If you think Dolly Parton’s beehive marked the heyday of big hair, or that Lady Gaga’s wild styles are a quirky new phenomenon, then think again. Women across the globe have been using their hair as a means of self-expression for millennia. The means have changed, but the end remains the same: hair arranged in so imaginative a manner that it, along with the woman wearing it, is impossible to ignore. Historical examples abound, but 18th-century Europe provides magnificent illustrations of the role women’s hair has played in conveying personality and power.


STATEMENT HAIR FROM JEAN PAUL GAULTIER’S FALL 2011 READY-TO-WEAR COLLECTION. © FIRSTVIEW

The woman most synonymous with the extravagant styles of the period is Marie Antoinette. Just fourteen when she married Louis XVI of France in 1770, the dauphine was initially popular. But as an archduchess of Austria, she was a foreigner and viewed with suspicion, and her appearance was under constant scrutiny. In order to fit in, the new queen decided to adopt flamboyant French hairstyles, piled high and powdered, as shown in a 1778 portrait by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, her favoured court painter. With time, Marie Antoinette made the coiffure her own, taking it to ever-greater heights – newspapers reported that her hair soared some three feet high. When rebuked for such follicular indulgence, she insisted that she was merely conforming to French fashion. But her legendary hairdresser, Léonard Alexis Autier, claimed that the queen set the tone, and the ladies of France merely followed.

For convenience and to save time, 18th century gentlemen often sheared off their hair in favour of wigs. Ladies, however, had the luxury of hours to spare on lengthy beauty rituals that relied on their own natural locks as a foundation that was then augmented with curls, pads and hairpieces. Construction of these elaborate styles was labour intensive, requiring a cocktail of pomades, including one known as “bear’s grease,” which consisted of a blend of bear fat and beef marrow, mixed with perfume to disguise their heady natural aromas. When the imported bear-fat supply failed to meet the immense demand, other, less exotic animal fats were substituted. Well-to-do women had maids to comb, grease and curl their hair around heated rods. Then, to set the hairstyle, large quantities of powder were blown through a cone-shaped trumpet to guarantee even coverage. Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of Ladies Elizabeth, Charlotte and Anna, daughters of the 2nd Earl Waldegrave, offers a rare opportunity to consider these looks from multiple angles. Believe it or not, their coiffures are relatively conservative by 1780s standards. The thick rolls beneath their ears were probably separate hairpieces, curled and powdered separately and then pinned on.


MARIE ANTOINETTE’S FAMOUS HAIR, ORGANISED AROUND A HIDDEN CUSHION AND PLANTED WITH FEATHERS IN THIS 1778 PORTRAIT 
BY LOUISE ÉLISABETH VIGÉE LE BRUN. © KUNSTHISTORISCHES MUSEUM 

The secret to supporting these architectural up dos was called a cushion, a heart-shaped pad of fabric or cork, secured at the crown of the head at the parting. A platform for towering beehives, the cushion anchored curls strategically piled around and on top of it, along with additional pinned hairpieces. In position for days and even weeks at a time, under masses of greased and powdered hair, this all-important support required careful attention. As English hairdresser James Stewart wrote in 1782, maintaining a clean cushion was paramount, “or else, being placed on the warmest part of the head, it may breed and become troublesome.” One method for keeping parasites at bay was the use of “fleatraps,” tiny boxes of glue laced with blood installed among the tresses, with the hope that lice would head for the traps rather than the hair and scalp. The clever insects invariably eluded these traps; as a result, between the lice, grease and dry powder, 18th-century heads suffered intolerable itching. To maintain decorum, the ladies used long, thin scratching sticks to relieve itches and keep their elaborate arrangements from toppling.


MLLE DES FAVEURS À LA PROMENADE À LONDRES, AN ANONYMOUS CIRCA 1775 ETCHING SATIRISED FRENCHWOMEN’S OBSESSION WITH BIG HAIR BY SHOWING ONE OF THEM TURNING IN AMAZEMENT AS AN ENGLISHMAN SHOOTS AT A FLOCK OF BIRDS NESTING IN IT. © THE BRITISH MUSEUM

Size and weight were further obstacles. These confections were heavy (around two pounds) and frequently festooned with fruits, jewels, feathers and flowers. When Lady Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, dressed her hair with luxurious ostrich feathers in 1774, the exotic plumes became an instant hit across Britain. Gentlemen lamented the invasion of gargantuan hairstyles, well beyond the costs they incurred to their households. Ladies’ hair demanded increasingly more space, forcing them to kneel in carriages to keep their coiffures from crushing against the ceilings. Taller styles also proved hazardous in rooms with lowhanging chandeliers, and there were complaints that piles of powdered curls obstructed views at the playhouse. Inevitably the folly of these lofty hairstyles came to be lampooned in satirical engravings such as Mlle des Faveurs à la promenade à Londres, from around 1775. The anonymous print shows an unsuspecting Frenchwoman strolling while an Englishman shoots at a flock of pigeons that have mistaken her hairdo for a dovecote. At the time, caricatures by the likes of Matthew Darly and others showed women buckling under the weight of their hair, tiny groundsmen tending extensive gardens amid avenues of curls, and miniature armies pitching military encampments on their summits. While these images were exaggerated, the hair-related excesses of the day must have been notorious enough to warrant such parody.


ANOTHER SITTER FOR VIGÉE LE BRUN, MADAME GRAND WEARS A COMPARATIVELY RESTRAINED STYLE IN THIS 1783 PORTRAIT. 
© THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART. IMAGE SOURCE: ART RESOURCE, NY

Of course, the hours dedicated to styling behind closed doors soon led to allegations of illicit liaisons between the fancy ladies and their hairdressers. Yet the sheer enormity of the task at hand must have left little time for saucy behaviour, and stylists were more likely to take on the role of trusted confidants than of secret lovers. Indeed, in 1791, while attempting to flee revolutionary France, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI entrusted her hairdresser with delivering a vital message to ensure their passage to safety. Alas, the misguided coiffeur delivered the missive into the wrong hands, thus thwarting the monarchs’ chance of escape and forcing them to return to Paris and face the revolutionaries. Such was Marie Antoinette’s despair on that dreadful journey that her blonde locks, once whitened with powder, reportedly turned white from distress. Prior to leading her to the guillotine, and to the several thousand spectators who were awaiting her arrival, the queen’s aptly named executioner, Samson, cut off her famous hair. And so it was that Marie Antoinette, whose style had captivated the nation, died with her shorn head covered by a simple linen cap. Even before the blade fell, the message was clear: beneath all that aristocratic finery, she was just an ordinary woman.


Jonquil O’Reilly is an Old Master Paintings specialist at Sotheby’s New York.

LEAD IMAGE: The Ladies Waldegrave, 1780, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, shows three sisters working together on a piece of needlework, their hair done up in the fashion of the day. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image Source: Art Resource, NY