Historic Hair Accessories We Can’t Stop Thinking About
In the Victorian and Georgian era, it was a truth universally acknowledged that you simply could not have a bad hair day. From elaborate coiffures to romantic tendrils, having beautiful well-kept and styled hair was paramount if you were anyone important. But how exactly did they do that? Well, let’s take a look at antique hair accessories! This blog post has been inspired by a (now sold!) Georgian cut steel moon and star barrette, a piece that was incredibly captivating and is now at a very lucky forever home!
Georgian Cut Steel Hair Crescent Pin, Source - Lillicoco Sold
Today, hair accessories are huge! From oversized resin and plastic clips to padded headbands, easy scrunchies and bejewelled 90’s style hair grips, it is clear that accessorising your hair today was just as important as it was in the days of yore!
This blog will not only show you what the different kinds of vintage and antique hair accessories there were, but also we will show which hairstyles were in vogue in each period, dating all the way back to ancient civilisations when the first hair accessories were found!
So if you don’t know your clips from your grips, or it just boggles your mind as to HOW they secured those chignons without the invention of hairspray (hairspray was invented in 1948), then keep on reading.
Hairstyles Through Time
From as far back as ancient Rome, having the best hair amongst your friends was a must! It is no secret that the ancient Romans were obsessed with themselves, and having incredible hair was just another way that they can indulge in their inner hubris!
Surviving busts from ancient Rome alludes as to how incredible their hair was. Essentially the bigger and more towering hairstyles the better! An elaborate and finely tuned coiffure was an indication of a person’s social standing, their expression of personal identity, their profession, and age. Plus, it wasn’t just the hair itself, but the art of creating the hairstyle was in itself respected. Upper class Roman women were known to have lengthy grooming sessions and was a leisure pursuit amongst cultured and elegant women. With this in mind, comfort and naturalism took a backseat. And, in actual fact, “natural” hair actually showed a person’s lack of culture.
Fonseca Bust (Showing the Ancient Roman Flavian hairstyle), Source - Musei Capitolini
The different kinds of Roman hairstyles were:
- Tutulus - An Etruscan style worn by the matriarch of the family. This is where the hair is divided and piled high into a bun and purple wool is used to secure the hair.
- Nodu - This style came into fashion during the Augustan period, as women serving within Augustus’s household wore this style. This was where the hair was parted into three with two strands secured into a bun and the third strand was secured on the top of the head in a looped style.
- Flavian & Antoine - These were most flamboyant and remembered hairstyles from the Roman period. Tight curls were piled high on the top of the head and secured with wool. Then lengths of coiled braids were positioned underneath to help secure the hair in place.
As can be expected, these extravagant hairstyles meant that women (especially older women) had thin, dry and damaged hair. This meant that many women wore wigs to bolster their appearance.
Roman women did wear a form of veil, yet as the years progressed into the Medieval and Renaissance, it was custom to have your hair covered for modesty at all times. Whether a simple cloth or elaborate heavy brocade, wearing a veil was integral to a women’s hairstyles. Because of this connotation with modesty, showing hair was deemed erotic. This eroticism was emphasised in Renaissance paintings with mythological subject matter, especially in the Italian Renaissance portraits, where the hair is either free flowing, beautifully braided and embellished with gemstones or with small hair coverings that would only cover the crown of the head.
Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci as Cleopatra or Perspehone, c.1490, Piero Cosimo, Source - Wikimedia Commons
In England’s Tudor period, the women wore modest hair coverings at all times. In fact, the change in hairstyles were culturally and politically significant! During the reign of Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon, the women wore stiff gable hoods, which covered the whole of head. Yet, what caught Henry’s attention was Anne Boleyn’s fashionable French hood, a curved hood that showed a women’s forehead and parting.
This hood was attractive as it gave a youthful appearance. So much so that many young women adopted it and when Anne Boleyn was crowned Queen, the entire court wore French hoods. Yet, as avid English history aficionado’s are aware, Anne’s reign was short lived (literally!) and Henry quickly turned his attention to the more demure Jane Seymour who completely banned the French hood and restored the former gable hood to the court.
Retrospective Portrait of Catherine of Aragon wearing a Gable Hood in 1530, c.18th Century, Unknown Author, Source - Wikimedia Commons.
