Sewing

Creating an 18th-Century Women’s Hairstyle

If you’ve done any amount of digging around the internet looking for how-to’s on 18th Century women’s clothing, chances are you’ve stumbled on Kendra Van Cleave’s wonderful blog Démodé. It’s an absolute treasure trove of information, research, tutorials and inspiration.

What does that have to do with hair? While there are many, many, many period paintings, busts and fashion plates showcasing hairstyles of the 1700’s, how-to’s for creating authentic, decade- and location-specific hairstyles are pretty sparse…one might even say nonexistent. And I don’t know about you, but I have no clue where to even begin in recreating the styles shown in those original sources.

Marie Antoinette Bust
HOW?! It’s so poofy and whimsical. Image Source: Sèvres – Cité de la céramique

Enter the sainted Kendra Van Cleave, who painstakingly researched and developed methods for creating 18th-century coiffures and pulled them together in a thoughtful, well-organized book. Below I’ve shared my first experience with hair styling for this period. For a complete tutorial, you should nab her guide!

Materials Used

The book I’ve linked below tells you everything you need to build an authentic Georgian hairstyle, and I’ve linked the actual products I used to build my hairstyle successfully:

  • Kendra Van Cleave’s 18th Century Hair and Wig Styling – Invaluable! A must have if you want to create hairstyles for this era. The first part covers the evolution of trends over the century, with tons of photos for inspiration. Then there’s a section outlining useful tools and tips, giving you a foundation for the next section, which is tutorials for individual styles. I can’t speak highly enough of the how-to’s; they are clear, with lots of pictures and text, and tell you when and where certain styles were appropriate. You will learn so much from this book; it’s money well spent!
    Photo of a book about 18th century hair and wig styling with example photos
  • Cork Mannequin Head & Table Clamp(affiliate links) – Another important investment if you plan to do any amount of wig styling. Unlike foam heads, you purchase cork heads based on your actual head circumference. Many 18th-Century hairstyles need to have frames sewn into them. If you style your wig on a mannequin head that’s too small, your wig will not fit properly when you go to put it on. Plus, cork heads hold pins much better, so your wig will stay put once you’ve blocked it (that is, pinned it down in the proper position).
    You’ll still want a foam head for wig storage, and to free up your cork head for more projects, though!
  • Lightweight Wire Mesh – (affiliate link) – This stuff is easy to bend, yet holds its shape well, making it perfect for the wire frame base you need for many styles. You can also cut it with regular scissors, and don’t need to wear gloves to handle it
  • Bead Stringing Wire – (affiliate link) – Because I chose to use a lighter, more malleable wire mesh, heavier wire wasn’t necessary to hold it together. This bead stringing wire behaves like thread, making it easy to secure the wire frame
  • Curved Needles – (affiliate link) – These are needed to anchor your wire frame to your wig without also sewing your wig onto your mannequin head. This was an easier process than I expected
  • Dry Shampoo – (affiliate link) – If there is one complaint I have about 18th Century Hair & Wig Styling, it’s all the shiny wigs. Everything else about this book is meticulous and professional, then the effect of some styles is diminished by wig shine. It’s such an easy thing to fix, so I’m not sure why the wigs were left they way. But I digress. While there are many methods to make cheap synthetic wigs look natural, by far the easiest one is spritzing the wig with dry shampoo.
    Kiera Knightley in The Duchess-18th Centruy Hairstyle Example
    Even though movies don’t often get things right in terms of sartorial accuracy, the hair itself in big budget affairs always looks amazing: so seamless and natural. You can bet those buckles (horizontal hair tubes) and fanciness in the back are hair extensions, but they blend so naturally into her hair/scalp, it’s hard to believe it’s not her real hair. Image Source: NY Times

    You can also use dry shampoo for a powdered effect, but I didn’t succeed too well with that. And dry shampoo is expensive to use in wig-powdering quantities.

  • Other stuff – You also need lots and lots and lots of bobby pins, and quite a few foam rollers (though I didn’t need quite as many as the book suggested). A few different sized tubes to use as roll forms for making buckles are also useful. Lastly, copious amounts of firm hold hairspray!

Choosing a Style

To wig or not to wig? One of the first things you need to decide before you can start your 18th C. hair construction project is whether to use your natural hair or a wig (or both!). Van Cleave lays out an excellent set of pros and cons for either route. I was gung-ho to use my natural hair going into it, but ultimately decided against it because:

  • Some of these styles can be crazy damaging to your hair. I only use heat on my hair very occasionally, and the thought of teasing my hair is enough to make me cringe. Let’s not even consider mounting a wire frame to my scalp
  • These styles take a long time to create. It already takes me a while to get dressed in my colonial era attire, then needing to budget a good hour to two hours styling my hair on top of that? No thank you
  • Wigs can be styled once and worn again and again. My styled wig is currently sitting covered in a closet, ready to go whenever

I did decide to incorporate my natural hair along the hairline to avoid the dreaded hard wig edge. This was especially important since I bought a cheap wig that had this weird white plastic line at the center part that definitely had to be covered.

