How Women in the 18th Century Got Those Sky-High Hairdos

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Back in the 1770s, stylish women from all walks of life favored soaring manes that would put any Texas beauty pageant contestant’s to shame. But these towering creations weren’t wigs. Using a variety of ingenious tricks, women made their real hair look like that—and they did it all without mousse, gel, or hairspray.

In a two-part blog post written by novelist Susan Holloway Scott, Colonial Williamsburg reenactor Abby Cox and her colleagues explain exactly how women in the 18th century tamed their tresses.

Like many of the day’s fashions, members of the French aristocracy first adopted the “bigger is better” hair trend, which quickly made its way to England. “The complexity of the styles showed that the wearer had both the leisure-time to devote to her hair, and most often the wealth to employ a professional hairdresser or accomplished lady’s maid to achieve it,” writes Scott.

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The first step toward ensuring their updos would stay, well, up, was to start with semi-dirty hair. (Not so different from the advice modern-day stylists give their clients.) Women of the era depended on powders and oils, not soap and water, to refresh their strands. A substance called pomatum, generally made at home by combining an animal fat and fragrant herbs or oils, was applied to the hair, followed by a dusting of powder. Hair was then brushed to ensure the powder and pomatum were evenly distributed.

“Think of the pomatum as a rich, deep conditioner applied as a kind of scalp massage, followed by the powder as a dry shampoo,” Scott explains, adding that this was a process women repeated nearly every night.

More powder was added after "cleansing" to achieve the era’s coveted hue (dusty white—so chic). Hair was then wrapped around hand-sewn pillows ("rollers" and "cushions") placed on top of the head. Once the desired height was achieved, a lady (or her maid) could make it look even more fashionable by adding fake curls or braids, or by dressing it up with ribbons and flowers.

Sounds time-consuming, doesn't it? According to Cox, even the day's most complicated looks took between ten and fifteen minutes from start to finish—“or less time than many modern young women spend with blow-dryers and flat-irons,” Scott writes.

Sounds like a smart way to cut down on your morning routine—or at the very least, like an opportunity for the ultimate #TBT selfie.

[h/t Two Nerdy History Girls