Potrait of a Young Lady wearing a French Hood (presumed to be of the Cromwell family or Elizabeth Seymour), c.1535-40, Hans Holbein the Younger, Source - Wikimedia Commons
Yet, the French hood returned after Jane Seymour’s death and was still very fashionable throughout the mid 16th century, with many other head coverings becoming popular that would show more of a woman’s hair. As partings and foreheads became more visible, women were known to pluck any hairs at the hairline to create a smooth and manicured appearance. We will touch on Tudor head coverings more, especially those in Elizabeth I’s reign when we unpack antique hair accessories!
In the 18th century, hair made a big comeback both in the forms of wigs and in natural hair. Coinciding with the Baroque and the Rococo period in Europe, hair needed to be as large and extravagant as the fashions. Women’s hair especially was puffed out and thickened with starch, then powdered to make it look white. In fact, some women had pastel powder added to their hair to add flashes of pink, violet and blue. To support these ginormous structures, women had horse hair, wire and wool pads used within their hair. It is believed that women wore these styles for weeks on end, without washing (ew!).
After the French revolution, the hyperbolic hairdo's quickly fell out of fashion as they were a symbol of the aristocracy. Yet, this was also the time when the neoclassical aesthetic was widely fashionable, and women opted for naturalistic up-dos with ringlets and curls. These styles harmonised with the onset of the romantic regency period.
In the Victorian period, the fashion was for extremely long hair, yet the true lengths are only revealed in intimate photographs, as it was custom for women to have their hair up from age 15.
Victorian hair fashions flowed with the change in styles. For instance in the 1830s, the hair was still regency Georgian in style, in fitting with the neoclassical empire waist dresses. Yet in the 1850s, with the arrival of large hooped skirts, hair was rolled and padded at the sides of the face, and the 1870s with fashion of bustle skirts, hair was piled high on top of the head. You must be thinking, how did women secure these immaculate tresses? Victorian women secured their hair with tree gum, the earliest form of hairspray! Victorian fashion magazines and journals were widely circulated amongst the literate classes, meaning that illustrations and how-to’s were accessible
The short but sweet Edwardian era centred onto one main hairstyle, the Gibson girl! The Gibson girl was the idealised fin-de-siecle woman that was independent, graceful and educated. This was where the hairstyles were soft yet opulent, and the hair was combed upwards and rolled onto the head.
Of course, during World War I, hairstyling in this way quickly became impractical, and by the 1920s for the first time, bobbed unfussy hair was all the rage! The sharp bobs, Eton crops and pixie cuts perfectly complemented the rise in hemlines. Plus, by the end of the 1920s, the women’s salon industry had fully taken off, so all women could afford to have their hair done!
Antique Hair Accessories From Ancient Rome to Present Day
As long as people have had hair (which is pretty much forever), there has been some form of hair accessory no matter how utilitarian. So, it won’t come as a surprise that the earliest found hair accessories date back to prehistoric times.
The way that people styled their hair was, and still is, closely tied to their cultural identity. For instance in Native American and African cultures, hair today is still celebrated and is often a topic of contention with cultural appropriation debates as many white western people
Hair accessories can not only add a soupçon of something special to a look, but in many cases they are a form of regal and religious adornment.
Hair Clips, Barettes and Pins
The hair clips we know and wear today were not invented until the 20th century, but in portraits of aristocratic and royal women from former centuries, you can clearly see that they accessorised their hair in a similar fashion.
Swiss Gilt Silver Filigree Hair Pin, c.1800-1870, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
So what were these hair clips?
These were actually hair pins. Originally a utilitarian piece of jewellery, surviving hair pins were found in ancient civilisations including ancient Rome, ancient Greece, and ancient China. However, it is actually believed that hairpin use predates this, to approximately 30,000 BCE. This is because of the Venus of Willendorf, an ancient artistic sculpture that shows the woman potentially wearing some form of beaded hair accessory on her head.
Venus of Willendorf, c.30,000 BCE, Source - Wikimedia Commons
Surviving hair pins from these early primitive societies range from the basic pins crafted from bone and wood to secure hair to the more expensive and lavish gemstone-set and lacquered beauties. In China, hairpins were especially important and actually is culturally weighted. When a young Chinese woman turns 15, she partook in a hairpin ceremony, where from thenceforth she would wear her hair up with these hairpins. Plus, when this young woman is engaged, she will give one of her special hairpins to her beloved as a keepsake and sign of courtship.
