I’ve been reading Karen Bowman’s Corsets and Codpieces: A Social History of Outrageous Fashion (2015) from Pen and Sword Books, which has provided some really fun information, but is sadly far, far less academically rigorous than I would have liked (nothing is cited, exclamation marks are overused to an astonishing level, etc.). However, I feel comfortable relating some of the stories in this book, if I’ve encountered similar ones elsewhere.
One such story talks about the enormous powdered hairstyles of the upper classes in the eighteenth century. We’ve already discussed what happens when ladies, either out of economy or laziness, didn’t get their hair redone for months on end.
According to Bowman:
“Wigs were convenient to maintain as one could send them back to the barbers for re-dressing at regular intervals. The alternative was having to sit while your hair was combed, pulled, frizzed, teased, rearranged about pads of greasy wool and pinned, pomaded, pummelled and powdered into shape. Yet the dressing of the hair was only half of the process. The other half was just ‘wearing’ your new hairstyle, day and night, for an average of three or four weeks, and in some cases even sleeping sitting up to preserve it. Only after time would the creation be pulled down and rebuilt. Even if a lady could have afforded the expense of a daily change in order to prevent the animal grease in the pomatum becoming rancid and attracting bugs or at worst nests of mice, it is unlikely she would have wanted to spend hours in the hairdresser’s chair.
“A wonderful extract from the London Magazine of 1768 gives us a first-hand account of such activities:
“‘I went the other morning to make a visit to an elderly aunt of mine, when I found her pulling off her cap and tendering her head to the ingenious Mr. Gilchrist, who had lately obliged the public with a most excellent essay on hair. He asked her how long it was since her head had been opened or repaired. She answered, ‘Not above nine weeks.’ To which he replied it was as long as a head could well go in the summer, and that therefore it was proper to deliver it now: for he confessed that it began to be un peu hazard [a little hazard]” (62).
“Aside from physical discomfort, sporting high hair was fraught with other problems. Poet Samuel Rogers (1763-1855) recollected in his youth that ladies’ dressed hair ‘was of a truly preposterous size.’ On one oaccasion he was obliged to share a coach with a lady who had to sit on a stool placed at the bottom of the coach as the height of her headdress did not allow her to sit on the seat . . . Dancing was no easier as ladies with high hair could not pass under the raised arms of their gentleman partners. It is also rumoured that a side door in St Paul’s cathedral had to be raised at least 4ft just to enable women to enter the building” (62-63).