Photo of young woman with red hair from the midriff up in late 18th century attire

You’ll also need to decide on what color you want. Obviously if you go the wig route, the sky’s the limit, and you can purchase white wigs to achieve the powdered wig look. Since red hair was unfashionable in this era, I blithely thought, “Oh, I’ll just powder everything to cover it up once it’s styled…” HA! That did not happen. Or, more precisely, after spraying almost an entire can of the dry shampoo I linked above and not achieving great coverage (though it was enough to blend my natural hair into the much redder wig), I gave up and decided to roll with my white-tinged red locks.

Speaking of matching hair color to the wig, if you have the time, you should definitely stop by a pro wig shop and ask them to help you find the wig color code that most closely matches your natural hair. For the most part, wig color codes are pretty consistent, and knowing the code you need helps you order online with more confidence. I decided to undertake this whole hair project with only a couple of week’s lead time before my event, so didn’t have time to go find my color and wait for a cheap wig to arrive from Amazon (this was near Halloween, so even “Prime” wigs were delayed out to a week!).

ladies-of-the-18th-century.png
More 18th Century awesomeness (I love the style in the middle!). Though it’s always hard to tell with paintings: how much is the artist being generous to the subject’s hair, and how much did the hair actually look like that? Image Source: The Vintage Thimble

The style you want to do will also dictate if you even need a wig or not. Styles from the first half and final decade of the century didn’t have as much volume, and could reasonably be created with your natural hair. It’s that period of opulence during the 1770’s and 80’s that things got big. Since my goal impression is the first half of the 1780’s, I went with the high and wide style that the Van Cleave book called the Marie Antoinette (since they based the style off a similar bust to the one I linked above).

The Wig Styling Process

Wherever you decide to do you wig styling, be prepared to set up shop there for a couple of days, as the process can be involved and requires stopping and starting. I accidentally took over my boyfriend’s desk, not realizing how long it would take (he was a good sport about it, fortunately).

A long-haired wig half in foam curlers, blocked on a canvas and cork mannequin's head

First, if you need to curl your wig, budget time for a wet set of the curls. Wet setting is when you place the hair in curlers, then either dip the wig into boiling water or pour boiling water over the wig. I’ve never used that method before, but it was really effective at setting the curls! As you can see above, the wig I used was straight and came out nicely curly in the end (see the curls a few images down).

A red wig in foam curlers on a canvas and cork wig blocking mannequin head
The wig still in rollers the next day after pouring boiling water on it (over the sink, of course!). You need to let the wig dry completely before taking out the rollers

Now for the fun part! The wire frame. You could also use rats to get the height, but I decided to go the wire frame route. It came together pretty well, and I was surprised at how easy it was to sew onto the cap of the wig.

A pyramid-like wire frame being sewn to a wig to be used as a base for a large 18th century women's hairstyle

The rest of the wig styling process didn’t go quite as smoothly. I’m really bad at teasing hair, so didn’t get the frizzy volume in the under layers of the coiffure. And in the end, my hair just went in a straight-line puff to the crown, instead of taking that little dip in the middle. Lastly, because I used such a cheap wig, I didn’t have as much hair volume to work with on the little flourishes, like the curls at the base of the neck.

Wearing the Wig

Despite the bumps in the process, I was really happy with the final result. This is my most ambitious hair project to date, and I learned a lot of new skills! But now to answer the most important question: how did it feel to wear?

 

I was really worried that I would get a headache, or that the wig would feel really unstable on my head (especially after adding a hat on top). Luckily, it was very comfortable! Bobby pins anchored it in place, and I think having it sit back some from my hairline helped with comfort as well.

As an added bonus, this style is sturdy! All the photos from this post were taken after an outdoor event I attended, where I’d worn a hat the entire time:

Young woman wearing 18th century hat and clothing

I was fully prepared for this wig to be my “hat hair” wig, but that didn’t turn out to be the case!

I think my next major project will be in the Regency Era (the Jane Austen Society is really active in my area, and I want to participate in some of their big events!), so the hair will be much more understated, but I look forward to another huge hair project in the future!

What about you? I would love to see your forays into 18th Century hair styling!

18th-Century Women's Hairstyle-Final Thoughts
Behold! The Loaf. Almost as big as my hair.

XO,

 

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