Ancient Roman Gold Emerald Hair Pin, c.1st-4th century, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Chinese Bone Hair Pin and Comb, c.1100-1000 B.C Shang Dynasty, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Hairpins became more sophisticated and sought after amongst genteel women in the Renaissance. These were often crafted in Gold, Ivory, or Tortoiseshell and were embellished with singular or cluster gems like Rubies, Emeralds, Diamonds, Agate, Pearls and Sapphires. In the 18th century, a type of hairpin emerged called the Aigrette. This was worn by Marie Antoinette and is featured in one of her most famous portraits. The Aigrette was the body of a hairpin but lavishly imbued with peacock feathers, gemstones and pearls, so it would poise itself in an elegant and extravagant fashion on top of their larger than life coiffures.
Portrait of Marie Antoinette wearing an Airgrette, c.1755, Jean-Baptiste André Gautier-Dogarty, Source - Wikimedia Commons
Of course, we cannot NOT mention the Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s famous portrait. The Empress was known worldwide for her rigorous exercise and beauty regimes, and of course her incredibly long hair! Her hair was so long that it took one whole day to wash it and prepare it every two weeks. Her famous portrait is one where her dark brunette tresses are coiled, braided embellished with pretty celestial star hair pins romantically throughout. Although many portraits were often romantically concurred with faux jewellery painted on, this gives us an illuminating insight into how hairpins were worn and the styles that were available for the leading ladies of society.
Hair combs, like hairpins, date back to early civilisations as they were integral to the looking after and upkeep of healthy hair. Today, combs and brushes are relatively mundane in appearance and simply are only utilitarian objects. However, in some ancient societies like China and Japan, in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, combs were engraved, lacquered and painted, making them artistic and collectable objects in themselves.
Carved French Ivory Comb with David and Bathsheba and the Judgement of Paris, c.1530-1550, Source - Victoria and Albert Museum
French Tortoiseshell Paste Comb, c.1900, Source - Victoria and Albert Museum
A hair comb that is culturally and politically important in history is the Afro comb. The Afro comb is a longer comb with long thin claws that can help brush, prepare and look after an afro. Afro combs can also be left in the hair as a hair accessory itself. Afro combs date back 6000 years, originating in Africa, the reemerging in Britain, the Americas and the Caribbean. In many African societies, the afro comb is a status symbol, and are often carved and shaped into beautiful ornate designs featuring human figures, elements of nature and geometric patterns.
Like most symbolic and cultural objects owned by the African community, this was not only culturally appropriated but also a target of racism. Plus, many Black women and men would relax or change their hair to fit in with Western fashions which meant that afro combs were not needed. With this in mind, in the 20th century, the afro comb took on a whole new meaning and was integrated with the Black Power movement. Afro combs were shaped with the clenched Black fist and first emerged in 1969 by Samuel H. Bundles. This was widely adopted and worn by Black men and women as a symbol of cultural pride and protesting against the racist European standards of beauty.
Black Fist Afro Comb, Source - Fitzwilliam Museum
Tiaras, Diadems and Headdresses
Who doesn’t love tiara’s, coronets, diadems and headdresses? This part of the blog will give a whistle-stop tour of these beauties, as you can expect a separate blog post on these pieces soon!
Tiaras, diadems, coronets and crowns are all very similar, the only difference is where they are placed on the head and the extent to which they are embellished. Crowns fashioned from nature were used in early pagan civilisations, where floral, twig and leaf wreaths were worn by distinguished members in society.
Ancient Gold Wreath and Ring from Odrysian Burial Mound, c.4th Century, Source - Wikimedia Commons
The earliest form of diadems and coronets are found in ancient Rome and Greece and are seen in surviving mosaics. These were exclusively worn by royalty, and high ecclesiastical members.
The princess-style tiaras that were know and love were first crafted in the 18th century (so for any eagle-eyed fashion historians who love Tudor and Renaissance period dramas, if they are wearing a tiara it’s factually incorrect!). Jewellers took inspiration from ancient Rome and Greece and crafted elaborate heavily gemstone set pieces and were worn by European royalty, especially the French! Today, the royal family tiara’s are reserved for formal and state occasions only.
Earlier on in the blog, we described the different types of hoods worn by Tudor Queens and ladies in waiting. A type of headdress that was popular in the Elizabethan period is the Attifet. This was a heart-shaped headdress that was crafted from both stiff and diaphanous materials like lace and velvet and sat quite far back on the head, slightly different from the all encompassing gable hoods! These headdresses showed the woman’s natural hair and was studded with gemstones like Pearls, Rubies and Emeralds.
Elizabethan Portrait of a Woman wearing an Attifet, c.1600, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Headdresses have something about them that makes you feel important, as for many religions and societies they are spiritually imbued. This can certainly be said for Native American headdresses, another hair accessory that is rife in cultural appropriation debates. Indigenous native American headdresses are striking pieces crafted from leather and feathers and are symbolic of both bravery and strength.
