No, It's Not a Wig, Thank You!

I read a novel awhile back where the author made what I think is a major mistake. She had her 18th century heroine wearing a wig. Not a hair piece, mind you, but a full-blown horse hair wig that completely covered her own hair.

I’m the last one to be throwing stones, as I am sure I’ve made mistakes as well. For example, read Can you Flop in a Corset?  Besides, the wig-wearing heroine would be an easy mistake to make. When I imagine a woman in 18th century France, for example, what comes to mind is a character with pasty skin, a heart shaped patch by her mouth and snow white hair piled high atop her head – hair that could not possible be real.

Or could it?
Queen Marie Antoinette by Anonymous (1775)
Musée Antoine Lécuyer
According to my research, women in the 18th century did not wear wigs. They might extend their own tresses with hairpieces, but those huge grey heads you see in the portraits were largely their own natural hair with a few ornaments thrown in like bird cages, model ships and such.

If you’re interested in creating your own 18th century hair, here’s a fun tutorial I found on YouTube. 18thcentury "pouf" hairstyle tutorial The hair style Jenny shows looks like something anyone with enough initiative (and enough hair) could do.

When I see these 18th century dos, two questions come to mind:

How often did they wash their hair? I would guess, not very often. I probably don’t need to research that question since none of my heroines, so far, sport these elaborate styles. After all, it’s kind of hard to have the heroine’s hair tumble about her shoulders when the hero pulls the pins if she’s got it lacquered up in an 18th century version of the beehive. I can just imagine it flopping over to the side in one hardened mass – not very romantic to say the least.

That leads me to the other question:

How did they keep all that hair up there? They must have had something that put our modern “extra hold” hair gels to shame.  Unfortunately, I have yet to find a definitive answer. Some suggestions I’ve seen include:

Egg whites – Makes sense. They harden pretty well and wouldn’t smell too badly – for awhile. Plus, I imagine they were beneficial to the hair.

Animal fats – Yuck! They would go rancid fairly quickly, I would think. Plus, I can’t imagine you could achieve the hold unless you slathered it on really thickly. To me, the 18th century portraits just don’t look like their hair is greased into shape.

Sugar water – Maybe. This would also harden well, and might give the hair an interesting sparkle. However, I don’t know that I would go to a garden party with sugar water on my hair.

Update: Two Nerdy History Girls had an interesting post on this subject where they actually share some recipes for early 19th century pomades. You can check it out here

What have you heard? If you know more about how 18th century women kept their hair in such elaborate dos, please share!


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