fashion during the American Civil War period is her crowning glory, her hair. Just like today, a woman could (and did) spend quite a bit of time making sure that she looked her best, and her hair was quite often a source of pride. Because styles and fashions have certainly changed quite a bit since the 1860s, the present day living historian can sometimes have quite a bit to learn and work around to achieve "the look" necessary to create the impression that she is indeed someone who has stepped out of the mists of time or the pages of a book.

First on the list for those trying to achieve the proper hairstyles of the period is to make sure that a few misconceptions are taken out of the picture, so to speak. For one thing, contrary to some sources a woman not only bathed, but washed her hair more than is generally supposed. Some assert that a woman did not bathe very much at all, least of all her hair. After all, ladies' hair frequently looks slicked down and greasy to the modern eye.

While her bathing habits may not be those of people today, she certainly did keep herself clean, and her hair was no exception. A full immersion bath was very labor intensive, commonly reserved for Saturdays so that she and her family could be clean for Sunday church services. During the week she generally used an ewer (a pitcher) and a wash-basin filled with water located in her bedroom in order to spot-clean herself, such as her face and hands, neck and arms, and other places that I'll leave to your imagining. Underpinnings that had direct skin contact such as collars, cuffs, chemises, pantalettes and petticoats were frequently changed and laundered, though the dress itself may not be washed nearly as frequently, and sometimes depending on the type of cloth and fastness of the dyes among other factors, some were not at all.

A lady's hair could also be washed in the privacy of her bedroom, and recipes, advertisements and other evidence shows a profusion of hair products, some of which would be familiar to us today. There were herbal rinses, conditioners, dyes and special soaps specifically formulated for hair care. Some items may not be as readily recognizable such as powders, pomades/pomatums and bandolines, but their uses were similar to what hair products do for us today: style and hold the hair in its desired place and form.

An excellent tool for figuring out just what hairstyles were like back in the late Victorian period are naturally photographs. Girls and ladies are shown they way they really were, not the way an artist can sometimes use his license to interpret them. Through photographs we can not only determine common elements in hair styles and clothing, but also things like the differences between age, region, and relative affluence.

Though each person was different just like today, there are some common factors in the way hair was dressed during this period:

By far females had long hair rather than short, though there are some photos of younger girls and women with short hair. More commonly though, rather than it being a fashion statement, it was due to less pleasant circumstances such as a recent severe illness (hair was sometimes cut short in an attempt to lower a fever), her hair was severely damaged somehow, or perhaps a recent infestation of lice.

A lady's hair was center parted neatly but rather severely by our standards, and the bulk of her hair was confined to the back of the neck and skull. Stray hairs were minimized through treating the hair with oils, pomades, and pinning.

Come about the age of twelve or thirteen, girls began wearing their hair in imitation of their elders. Prior to that it was frequently in braids or curls.

Bangs did not come around to common fashion until the 1880s.

Just like a lady's clothing, her hair was styled in order to emphasize the relative narrowness of her waist, and so her hair during this time does not go up, but rather goes out and back. A broad (not necessarily fat) face was the preferred look. This was frequently augmented by the use of hair rolls made of her own saved hair, called rats. These were tucked beneath a section of hair and pinned in, then covered.

Hair nets or cauls were in frequent use, generally by the younger (under 25) set. These were made of natural fibers in a broad net pattern, matched the hair as closely as possible, and were secured by ribbons and pins at the crown. Much fancier nets made of richer materials were sometimes worn for formal evening activities such as dinner parties, theater-going, or balls.

As with any other culture and society, there were of course differences in taste and marks of individuality shown through fashion, and hairstyles were no different. But with living history, one is generally concerned with the norm rather than the exceptions, as in this way we may more accurately convey a sense of how aspects of life - even how one wore their hair - was done "back then."


All photographs in the collection of the author.

Copyright © 2008
Melissa Strobel
In The Swan's Shadow
Dressing Up In Strange Clothes Since 1992


Blogger Lidian said...

This is such a wonderful and informative post - I'm starring it for future reference!

October 24, 2008 at 9:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent presentation.

October 24, 2008 at 4:09 PM  

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