Victorian Hairstyles

Victorian Hairstyles




Copyright - May not be reproduced without permission from:  Victoria Rumble  

Hairstyles of the Victorian era were so distinctive that we can date CDVs by assessing the hairstyles.  It is, therefore, impossible to achieve the "look" of the era without duplicating the hairstyles.  Even if you weren't blessed with good hair genes, you can easily duplicate these styles.  

In the 1840's women of all classes prided themselves in their well dressed tresses.  Dressing the hair added immensely to one's attempts to achieve a fashionable look without necessitating a cash outlay.  True, some bonnets and other headdresses were an expense those of lesser means could not easily afford, but the simple dressing of the hair itself cost nothing more than a few hours practice in front of the looking glass.

About 1845 a lady's hairstyle was modified somewhat so that there were little loops of hair about ear level.  The hair was parted down the center, and pulled back so that there were little puffs or loops of hair about the ears rather than being pulled straight back.  During this period the hair of a mature woman was pulled back into a bun, while a few girls and younger women wore it falling in ringlets in the back.  The alternate part was also popular during this time period and can be identified by the distinctive "Y" shape part at the top of the head.  

The most popular hair accessories for the 1840's were combs which might hold the hair back at the sides, or a larger comb with fewer teeth which was placed down through the bun on the back of the head.  The decorative part of these combs was visible from the front and in some images resembles a braid on the top of the head.  These combs were often made of bone or tortoise shell, and sometimes had jewels set in them.  

The bonnet was the head covering of choice, irregardless of social standing or class.  These bonnets might have been made of straw, silk, or even plain cotton.  The drawn bonnet which used reeds to gather the fabric on for its distinctive shape became popular late in this decade.  For warmth in cold weather padded hoods made of silk or wool were often preferred over the bonnet.  

Hats were generally not worn with any regularity, except large straw hats sometimes worn by farm women or for forays to the seashore where extra protection from the sun was felt prudent.  

Girls' hair styles of the 40's and 50's were characterized by the center part, bobbed cut just below ear level, and pushed back behind the ears.  Boys' hair was parted on the side and generally shorter than that of the girls.  During an era when clothing was very similar for boys and girls many sitters in CDVs from this era can be identified as to sex according to the side or center part.  

The 1850's didn't bring great change in ladies' hair styles until the late '50's when the puffs on the sides disappeared and the hair fell from the center part, over the ears, and was swept up into a bun on the back of the head.  The elaborateness of this bun design increased toward the end of the decade.  Sometimes instead of the standard bun in the late '50's hair was rolled under and a net applied over it.  

By the 1860's the alternate part was no longer common, and hair was given the standard center part.  It was often held by combs at the sides and either put up into a bun low on the back of the head, or braided and the braid fastened around the head.

"Combs and other Ornaments.  The elegant combs lately introduced are among the most novel and striking decorations for the hair, provided, of course, the hair be arranged in a manner to proper display them.  They come in sets --back and side-combs - and are manufactured with exquisite skill and taste from jet, tortoise shell, mounted with steel, gilt, gold or gems." - Peterson's, Jan. 1863.  

While tortoise shell combs and other items are banned today, they can often be found in antique stores rather inexpensively, and will help today's re-enactress achieve the hair styles of the period just as they did during the Victorian era.  

False braids and other hair pieces increased in popularity as styles became more elaborate.  The use of the net which became popular during the late '50's continued to be worn at times to help hold these styles in place.  These nets were of two general categories - thick, or those made by tacking strips of ribbon together in a criss-cross fashion, or fine as in barely detectable when worn over fully dressed hair.  Those of ribbon generally had a gathered band with some sort of decoration at the crown.  

In 1864 Frank Leslie published a description of a hair style, "The cignon, or nape of the neck, is formed of the natural hair arranged over Topseys.  Surmounted with a comb, the whole covered with an invisible net.  A perusal of publications such as Godey's, Peterson's, and Arthur's reveals many references to these invisible nets, and a careful study of CDV's will reveal these nets were often barely visible, and always worn over fully dressed hair.  

Neither CDV's or period publications reveal any evidence that hair was casually stuffed into a net or left undressed, therefore, this practice should be avoided in our living history endeavors.  
Most dictionaries of the period make no reference to "snood" at all. Webster's l856 unabridged lists "snood" but gives as the definition something worn to hold the braids of unmarried women in Scotland.  There is no reference to a snood being worn in America.  Likewise, I have found no mention of these nets being referred to as snoods in period publications such as Godey's, Peterson's, etc.

A feature not seen until post-war is bangs.  If you wear bangs you may part your hair in the middle, grasp the bangs with the front section of hair on each side and gently twist to incorporate the bangs in with the longer hair.  This can be held in back of the ears with a comb, or if long enough pulled back with the other hair and arranged into a bun low on the head.  If your hair is cut too short to arrange into a bun, visit your salon or beauty supply outlet and purchase a hair piece.  The type that seems to work best is a "fall" or pony-tail type which is braided and then coiled into a bun shape, and tacked with needle and strong thread of a matching color on the under side.  

