Monday, December 15, 2014

Hair: The long and short of it

People sitting on porch steps at Leon Hotel, Tallahassee, circa 1886
Notice how all the women wear their hair up in this c. 1886 photo of Leon
 Hotel in Tallahassee. Photo is by Alvin S. Harper and appears on page 40 of
Victorian Florida, America's Last Frontier, by Floyd and Marion Rinhart
Women today fashion their hair in myriad shapes, styles, lengths, and colors. We take for granted all the options and the ability to choose from among them. Contrast that to the late 19th century. Women had one choice for hair length: long. They had one choice for styling: up. Only girls and young women not yet out in society wore their hair in a loose, flowing manner.

The evidence is obvious in old photographs from Florida's frontier years. Every woman, from backwoods denizens to wealthy winter tourists, exhibits swept-up long hair. The poorer women didn't make a fuss over it. They parted their hair in the middle and twisted it into some kind of bun, or pulled it back without any visible part and pinned it atop or behind their head. The tourists display fashion trends, such as frizzed bangs in the late 1880s. Why anyone would deliberately frizz their hair is beyond me, but that style was a fad for a while. By the mid 1890s, the small topknot was the height of fashion. Such a style worked well for those with abundant hair. Otherwise, the results could appear comical.

One thing that connects past and present is the amount of time, care, and attention women lavish on their hair. But after reviewing, for example, Mark Campbell's 1867 book, Self-Instructor in the Art of Hair Work, Dressing Hair, Making Curls, Switches, Braids, and Hair Jewelry of Every Description, I give thanks for modern haircare products. Campbell called his book an "indispensable adjunct to every lady's toilet table," because it promised to help a woman dress her own hair and become proficient in the making of hair work. Hair work meant items such as braids, which functioned much the way today's hair extensions do. 

The book's directions are occasionally nightmarish. Even the easiest pattern in Campbell's book calls for the artisan to braid the hair extension over a wire, boil it, place the braided piece in a hot oven - be careful not to burn it! - and then remove the wire, insert a pliable cord in its place, sew the end of the braid together and dab it with a dose of shellac. You can read the book online on the awesome Project Gutenberg site if you want to learn more.

More accessible is Dorothy Quigley's 1897 What Dress Makes of Us, also available on the Project Gutenberg site. She offered readers valuable advice for how to select a hairstyle based on the shape of the face. She urges women not to be a slave to fashion: "A wise woman will adopt a prevailing mode with discretion, for, what may be essentially appropriate for one, may be fatally inappropriate for another," she wrote. Wise words, that still hold true today.

Here are a couple of links to fashionable coiffures of the late 1800s:

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