1850s Hair Dos and Don’ts

While you may think that hairdos in history aren’t really worth studying, they can actually tell us a lot about what life was like in the past. A hairdo can tell us about technology, through the kinds of products historical ‘dos’ required, or about fashion and making a statement, or about social class (whether you were rich or poor, powerful or powerless … ), and it can even be handy for dating historical paintings and photographs!

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A collection of unknown Ballarat women from the Gold Museum collection sporting a range of 19th century hairdos. Reproduced with permission from the Gold Museum.

For thousands of years, people have enjoyed using hair from their heads to decorate their bodies. Hair can be a very important part of someone’s identity; it can relate to religion, law (yes, there have been laws in history that have controlled hairdos!) or simply fashion, and, of course, hairdos are closely linked with humanity’s various and ever-changing ideas around beauty.

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Self-portrait of Queen Victoria, 1835. An image from Wikipedia Commons.

In the 19th century, hairdos for women in the British Empire (which included Australia) tended to follow the style of Queen Victoria, who reigned for 63 years. This powerful woman had a huge influence over all things fashion, and is even thought to be the bride who popularised the white wedding dress, which many women still wear today. Before her time, British women simply wore their best dress on their wedding day, whatever the colour. Fashions in both hair and clothes changed a great deal during her time as queen, as you can see here.

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The first known photograph of Queen Victoria, pictured here with her eldest daughter, c.1845. An image from Wikipedia Commons.

By the 1850s, Queen Victoria tended to wear her hair parted in the middle. It was either pulled back behind the ears (which would then be covered by a day cap/bonnet), or would be used to cover the ears when a head covering wasn’t necessary (at a ball, for example). Otherwise, she, like the millions of women in her empire during this time in history, covered their heads out of Christian politeness, and always when outside (providing they could afford it!). Not only did wearing head coverings out of doors keep your hair clean before the invention of the shower and hair dryer, they tended to protect you from sunburn. And back then, fancy ladies wanted the whitest skin possible – ‘Only peasants and natives have tans!’. Beauty ideals like these demonstrate how acceptable racism (and classism) was in the 19th century.

For men, the beginning of the 1800s saw the end of elaborate powdered wigs and a return to natural hairstyles and colours. A few decades later and beards and moustaches also came into fashion. A male fashionista of the time, Beau Brummell, led the way with these new, relaxed, natural hairdos, which got shorter and more controlled as the century rolled on. Hair styling products such as hair oil became popular with men during this time; however, they didn’t have the means to wash it out like we do today (with shampoo) until the 1890s. The first shampoos were powders, and it wasn’t until the 20th century that we saw the invention of liquid shampoos.

Most people’s washing habits in 1850s Ballarat mirrored those practiced in England; however, clean water (that which wasn’t polluted by goldmining or human waste near it … ) on the diggings was often hard to come by. Miners and their wives would pay a lot of money – particularly during dry summers – for buckets of fresh water taken from what was then called Yuille’s Swamp (now Ballarat’s Lake Wendouree). Bathing usually only happened once a week (typically on Saturday nights so the family was clean for church on Sunday), but that bath wasn’t for washing hair, and besides, you had to share the water with your entire family because it was so scarce!

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Photograph of an unknown man dubbed the “Chinese Giant”, 1870. Notice his long queue. Reproduced with permission from the Gold Museum. 

Of course there were many nationalities present on the Ballarat goldfields, which meant yet more hair styles could be seen around 1850s Ballarat. One of the most striking hairstyles common during this era was the ‘queue’ worn by Ballarat’s many Chinese miners. Back in China, it was compulsory for men to sport this ‘do’, which involved shaving the front of the head, and growing the back very long and wearing it in a plait. The Aboriginal people of this region – the Wadawurrung people – may have worn their hair differently to the Europeans and the Chinese; however, from the limited photographic evidence we have, many appear to have adopted European hairstyles by this time.

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Marcel curlers, also known as hot curling irons or hot curling tongs. 

An exploration of 19th century hair in Australia wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the fashion for hair artworks and even hair jewellery, which was commonly something a lady would give to her lover, or someone would make from the hair of a recently deceased loved one. You can see lots of examples of this curious practice here. Another weird habit of European women in the 1800s was the collecting of hair from a hairbrush to use as padding to create certain hairdos. Hair was collected in a ‘hair receiver’ and then moulded as required into a ‘rat’ to place inside a bun or to give hair volume. Lastly, the rather terrifying ‘Marcel Wave’ hair curler became popular towards the end of the century, even though it was very easy to burn your hair off while using it – it was heated in the fire before being applied to hair!

Links and References

A pictorial overview of Victorian hair styles: http://www.whizzpast.com/victorian-hairstyles-a-short-history-in-photos/

A series of videos on this history of women’s hairdos (Eurocentric): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpGc2ylEgfQ&list=PLWpk-1VZu_yM5ms7Mm1wBirhm5G1UPOwZ

A brief visual history of men and women’s hairdos through history: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RVr8W6HME4A

A video on the history of shampoo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NEjeTYzZjzg

Horrible Histories on Incan shampoo…: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqWoWscljQs

A great history of hair from the Chertsey Museum: http://chertseymuseum.org/hair

A great BBC article on the history of the wedding dress: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140503-how-wedding-dresses-evolved

A woman’s life on the Ballarat goldfield: http://education.sovereignhill.com.au/media/uploads/SovHill-women-notes-ss1.pdf

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