These are worn by those greatly respected within the tribe such as the chief or military leaders and worn during religious ceremonies and rites. It is incredibly offensive to wear these headdresses if you are not one of the tribe. This is because these are not fashion statements and also native Americans were persecuted and these headdresses were used as mocking statements. This is why it is only recently that many festivals have banned these headdresses from being worn unless you are of indigenous origin.
Hair Coverings and Veils
Hair covering and veils have been a form of hair accessory for thousands of years, weighted in religious and modest significance. Veiling has been practised in Christianity, Judaism and Islam for thousands of years, and also is part of secular customs too! In ancient Mesopotamia and Greek and Persian empires, veiling was a sign of respectability and high status. Usually, veils were plain in design crafted from simple unassuming fabrics like cotton or linen, but for many wealthier members of society, fabrics like silk and velvet were also favoured for their luxe look.
La Velata, c.1514-1515, Raphael, Source - Wikimedia Commons
Bridal veils are also incredibly popular today as they were years ago, a traditional sign of respectability and of a woman going through a life-altering change.
In contrast to this, veiling, especially in the Islamic faith has come under controversy due to xenophobic beliefs. Many western governments have banned the wearing of full veils because of this xenophobia which shows how politically weighted and sensitive garments can become.
Ribbons and Bows
Ribbons and bows are one of the oldest adornments in the world. Fabric has been used to decorate and tie and fix hair for centuries with wool pads used in the Roman period to help them fix their lavish towering hairstyles.
Portrait of Celeste Coltellini c.1790, Antoine-Jean Gros, Source - Indiana Art Museum
Some of the earliest hair ribbons ever found are Sumerian Gold hair ribbons dating to 2600-2500 BCE. Yet hair ribbons became really popular during 17th century France. Allegedly, the moment in which hair ribbons became the next best thing was when one of Louis XIV’s mistresses Marquise de Fontage lost her hat when riding. At the time, it was considered immoral for a woman to have loose flowing hair, so you can understand the dire situation the Marquise was in. To fix this problem, the Marquise used a ribbon from her dress to tie up her hair which the King thought very attractive and it quickly became the hair trend of the century! This of course continued into 18th century France and it is believed that Marie Antoinette’s hairdresser spent 20,000 francs (around 6000 euros which would have been loads of money) on just ribbons!
Men also wore bows until the 19th century, which was when it became an exclusively female object. In the Edwardian era, it was fashionable and considered feminine to adorn yourself with supersized white bows, a motif that we also see plenty of in Edwardian jewellery!
Today, bows are a surefire way to instantly create a feminine and youthful look.
And finally, we need to talk about hair beads. Hair beads are a form of hair jewellery that is today almost exclusively used by Black men and women as it is used to both fix and decorate their braids, cornrows and locs. This form of hair adornment can be traced back to ancient Egypt where the Egyptians commonly wore beads and rings made from alabaster, clay, jasper, or metal. These differed depending on what materials were available locally and the status of the person wearing the beads.
West African civilisations were similar, with different braid patterns a marker of a person’s marital status, social standing and age. For instance, in Nigeria, coral beads are worn in some tribe’s wedding ceremonies and in Yoruba culture the Oba (leader) crown is beautifully decorated with glass beads. In East Africa, Habesha women from the northern regions of Ethiopia and Eritrea drape Gold chains through their cornrows and these Gold chains fall over their forehead.
Beaded Crown of of Onjagbo Obasoro Alowolodu, c.1890-1928, Source - Wikimedia Commons
Today, hair beads are worn both symbolically and stylistically, to push back against the western beauty standards that we have commented on multiple times in this blog. Beads can be made from natural organic materials like shells, coral, wood, clay, glass and gemstones. Or, you can find many plastic beads too today on the market! Hair beads are worn by many high profile Black figures in the last 50 years and today including Miriam Makeba, Stevie Wonder, Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Alicia Keys, Beyonce, Solange, and Zoe Kravitz.
How fascinating was this blog post? We certainly enjoyed researching and reading about this topic. It is incredibly interesting to not only learn about the wealth of different hair accessories and hair jewellery across the world, but also how these have transformed to become more than just a utilitarian or decorative object. For many, it has become a way to express their personal and cultural identity and is weighted with deep political and religious significance.
Next time you put hair clips or headbands in your hair, just think, where did that come from?
(Plus, don't you love how the jewellery is painted in these oil paintings?)
Love Lillicoco, xo.
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