Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Women’s Hair Styles and the American Revolution

In the matter of hair styles colonial Americans took their cues from Europe.  Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, was the fashion icon of the day and set a fad for outlandishly tall, elaborately decorated wigs in the late 1700s. Her hairdressers created hairdos that often weighed five or more pounds and stood up to three feet high. Her wigs were imitated by other members of the French court and soon ladies of fashion throughout Europe and in the American colonies. The height of these styles was generally about 1 to 1 1/2 times the length of the face, and was styled in a pyramid shape.  This high hairstyle, called the pouf, was created using “cushions” made of fabric or cork.  The cushion was attached to the top of the head, and then natural and false hair was curled, waved, or frizzed and piled over and around the cushion.  The pouf was often styled into allegories of current events and was ornamented with ribbons, pearls, jewels, flowers, feathers, as well as ships, birdcages, and other items that evoked the theme.  Such elaborate hairstyles could be worn for days or weeks at a time and frequently became the home of insects.  It was permissible to scratch the head with a special stick.

The hairstyles of most American women were generally not as extreme as those in Europe. With coming of the Revolution in 1776, the passion for high hair began to wane in America. It seemed extravagant, wasteful, silly and raised suspicions of pro-British sympathies.  Josiah Bartlett, a delegate to the Continental Congress, wrote to his wife in 1778 about, “the Tory ladies…wearing the most enormous high head Dresses after the manner of the Mistresses and Whores of the British officers.”

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