Harlots: A Timeline in Hair


aka, You Knew This Was Coming, Didn’t You?

Yep, 18th-century hair nerd Kendra reporting for duty! Who’s watching Harlots (2017), the 18th-century London-set story of two dueling brothels, airing on Hulu.com in the U.S.? I am, and so far I’m mostly loving it! Oh, I’ve got some quibbles with things here and there, but the story is entertaining, and they’re doing a good job of mixing the glamour and grit of whoredom and 18th-century London life, and I’m interested in the characters and plotlines (although I want Lydia Quigley to GO DOWN IN FLAMES). Anyway! Expect more Harlots-related content, but the first thing that springs into my mind is, HAIR! (It’s Pavlovian, y’all).

So, how are they doing? Not half bad, I’d say! There’s a lot of great hairstyles and only a few WTF. The main thing they’re doing is mixing up their eras, which, when they do the details of the hairstyle right, I’m shockingly okay with. I’d way rather see a mish-mash of late 18th century hairstyles all mixed up together, but done well, better than a bunch of hairstyles from one period done badly. Because I get that they are using different hairstyles to distinguish the various characters’ class levels and to show formal vs. informal events. Also, let us give mad props that Harlots seemed to find a way around the bobby pin rationing so epidemic in historical productions these days!!

think the hair designer is Jacquetta Levon (IMDB credits her as “hair designer / makeup designer,” but whether that’s a lead position, I don’t know). Other hair people credited are Sara Austin, Vincenza Miele, Sam Smart, Amy Mansfield, and Lynda Pearce.

So what have we got? According to the title card on the first episode, it’s 1763. Whyyyyy do they DO that??!! I know, they think it gives the story so much more verisimilitude, but all it makes ME do is start comparing every detail to the realities of fashion in 1763 and going “nope, nope, ohhhh-kay I guess if I squint, nope, nope, I guess so…” Listen, filmmakers. You’d do SO MUCH BETTER by us historical nerds if you didn’t give us an actual YEAR to nitpick about.

So, what year(s) are the hairstyles in?

1730s Hairstyles in Harlots

If I’m being generous, Lydia’s son George’s wig is a style most seen in the 1730s. It DOES have the right cut in terms of front vs. back hair, but by the 1740s and beyond, almost ALL men’s wigs had side rolls (buckles). And, while men’s hair/wig styles were much more fossilized than women’s, and a man would certainly wear an out-of-fashion wig as a sign of his profession/class, I’ve yet to see anyone hang on to this particular no-buckle style. Also, really the short-front-hair (toupee) should be lower and smaller on top if it’s going to be 1730s; if it’s going to be later, the top hair is okay, but then it needs side buckles.

Also, I’ve never seen a man’s queue (tail) this short. Makes me wonder if other things on George are less-than-impressive. Just sayin’.

Harlots Hulu ITV

I think the stubby queue is to work with his galumphing character?

If I’m being generous, I guess they’re going 1730s like this | Attributed to Andrea Soldi, 1703–1771, Italian, active in Britain (from ca. 1736), Sir Robert and Lady Smyth with Their Son, Hervey, between 1738 and 1739, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

But really, any man’s wig from the 1740s or beyond, until the 1780s, should have side rolls — unless it’s a totally different, non-queue (tail) style | Francis Hayman, 1707/8–1776, British, George and Margaret Rogers, between 1748 and 1750, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

1750s Hairstyles in Harlots

Apparently in some future episode, Lucy is going to kick it old skool and rock a 1750s ‘do.

Harlots Hulu ITV

I’ll address the Alice in Wonderland headband ribbon below.

Madame de Pompadour c. 1758 is proud:

François Boucher, detail from Madame de Pompadour, 1758, Victoria & Albert Museum

Early 1760s Hairstyles in Harlots

Alright, props! There are some people in Harlots wearing hairstyles that are perfect for 1763! Among them:

Harlots Hulu ITV

Margaret herself! Her hair is up (yay!), it’s got a bit of height on top (perfect for early 1760s), and the side ringlets are very of-the-period.

Harlots Hulu ITV

Lydia’s girls — similar styles, all with a little bit of height on top in an overall “egg” shape, which is SO 1760s.

