Getting a-head in history: 19th century hair styling

When you're recreating historical fashions, it's important to keep your head in the game. By which I mean, of course, a period-appropriate hairstyle is an essential part of creating an authentic look. I'm always trying to improve my skills, and one of the benefits of going to the Bath Victorian Ball with Peryn was having someone else's hair to play with (and, you know, getting to hang out with an excellent history friend). There's so much more you can do when you're not trying to work behind your own head!

Here are details on how I styled our hair for the weekend, along with some tips for anyone who wants to try something similar. Apologies for the dearth of in-progress pictures; I realise that images are much more helpful than written descriptions, and I've tried to make up for this at the end of the post. But also, please do ask questions!

It's good to be familiar with your hair texture and how it behaves. Peryn's hair is waist length, fine, and straight, while mine is mid-back length, thick, and gay. Sorry, wavy. Peryn likes to curl her hair before styling it to give it more body, and I know that mine will only behave if I put it up slightly damp.

Even with long hair, it can be helpful to have some sort of pad or 'rat' to add volume; this was very common practice, particularly by the late 19th century, and can contribute a lot to the period look of a style. We picked up some foam donut thingys from Primark, which are cheap, come in light and dark colours, and are lightweight and easy to stick pins into. 10/10 would recommend.

Hairstyles: 1850s-1870s
For the ball, to go with her 1850s gown, Peryn was looking at these inspiration images:

Godey's Ladies Book, 1861.

I didn't re-create any of them exactly, but focused on the mid-century fullness around the face, and decorative braids. I sectioned Peryn's hair into back and side chunks (the middle image above has a good view of the part lines I tried to copy). I ended up snipping the two smaller donuts to make long rolls, which I wrapped the front sections of hair around to create fullness on the sides. I made the back section into a bun using the bigger donut, leaving a couple bits loose. I used these, and the ends of the front sections, to make four plaits/braids, which I wrapped around the bun in a decorative manner. This is the end result:

This picture is from when I was taking it down at the end of the night, but it shows how the plaits are made from all the loose bits after styling the rest of the hair. (Actual conversation: Me: "Ahahaha I have no idea what is going on here, I'm going to take a picture!" Peryn: "What have you done to my hair??")

For myself, I was inspired by the ridiculously massive 1870s hairstyles like these:

Revue de la Mode, 1873.

Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria

Cousins. Totally cousins. In conclusion, cousins.

I followed a similar technique as I did for Peryn's hair, separating it into back and side sections. Fortunately, fringes were just starting to come into style by the 1870s, so I didn't have to make mine completely disappear, though I twisted the longer bits back. I left the smaller donuts in the round, to create more concentrated volume at the back of the head. I braided the back section and looped it over everything else, leaving a couple strands out to form long hanging curls. To be honest I'm not entirely sure what was going on back there. I had a lot of trouble getting the sides symmetrical and making sure the pads were covered, so there was a great deal of swearing and Peryn trying to reassure me that no, it actually it looked fine.

Thank you Peryn for taking pictures of the back of my head for me.

Ridiculous massiveness, achieved!

Eventually I was satisfied, and let her stick a bunch of shiny things in. I wore the beautiful comb that Peryn made for me to wear at the Regency ball (love a good multi-period accessory), and a couple decorative pins I found earlier that day, supplemented with ones of Peryn's. If you happen to be in Bath, I recommend Not Cartiers in the Guildhall Market for reasonably priced antique and period-appropriate jewelry. I've started a tradition of day-of-ball hair ornament shopping there and it hasn't let me down yet! (I got my tiara there last year).

In retrospect, I think the main mass of hair should have been a bit higher on my head, to create a more vertical look from the front, but there's always next time. I am very pleased with the volume, and my cute long curl.

Hairstyles: 1890s-1910s
On Sunday, we were both going a bit later in time. For Peryn's 1890s look, we both liked this picture with the huge braid.

I pulled her hair back smoothly on the sides, wrapping it over the larger donut in back. Then I braided the back section and wrapped it over the top. I didn't exactly accomplish the look in the photo, but I think it turned out nicely.

I was going for a simple 1910s look, with my hair rolled over the smaller pads on the sides and a low bun. I didn't end up with any pictures of the back, but just imagine something not too dissimilar from the step by step below.

This sort of thing, c. 1912

Picture courtesy of TimeLight Photographic

Here's one I made later... 

The lovely Patrycja kindly agreed to model this basic style so I could show it step-by-step. It's possible to make this hairstyle work for a range of eras by changing the placement of the bun on the head, the amount of fullness around the face, and adding decorative details.

Step One:
Gather supplies. A long-handled comb like this is really good for parting hair; donut thingies snipped into rolls; more hairpins than you think you will possibly use. If it looks like it will set off metal detectors at the airport, that's a good amount (this may have happened to me on multiple occasions).

Step Two:
Hair sectioned into three, with the part approximately behind the ears. The back gets twisted into a simple bun. This shows the roll pinned in place to show the approximate angle, but I found that the hair didn't wrap around them enough to stay in place, so I ended up wrapping the hair around, then pinning.

Step Three:
The trickiest part is getting the rolls to stay in place while wrapping the hair around them evenly. And then you have to make the other side symmetrical! My usual technique consists of trial and error and redoing it about fifty times. I didn't get a picture, but you have to fold the hair back over the roll, and twist downwards to anchor it in place, while keeping everything smooth. Next time someone else gets to hold the camera, because I needed all my hands!

Make sure the pin goes through the roll as well.
Step Four:
Once the side bits are twisted, the easiest thing to do is to wrap these sections around the bun and pin in place.

Step Five:
Stick in a bunch more pins to get everything to stay, and voila!

It's a bit sad to put so much effort into a hairstyle and have to take it apart at the end of the day. But as they say... hair today, gone tomorrow. Has anyone attempted similar styles? Any tips to share? Any hair-related puns that I missed?


  1. This was a great rundown! I'll have to check Primark for rats. I've been saving my hair, but sometimes it's not enough. Also, some of those 1860s braided buns are super pretty!! Definitely stealing some inspiration for this summer.

    1. Glad it was helpful! I can get a bunch and bring them to Denmark for us to play with. :) The issue that I ran into was getting enough volume into the braid itself to replicate some of these- I think you'd need a switch of false hair for that, rather than a rat.

  2. Thanks for the walk-through! I've used the donut thingies for height and cut them apart for a huge Edwardian roll, but never on the sides like that. Should try that out one day :).

    1. Let me know how it works for you! I'm looking forward to experimenting with using them in different styles.

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