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Regency women went to great lengths to achieve an effortless, romantic look with long, flowing lines to their dresses and hairstyles. Even their dresses, which appeared to have little underneath, had several layers hidden below the surface. As with everything, nothing in the Regency era is quite as simple as it seems.

And behind the scenes of every genteel woman’s daily beauty regime were servants who made it all possible. Without today’s modern household appliances, a whole team of people were required to make a household run smoothly. There were servants who laundered, mended, ironed, and polished. Maids who buckled, tied, boosted, and smoothed; carried clean, hot water for bathing; and emptied bathtubs and chamber pots. Men and women cleaned, cooked, served, polished, and dusted. All so that life could go on smoothly and seamlessly.

Women in Jane Austen’s world were expected to be many things, especially when it came to their personal appearance, but what went on behind the scenes to make these women appear so effortless and graceful?

Evening dresses, fronticepiece, The Mirror of Graces,, 1811
Evening dresses

[Mr. Bingley] came, and in such very good time that the ladies were none of them dressed. In ran Mrs. Bennet to her daughter’s room, in her dressing gown, and with her hair half finished, crying out:

“My dear Jane, make haste and hurry down. He is come—Mr. Bingley is come. He is, indeed. Make haste, make haste. Here, Sarah, come to Miss Bennet this moment, and help her on with her gown. Never mind Miss Lizzy’s hair.”

“We will be down as soon as we can,” said Jane; “but I dare say Kitty is forwarder than either of us, for she went up stairs half an hour ago.”

Oh! hang Kitty! what has she to do with it? Come be quick, be quick! Where is your sash, my dear?”

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

It took time to achieve the polished look of a Jane Austen heroine; thus, I’ve also included additional links for each of the topics below for those who want to delve deeper. Let’s look behind the scenes:

Bathing

Cleanliness then wasn’t quite what it is today. Bathing only became common during the 18th century in wealthy households. In Jane Austen’s time, baths were taken once a week (more or less depending on the season) with sponge baths in between. This was usually done by sponging off with a pitcher of water and a little basin on the bedroom dresser. To bathe, people sat in a larger tub or stood in a smallish tub on the floor and washed with a pitcher of water. (The Family, Sex & Marriage in England 1500-1800 by Laurence Stone)

A portable bath shower from the mid 19th c.

Affordable soaps of the time were soft and more caustic than the soaps, lathers, and body washes we enjoy today. Firm, refined bar soaps were scented and more costly (and therefore less frequently used). As for a woman’s hair, the same soap used for the body was also used for the hair, and the hair was washed far less often than today.

Oral Health

As for dental health, tooth brushes and tooth powder were used. In Sense and Sensibility, we read this: “He was giving orders for a toothpick-case for himself, and till its size, shape, and ornaments were determined, all of which, after examining and debating for a quarter of an hour over every toothpick-case in the shop, were finally arranged by his own inventive fancy…”

Toothpick Case, National Maritime Museum, 1806

From Austen’s own letters, we know that dentistry in her time was a grisly business:

The poor girls and their teeth! I have not mentioned them yet, but we were a whole hour at Spence’s, and Lizzy’s were filed and lamented over again, and poor Marianne had two taken out after all, the two just beyond the eye teeth, to make room for those in front. When her doom was fixed, Fanny, Lizzy, and I walked into the next room, where we heard each of the two sharp and hasty screams.

The little girls’ teeth I can suppose in a critical state, but I think he must be a lover of teeth and money and mischief, to parade about Fanny’s. I would not have had him look at mine for a shilling a tooth and double it. It was a disagreeable hour.

Jane Austen’s Letters, Henrietta St., 15 Sept. 1813

The advent of modern dentistry, and the use of anesthetics, wouldn’t come until long after Austen’s lifetime. I, for one, feel much more enthusiastic about my next dental cleaning after this. For more on the topic of Regency dentistry, you can read this JAW article on Dental Hygiene in the Regency Period.