Harlots Hulu ITV

Margaret’s girls — okay, so they’re messy, but clearly the filmmakers are trying to show that they’re lower class than Lydia & co. Still, their hair is mostly up, and the bit of height on Emily (pre-transformation) is a nice nod to fashionability. That being said, Violet (second from bottom left) should also be wearing her hair up, which she never seems to do…

Overall similar shape… | Print made by William Pether, ca 1738–1821, British, Countess Natalia Petrowna Czernichew, 1762-1767, Mezzotint on moderately thick, moderately textured, cream, laid paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund

Ditto! | Thomas Gainsborough RA, 1727–1788, British, Mary Little, later Lady Carr, ca. 1765, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Bequest of Mrs. Harry Payne Bingham

Yes, prostitutes could get slovenly, especially the lower class ones… | The Tavern Scene — A Rake’s Progress series, by William Hogarth, 1732-5, Sir John Soane’s Museum

Mid- to Late-1760s Hairstyles in Harlots

Charlotte Wells is clearly fashion-forward, because her high, egg-shaped styles are very late 1760s.

Harlots Hulu ITV

Charlotte’s hair is a great shape! It’s maybe a little too wedding-curls, but I can let that go.

Print made by James Watson, 1740–1790, British, Lady Almeria Carpenter, ca. 1768, Mezzotint (first state) on medium, moderately textured, cream, laid paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund

Print made by John Spilsbury, 1730–1795, Countess of Ancrum, ca. 1770, Mezzotint on moderately thick, moderately textured, beige, laid paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund

Late 1760s Hairstyles in Harlots

Sir George’s wigs — one brown, one white — are high on top, buckled on the sides, and long in back. Minus the top height, this is the basic layout of a man’s queue wig from the 1740s through the 1780s. You start seeing these high tops in late 1760s and through the 1770s, so that’s where I’m putting this.

Harlots Hulu ITV

Excellent all-over cut and shape!

Harlots Hulu ITV

Going even higher for the theater, clearly to make him look extra foppish.

Men’s hair/wig styles start getting a bit of height on top in the very late 1760s, then get even higher in the 1770s for the ultra-fashionable or foppish | Nathaniel Hone RA, 1718–1784, Irish, Portrait of a Gentleman, 1769, Gouache and watercolor with scraping on ivory, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The high toupee (front hair) on a man’s hair or wig style was particularly associated with “macaronis,” a term for British fops | Etching: ‘Monr. Le Medicin’, a macaroni, 1771, Wellcome Library, London.

1770s Hairstyles in Harlots, WTF Edition

And then they come up with this clunker:

Harlots Hulu ITV

Okay from the front, WTF from the sides and back.

Alrighty… so clearly they are trying to do a mid- to late-1770s style in order to show that Charlotte is over-the-top dressed up super-formal and super-artificial. I get it, theatrically! I also like the overall front silhouette, with the hair angling out and up, and the fact that the back hair is clearly longer and styled up.

What I don’t get is why she looks like she stuck her finger in an light socket — check out that bottom left image, where the teased/hair-sprayed hair is separating. And, of course, the details of the long-and-up-back are wrong.

Clearly they are trying to go for one of these high-and-wide late 1770s styles, but they’ve missed the fact that these were styled over a shape, not just hair sticking up à la Bride of Frankenstein | Benjamin West, 1738–1820, American, active in Britain (from 1763), Queen Charlotte, 1777, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Now, let’s address that pink streak at the same time that we look at the crappy powdered-green wig of Charlotte’s that Sir George tries on:

Harlots Hulu ITV

Clearly this is supposed to be green powder, given that the wig isn’t a consistent shade all over.

And yes, they did have colored hair powder in the 18th century! I don’t know that they ever did streaks (I’m also looking at you, Poldark) of color, but they did occasionally use crazy colors.

It’s VERY HARD (if not impossible!) to find visual evidence of colored hair powder in the 18th century, although I have seen more than one textual reference. This English lady may be wearing pink or red hair powder, or she may have red hair that’s powdered with white | JOHN SMART (BRITISH, 1742/1743 – 1811) Portrait of Mary Lewin, née Hale (1768-1837), Sotheby’s

This grey wig hangs out in the background in at least one scene in Charlotte’s room. Style-wise, it looks kind of like the ones above even if it too is sort of “meh” in terms of details.

Harlots Hulu ITV

I just hope not to see this on someone’s head.

Late 1770s Hairstyles in Harlots

Lydia’s OTT-for-the-theater wig is along the same lines as Charlotte’s (above), but I like the execution better. It’s still missing the form under the hair to keep things smooth, but at least it’s not separating! And the angled side buckles and twists are both accurate and pretty. I tried and tried to get a screencap of the back, but it’s on screen for 0.5 seconds and kept going by too quickly, so I’m giving it a pass!

Harlots Hulu ITV

Colored powder just around the face on the right-hand promo pic.

Mid-1780s Hairstyles in Harlots

I’m super impressed by all the ways they got the style details right for this mid- to late-1780s “hedgehog” (actually a term for a different, earlier style, but it’s the shorthand most modern costumers use) frizzy low and wide style. It’s just about 20 years too early.

