Considering the towering hairstyles worn by women in the 1770s, the question that inevitably comes to mind is "how did they do it?" For the answer, I turned to two of our friends from Colonial Williamsburg, the manuta-maker's apprentices of the Margaret Hunter shop: Abby Cox and Sarah Woodyard.
These two young women not only dress in the clothing of the 1770s on a daily basis, but they are constantly researching the period to make their "look" as authentic as possible. Because they participated in the fashion trades, 18th c. milliners, mantua-makers, and their shop assistants dressed in the latest styles as a form of advertising as well as personal preference. This can be seen in prints like the one, right, where the milliners are wearing elaborate hair and caps. (For a photograph of the Margaret Hunter shop's interpretation of this print for a recent conference, see here - plenty more big hair!)
First, forget 21st notions of bouncy, squeaky-clean hair. Eighteenth-century women did not scrub their hair clean, so much as cleanse it. Instead of daily lathering of soap and water (which can damage hair), they worked pomatum into the hair with their fingers, added powder, and then brushed and combed vigorously. The pomatum could have been made at home or purchased, and consisted of animal fat plus fragrance. The powder would have included some sort of finely-ground starch. Wheat, corn, or potato starch, acorn, and tapioca are all possibilities, with ground sheep or beef bones and ground orris-root for a light floral scent.
Inspired by the recipes in The Toilet of Flora, first published in 1772 (and here online), Abby made pomatum of mutton fat and pig's lard with essence of lemon and clove oil, to be kept in a jar. I can report that this mixture smelled absolutely, delightfully spicy – plus, as Abby noted, clove oil is a natural flea and tick repellent. Her hair powder featured ground cuttlebone. Think of the pomatum as a rich, deep conditioner applied as a kind of scalp massage, followed by the powder as dry shampoo. This treatment is hardly limited to the Georgians, either. Indian women, known for their beautiful, long hair, have long followed a similar cleansing regimen of oiling and combing.
This process was done frequently, too. No matter how elaborate the style, Georgian women always took their hair down at night and combed it out. For many women, this was likely a relaxing, aromatherapeutic ritual for the end of the day - although there were no doubt some lazy, slovenly hussies who didn't, giving rise to the myths about maggots.
Hair that had been treated like this made styling much easier, just as modern hairdressers rely on powdered dry shampoo to add texture and body before attempting up-dos. More powder was dusted on before styling to achieve the fashionable matte, "dusty" look of powder and to make dark hair paler. Unlike the beehives of the 1950's-60's, Georgian women did not tease their hair, but added extra volume with padded forms called rollers and cushions, middle right. Think of them as the 18th c. answer to Bumpits.
Sewn of wool cloth to match the wearer's hair, these were shaped pillows stuffed lightly with down or sheep's wool. The hair was wrapped around, (that's Abby demonstrating, middle left), or pulled through the forms, and smoothed and pinned (with u-shaped hairpins) into the desired shape. Side curls could be rolled and pinned into place, and extra touches could include braids or false curls. (Wearing a more elaborate style, above left, is the third of the shop's summer interns, Rebecca Starkins, a PhD candidate at N.Y.U. in English literature.) There was no mousse, gel, or hairspray; the pomatum and the powder offered the necessary staying-power.
How long would all this take a busy 18th c. apprentice before she appeared for work? If Abby and Sarah are any indication, not long at all. They accomplished these elaborate styles in about ten to fifteen minutes, or less time than many modern young women spend with blow-dryers and flat-irons. A skilled 18th c. professional hairdresser would have been able to perform the basics in less time, plus construct a more towering edifice of hair complete with flowers, ribbons, and strands of pearls.
More impressive still is the fact that both Abby and Sarah have both given up modern hair care products altogether, and "practice what they preach" with pomatum and powder. When they go visit their (modern) hairdressers for a cut, they're greeted with amazement, for their hair is healthy, strong, and thick - and, they swear, in better condition than ever. Hmm...perhaps the old ways ARE the best.
For the record: The length of Abby's hair is just below her shoulders, Sarah's is to the middle of her back, and Rebecca's is to her waist. Many thanks to them all!
Upper right: detail, A Morning Ramble, or - The Milliners' Shop, published by Carington Bowles, 1782. The British Museum.
Photographs by the Margaret Hunter Shop and Susan Holloway Scott.