Dressing and Undergarments

For the latest fashions, women often shared patterns and new fashions. Those who had lately traveled to London or even Bath brought back descriptions, clippings, and patterns to share with their friends and family member. In Pride and Prejudice, we read this about Mrs. Gardiner’s visit: “The first part of Mrs. Gardiner’s business on her arrival, was to distribute her presents and describe the newest fashions.”

Underdrawers belonging to the Duchess of Kent, 1810-1820

As fashions evolved, so did women’s undergarments. Under their slim, empire-waisted Regency dresses made of thinner material than previous years, women wore a shift, stays, a waist petticoat, stockings, and more. With so much to lace up and buckle, women needed help getting dressed. On the topic of stays, we know that Jane wrote this to Cassandra:

I learnt from Mrs Tickar’s young Lady, to my high amusement, that the stays now are not made to force the Bosom up at all; that was a very unbecoming, unnatural fashion.

Jane Austen’s Letters, September 1813

However, women did not yet wear “underwear,” drawers, or pantaloons. Drawers were considered immodest and improper, something only men wore, until the early to mid 1800s. Slowly they caught on, and by the mid-1800s they were a matter of course when hoop skirts became popular. You can find more here: Ladies Underdrawers in Regency Times: Regency Underwear.

Cosmetics

In terms of cosmetics, a more natural Romantic look took hold during Austen’s life, in large part aided by the blockade during the Napoleonic Wars. Ladies were still, nevertheless, never too far from their rouge pot (Beauty and Cosmetics, 1550-1950 by Sarah Jane Downing). Regardless of one’s complexion or skin tone, a rosy glow was part of achieving that healthy romantic look.

As for covering up body odor, deodorant was not yet used, while the perfumes of the time tended toward sweet, musky scents. To find out more about cosmetics and how they were made (many times out of materials we now know are dangerous), you can read this article: A Deadly Fashion: Beauty and Cosmetics 1550-1950 – A Review.

Hair

During Jane Austen’s lifetime, hairstyles for women became more natural and graceful. This meant instead of powder, wigs, and elaborate updos, the natural hair color became popular again. Women wore their hair swept up into simple twists, buns, and chignons with locks of hair curled around their faces. Curling tongs and curling papers and cloths were used to create this effect.

The fashions and hairstyles all came from the Greco Roman styling that became popular during Austen’s day. You can read more here: Greco Roman Influences on Women’s Hairstyles During the Georgian Era.

Combs used as hair accessories

With the bonnets and caps used at the time, curls were used to frame the face. For evening and dinner parties, accessories such as combs and ribbons were used. Often a maid helped fix a lady’s hair each morning and before an evening dinner or party. What might look like a very natural hairstyle could take quite a bit of time to perfect beforehand. For more, you can read about Regency Hairstyles and their Accessories. Additionally, you can view Vic’s stunning Pictorial History of Regency Hairstyles.

A Look Behind the Scenes

The world of a genteel Regency woman was complex and nuanced. Next month, I’ll discuss “Privy” Matters: Regency Feminine Hygiene, Bodily Functions, and Childbirth. We’ll take an even closer, behind-the-scenes look at a genteel woman’s private life in Jane Austen’s time. All to help us understand the real-life world of carriage rides, balls, dinners, and courtship that we so enjoy in Austen’s novels.

As much as I love dressing up for a Jane Austen event, all of this information reminds me, as ever, that as romantic as everything looks in a Jane Austen film, life for women of her time was anything but simple—even for those who were part of the landed gentry.