To attach the bun gather your hair and pin the hair piece over it.  This is generally easier if the hair piece is coiled in a slight bowl shape rather than perfectly flat.  Your beauty supply store should carry plastic hair pins with a tortoise-shell look which hold much better than the standard wire hair pins.  

Sunbonnets were popular during the 1860's - either corded or slatted versions, and the ever popular straw bonnet remained the most popular stylish design.  Drawn bonnets were becoming less popular, and by 1864 the buckram bonnet of choice was the spoon.  This bonnet sat far back on the head, and its high brim was somewhat suggestive of a spoon shape, thus its name.  
Sunbonnets of the period are characterized by the long skirt which is amply long enough to cover the shoulders.  The skirt and the front of the brim fall in one straight line without the brim protruding farther than the skirt front.

The Victorians washed their hair far less often than we do today, and the journals reveal some rather peculiar ways of cleaning the hair.  These range from rubbing pea flour into the hair to herbal infusions. In 1864 Godey's published this receipt for cleaning the hair, "Hair Wash.  Take a small quantity of rosemary, strip the leaves from the stalks, and put them into a jar with nearly half a pint of cold water.  Place the jar near the fire, and let the contents simmer gently for an hour or two, without setting or burning.  When the water is somewhat reduced the infusion will be sufficiently strong.  Then add a half a pint of rum, and simmer the whole for a while longer.  When cold, strain the liquid from the leaves, and keep it in a bottle to be ready for use.  Apply it to the roots of the hair with a small sponge or piece of flannel."  Ironically along with such receipts to clean the hair can be found items to restore the hair.  In 1852 Godey's published this method of restoring the hair, "Pomade to prevent baldness is made thus.  Buef suet one ounce, tincture of cantharides (Spanish fly used to raise blisters for medicinal purposes) one teaspoonful, oil of origanum (margerum) and bergamot of each l0 drops.  Melt the suet and when nearly cold stir in the rest of the ingredients until set."  

For night time (sleep) Peterson's recommended not wearing the hair in braids, but instead, "if very long, may be put loosely into a crochet or netting cap, which is too open to be unhealthy.  It is hardly necessary to say that fresh partings should be made every day, and the hair cleansed with a wash about once a week."  Patterns for those crochet caps are generally most comfortable when made from cotton crochet thread.  This helps keep in body heat on a cool night without the itching sometimes associated with wool yarns.  

Dyes were also used during the mid-Victorian era although they often had unpredictable outcomes, were time consuming and expensive.  "Most of the preparations for dying the hair are also poisonous, and sufficient injury has been done by them to warrant us in decrying their use.  The hair itself is a great ornament to the head, and most females feel desirous and very properly, to have it soft, clean, and abundant.  There is no doubt but most of the pomatums, greases, and other articles sold for the purpose of making it so, not only fail but even produce the contrary effects.  

This article from a medical journal went on to say that using hot curling-tongs spoiled the color of the hair, and even disposed it to turn gray.  
The use of dyes may have come about partly because of some rather peculiar notions the mid-Victorians had pertaining to hair color.  In 1862 the Southern Literary Messenger published an article entitled Red Hair which discussed red hair and prejudices associated with it in earlier years going so far as to record civilizations known to burn people at the stake simply for having been born with red hair.  The article mentioned that the Spanish people referred to red hair as "Judas hair" because they thought the disciple who betrayed Jesus had red hair.
By the 1860's red hair was felt to signify ardent, loving, and intense, a concentrated positive; blonde hair signified richness, and in contrast black hair was felt to be a sign of power and strength of character.  Many people in the mid-19th century believed these theories enough to predict occupations best suitable to a person based solely on hair color.

Arranging the hair in a period style takes little time, and very little cash outlay, yet probably does more than any other single practice in achieving the proper look of the period.  Instead of purchasing "snoods" consider purchasing a few basic supplies like hair pins, hair piece, gel, etc.  A little draw string bag can be used to keep these supplies all together so that dressing the hair is a simple and relaxed process that becomes part of your morning routine.  


  • Godey's Lady's Book.  Various issues 1850-1865 Peterson's. 1863 Red Hair.  Southern Literary Messenger.  Dec. 1862. Vol. 34, iss. 12
  •  Female Beauty in Old England and New England.  The Ladies Repository.  June 1854.  Vol 14, issue 6. the Hair.  The Ladies Repository.  Aug. 1856.  Vol. 16, iss. 1
  • Hair Dressers.  the Ladies Repository.  July 1868. Vol. 2, iss. 1
  • The Illustrated Self-Instructor in Phrenology and Physiology with Over One Hundred Engravings Together with The Chart and Character of.  Fowler, O.S. and L. N. New York.  Fowler & Wells Publishers.  1859.
  • The Ladies' Book of Etiquette and Fashion.  Hartley, Florence.  Boston. J. S. Locke & Co. 1860. Reprint - Amazon Dry Goods.
  • The Diseases of Woman, Their Cause and cure Familiarly Explained; with practical hints for their Prevention, and for the Preservation of Female Health.  Hollick, F., M.D.  New York.  Burgess, Stringer & Co. 1847





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