Courtesans and Haircare

We're going back a bit before the Victorian era today to talk about Sophia Baddeley, mid-eighteenth-century English courtesan. All quotations are from Katie Hickman's Courtesans.

Sophia was incredibly famous and successful, but no matter how much cash she pulled in, she'd spend it as soon as she got it. She more than likely was a shopping addict, since her behavior was so compulsive. She'd buy thousands of pounds worth of jewelry and clothing in a single day, wear all the items a couple of times, and then give them to friends or her maids and go shopping for more (I would have LOVED to be a maid in that establishment. It's the only service job where you would end up richer than your superstar employer).

Anyway, Sophia had a companion and best friend who lived with her, named Mrs. Steele, or as she was known in her last life, Sisyphus. She had the unenviable task of trying to keep Sophia's life together–make sure she made her appointments on time, chose suitable men to patron her, and for the love of God, kept her out of the shops. To say it was an uphill struggle is putting it mildly. Imagine babysitting a toddler who is addicted to something, but who has an adult's body and cleverness, and who is also your boss. And the parents never come home. It's just the two of you, 24 hours a day, FOREVER.

So whenever Mrs. Steele would have to be out of the house for a few hours, she would call in Sophia's hairdresser under the pretext of "Oh, hey girl, you look like you need a girlie day to relax and feel good about yourself. Let's get your hair done! and keep your unthrifty ass planted in that chair where there's nothing to buy in a five hundred foot radius"

The hairdresser in those days could actually take up an entire day. If anyone has read Memoirs of Geisha, you'll likely remember the scenes where they go to the hairdresser and spend hours and hours getting these elaborate hairdos that were so sturdy they would last for a week, provided one was careful with them. Anyone who knows anything about 18th-century fashion will know that hairdos back then were equally elaborate and sturdy, with their hair pieces and powders and pomades, turning every head into a sculpture, like so:
hats-18thcentury
So you can understand how it took Sophia all day to get her hair done, and why many courtesans didn't wash their hair every day like we'd do now. I'd guess that, if they didn't have any special events lined up that would require a change in style, they would wash their hair once a week, at the very most.

Which is why in 1764, the heiress Cleone Knox wrote in her diary, "I spend half the day at the Hairdresser's now. My head [aka, giant hairdo] has not been opened for over a fortnight, and this is positively the longest time I will go in this hot weather, though some Ladies keep their Heads unopened till they are Intolerable to themselves and everyone else. The dresser informed me that one lady from motives of thrift went so long a time that her head when opened was found to contain a Nest of Mice. Lord save me from that!" (63)

And that's how syphilis came into existence. Not really. But seriously, though, when you are so unclean that you have mice living in your hair and don't know it, you really should not be sleeping with people without a full-body condom on.

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