When I’ve dressed for the ball given at past JASNA AGMs, my outer layer tends to be the most historically accurate. I’ve yet to invest in undergarments, and I usually “make do” with my own homemade hair accessories, jewelry, and ballet flats. One day, I’d like to invest in a bonnet. As one wise woman once told me at an AGM, “It takes years to build your Regency wardrobe – just take it one piece at a time.” Do you own any Regency clothing? If so, what do you enjoy wearing most? -Rachel


RACHEL DODGE teaches college English classes, gives talks at libraries, teas, and book clubs, and writes for Jane Austen’s World blog and Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine. She is the bestselling author of The Anne of Green Gables Devotional: A Chapter-By-Chapter Companion for Kindred Spirits and Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen. Her newest book The Little Women Devotional is now available for pre-order and releases December 2021. You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.

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In the past, this blog published several articles on hairstyles for men and women in the Regency era. This post discusses hairstyles in Georgian times. During a recent visit to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, I had the pleasure of examining a small, but excellent collection of Greco Roman statues and ancient artifacts. Strolling through several galleries, I took photographs of the hairstyles of the female figures.  The Walters Art Museum’s antiquities collection ranks among the top tier in North America (JSTOR). The images below are confined to the photographs I shot at the museum and the public domain portraits I found to compare them to.

A Change Towards the Neoclassical Ideal

From the late 16th century to the mid-19th century (until train travel changed the nature of long-distance travel), young male British aristocrats embarked on a Grand Tour to the Continent for several months or years to round out their education. Accompanied by a teacher or guardian, they completed their knowledge of the classics, studied art, and enjoyed a life of leisure, luxury, and exotic (at times erotic) adventures.

The itinerary included stays in France (Paris being a much sought after destination), The Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, and, of course, Italy.  Rome remained the premier stop, but trips to Venice, Florence, Pompeii, and Greece were also prized. Travelers returned home with souvenirs, works of art to decorate their houses and gardens, and a thorough appreciation of the Neoclassical ideals of ancient Rome, Greece, and the near East, as well as the Renaissance principles of art and architecture.

Influence of Neoclassicism on Women’s Hairstyles and Fashion

Transformation in women’s clothing and hair styles developed slowly during this period, but changed quickly between 1778 and 1793, influenced not only by the Grand Tours, but also in reaction to the French Revolution (1789-1799).  Even before the war, Marie Antoinette sought refuge from the extravagant dress at Versailles in her Hameau de la Reine, which was built for her on estate grounds.  Here she could enjoy a more natural environment than court life offered and dress “down” from elaborate corseted dresses and the over-the-top hair styles that were caricatured.

Marie Antoinette in a chemise gown. 1783. Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Wikimedia Commons

Marie Antoinette, by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1783. She is wearing a relatively loose and simple gaulle gown or chemise a la reine, made of muslin. Wikimedia image.

Marie Antoinette, along with the ladies of her court, walked and relaxed in light-loosed dressed in the gardens, grounds, and working farm that surrounded the hamlet. To complement a more “natural” look and in keeping with the casual atmosphere, she and her female entourage wore straw bonnets and loosely curled hairstyles, which, for its time, were “simple.”

The print below shows the old school reaction to the new styles. The Merveilleuses were instrumental in transforming fashion to the Neoclassical style during the the French Directorate (1795-1799) in the last four tumultuous years of the French Revolution.

From Vernet's

From Vernet’s “Incroyables et Merveilleuses” series, 1793. Public Domain image.

Comparisons of images of Greco Roman statues to contemporary Georgian paintings

As previously stated, this post contains the original images I took in the Walters Art Museum. The quoted text about the ancient statues is rewritten from the museum informational labels for each sculpture or relief.

Right: Relief of Apollo and Artemis, ca 50 B.C. Walters Art Museum. Image by V. Sanborn. Left: Portrait of Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Queen of Prussia, 1802. Josef Grassi. Wikimedia Commons. Comment: The Queen of Prussia wears a diadem much like Artemis in the 50 B.C. relief panel. Differences in hairstyles are due to adaptations made by the Europeans, who were influenced by the ancients, but who did not slavishly copy the hairstyles and hair jewelry. Their adaptations were unique to their era.