Harlots Hulu ITV

Richard Cosway, 1742–1821, British, Elizabeth, Countess of Hopetown, 1789, Watercolor and gouache on ivory, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

1940s/2017 Hairstyles in Harlots


Sorry. Ahem. Lucy is showing her innocence through a 1940s Alice in Wonderland ribbon tied in her hair that I am just dying to rip off and throw in a garbage disposal. Clearly she is meant to look young and innocent, and although she’s a little old for hair-worn-down, I can buy it, storywise — her mother is waiting to sell her virginity to the highest bidder, so keeping Lucy looking young and pure is key. That being said, the whole layered hair that’s curled only from the ears down into large, beachy waves? IS COMPLETELY FROM 2014 ONWARDS. THANK YOU.

Harlots Hulu ITV

Alice in Wonderland meets beachy waves!

(OTOH, I do enjoy complaining about a good beachy wave. My friend Jessica posted about this on Facebook, and my response was simply: rubs hands gleefully)

2017 Hairstyles in Harlots

Charlotte’s unwigged hair is super cute! But you know what it isn’t? 18th century!

Harlots Hulu ITV

So cute! So not 18th century!

Why? Because by and large, 18th-century women DIDN’T WEAR WIGS! For various reasons that are too complicated to get into here, 18th century men in England wore wigs that were supposed to look artificial. However, women did not. In general, they used pads to make their hair bigger, and added shittons of false hair to their own hair, to create the sometimes huge hairstyles of the era. So seeing obvious “wigline” around the face in the 18th century? For men, absolutely! A wig was supposed to be artificial. For a woman? Nope. If a woman really didn’t have enough of her own hair and therefore had to wear a wig (which sure, did happen), she would have worked her own hair into the front to hide the artificiality.

Harlots Hulu ITV

This obvious wigline is perfectly period… for men.

Obvious wigline? You see it all the time on men, particularly in the first half of the century. But never on women | Thomas Frye, 1710–1762, Irish, Self-portrait, c. 1760, Mezzotint, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection


Are you enjoying Harlots? How’s the hair-era-mish-mash working for you?


About the author



Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

14 Responses

  1. Susan Pola

    Gotta wait for the DVD. But I’m hoping it will release soon. I don’t believe HULU is compatible with Cox Cable.

  2. aquitainequeen

    I’m loving it so far, particularity that they actually have the characters WEARING (SEMI) NICE CLOTHES AND BRIGHT COLOURS. It’s so refreshing to have such a wide range of colours, and acknowledging that prostitutes had to dress to stand out from the crowd. No browns or greys here.

    I was a bit annoyed at Lucy’s hair as well, but then I reasoned Margaret wanted to play up the ‘young virgin’ look, so eh. I would have liked it better if some of it had been tied back at her temples; that always looks lovely.

    I’m surprised at how relatively puffy Haxby’s hair is; wouldn’t a butler, which is what I assume he is, have a more sombre hairstyle?

  3. Edward Murphy

    My immediate response when I saw Lucy was ‘Frock Flicks will be unimpressed’ glad to see I was right :)

  4. lesartsdecoratifs

    Thetre are 18th century paintings of ladies with visible wiglines. These tend to be unflattering paintings by mediocre painters, showing some middle-aged merchant’s wife, hanging in obscurity somewhere though. One exception to the “only technical mediocre painters in obscurity showing a middle-aged woman” would be the portrait of Dorothea Sophia Thiele by Anton Raphael Mengs though. That’s an obvious wigline, especially if you contrast it with the natural hairline in Mengs’ portrait of Caterina Regina Mingotti. And considering that you can see the Dorothea’s natural hair behind her ears, it’s very obvious that it was very much intentional to make her wig look like a wig.

    So while in this context of Harlots (and the wig-wearing woman needing to advertise her health and natural beauty) an obvious wigline makes little sense to me either, this “visible wiglines were only for men” doesn’t hold up as a general catch-all rule.

  5. Lynn S

    I haven’t seen it yet. That being said, If love to see a tangential but interesting post on why 18th century women didn’t wear wigs! As well as maintenance of such elaborate hairstyles… I did read the one link you had that showed how quickly an 18th century look can be done from Colonial Williamsburg, but I’d love to see more of your thoughts. :)

  6. Jay

    Not sure where to post this, but Kendra [and others]: if you haven’t seen it already, I thought you might get a kick out of the interviews with “Hair stylist Judy Crown” from the Archive of American Television. In particular, you can find a newly posted segment on YouTube called
    “Hair stylist Judy Crown on how hairstyling has changed” in which she talks during the first part of the video about how much better the British are at historical hairstyling for TV . :)


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