Left: Detail, Maidens Playing “Knucklebones”. Greek, late 4th or early 3rd century B.C., Terracotta. Walters Art Museum. Image by V. Sanborn. Right: Harriet Melon by John Russel, 1804. Image from The Peerage. Comment: One can see almost a direct correlation between these two hairstyles, centuries apart. The primary difference is in the soft curls framing the face and forehead in Harriet’s undo  In 1804, soft white muslin dresses, draped gently from a high waist, were all the style. Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet wore hairstyles in 1995’s Sense and Sensibility that were remarkably similar to the terracotta maiden’s, with touches of the ringlets popular in the early 19th century.

Left: BonnetAbout 1810, 19th centuryGift of Mrs. C. Walsh © McCord Museum View the leghorn bonnet at this link. Right: Portrait of a Woman. Roman, Trajanic period, ca A.D. 10. Walters Art Museum. Image by V. Sanborn. Comment: I found no online examples that emulated this elaborate Roman hairstyle, but I loved how the leghorn bonnet echoes it. By 10 A,D., Roman women wore complicated hairstyles requiring daily maintenance by attendants. Wigs, hairpieces made from the hair of slaves, and padding kept in place with hair nets, pins, or combs, were used to create a sculptural “do.” (Hairstyles through the ages.)

Left: “This portrait of Livia was created not long after her marriage to Emperor Augustus…She…set a new fashion with her innovative nodus hairstyle, in which a section of hair is arranged in a roll over the forehead, while the rest of the hair is swept back in loose waves and secured in a bun at the nape of the neck.” (Text from the Walters Art Museum). Livia, Late Republican period, mid-late 30s B.C. Image by V. Sanborn. Right:  Louise, Queen of Prussia by Elizabeth Vigee Lebrun, 1801, Schloss Charlottenburg. Public domain image Comment: Louise wears an adaptation of the nodus hairstyle. Hers is looser with curls framing her forehead and face. Her low bun is larger, looser, and curlier. 

Top left and right: Portrait of a Young Woman. Roman (Egypt?), late Republican period, ca. 50 B.C. Walters Art Museum. Image by V. Sanborn. “The realism of the young woman’s fleshy features and the detailed treatment of her elaborate hairstyle are typical of the late Republican period.” (Text from Walters Art Museum.) Bottom left: Detail of An Embarrassing Proposal, 1715-1716, Jean Antoine Watteu, Hermitage MuseumBottom right: English School, A Lady, profile facing to the left, wearing pale lilac dress with white sleeves and coral necklace (early 19th Century), watercolour on card, , set in a red leather travelling case. Oval, 78mm (3in) high.Bonham’s. Comment: The lovely bust of the young Roman woman demonstrates a hairstyle that spans a hundred years between the early 18th and early 19th centuries. The Roman hairstyle reminded me of several Watteau paintings from the early 18th century. The lady at bottom right also wears a version similar to the Roman example, but is more complicated. In the Watteau painting, the ladies demonstrate three versions of a similar underlying style. In this instance, Greco Roman influence definitely made its appearance at the start of the Georgian era in England (1714-1830). French influence on English fashion is well known.

Top right: Standing Maiden. Greek (Tarentum, Italy) 3rd century B.C.. Terracotta with traces of paint and gilding. “…the draping of the fabric on top of the maiden’s high, ‘melon” hairstyle are typically South Italian.” (Quoted text from the Walters Art Museum.) Image by V. Sanborn. Top left: Fashion plate, Costume Parisiens, 1815. Bottom: Detail of an 1812 print. Comment: From the original model of a high melon hairstyle, one can see the inspiration for the hairstyles featured in the two prints. These early 19th century hairstyle adaptations don’t strictly follow the original example, but pay homage to it. In the fashion plate, one can observe the French empire custom of inserting flowers, ribbons, and hair jewelry. The two ladies busying themselves with needle work affect simpler hairstyles that echo the high “melon” look but that leave the bun loose and curling down the back of the head. 

Right: Head of a Maiden With Lampadion Hairstyle. Greek, 3rd-2nd century B.C. “Dicaearchus (active about 320 -300 B.C.) a pupil of Aristotle’s, remarked that women described this hairstyle with topknot as the lampadion, or “little torch.” (Quoted text from the Walters Art Museum.) Image taken by V. Sanborn. Left: Portrait of a young girl, Louis-Léopold Boilly. Date unknown. Middle: Portrait of young woman, bust, wearing a gray-brown dress Laplatte Adèle (late 18th century-early 19th century) Paris, Louvre Museum, DAG. Comment: The Lampadian hairstyles as worn by the ladies in the two paintings, closely resemble the Greek example. Women still wear  this today, including me when I’m dressed casually.

Top right and middle: Terracotta Head of a Woman with Long Curls. Greek (South Italy), 3rd century B.C. Walters Art Museum. Image taken by V. Sanborn  Top left: Portrait of Mrs Moffet, 1826, Sir Martin Archer Shee, Walters Art Museum. Image by V. Sanborn. Lower left: Princess Louise of Prussia (Princess Antoni Henryk Radziwill), 1802. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public domain image. Lower middle:  Miniature of Mrs Russell by John Smart. 1781. Christie’s. Lower right: Detail of Mrs John Gibson. Portrait by Jacob Eichholz, ca 1820. Sotheby’s. Comment: This hairstyle is personally one of my favorites. I used to wear a version of it when I had long straight hair. I’d pull a ponytail to the side and let my hair fall over my shoulder. Mrs. Moffet has the closest proximation to the terracotta head, but the other variations are equally lovely and span decades if not centuries.

Top left: Head of a Satyr, 2nd century A.D. Roman copy after a Hellenistic Greek original. Walters Art Museum. Image taken by V. Sanborn. Top right: Mrs. Fox,ca. 1805. Benjamin Trott, American. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain image. Below:  Portrait of Lady Caroline Lamb, ca. 1805, Sir Thomas Lawrence. Wikimedia Commons. Comment: Lady Caroline Lamb, Lord Byron’s mistress, was known for her eccentric often manic ways and short curly hair. Mrs. Fox sports a “do” similar to the Satyr’s. Children, both boys and girls, sported this attractive style during the latter part of the 18th C. and early years of the 19th century.

Silhouettes of Jane Austen (left) and her sister, Cassandra (right), as young women. Wikipedia. Below sits my Pinterest board entitled Regency hairstyles. You might have fun finding images that resemble the hairstyles by the Greco Roman statues or by the two Austen women!

Sources:

Sorabella, Jean. “The Grand Tour.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/grtr/hd_grtr.htm (October 2003)

Cadeau, Carmen. “Women’s Fashion During and After the French Revolution (1790 to 1810),” All About Canadian History…Except not really. More like bits an pieces. Retrieved  8/14/2019: https://cdnhistorybits.wordpress.com/2016/01/19/womens-fashion-during-and-after-the-french-revolution-1790-to-1810/ (January 2016)

Victoria and Albert Museum. “Style Guide: Regency Classicism.” Retrieved 8/22/2019: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/s/style-guide-regency-classicism/

Batman, E. (2004). The New Galleries of Ancient Art at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. American Journal of Archaeology, 108(1), 79-86. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40024677

The Scandal of Marie Antoinette’s Gown,  Meghan Masterson, Meghan Masterson blog. Retrieved 8/22/2019 from https://meghanmastersonauthor.com/the-scandal-of-marie-antoinettes-gowns/

Hairstyles Through the Ages, Crystalinks, History. Retrieved 8/22/2019 from https://www.crystalinks.com/hair.history.html

Warnock, R. (1942). Boswell on the Grand Tour. Studies in Philology, 39(4), 650-661. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4172592

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