Poldark: What’s Up With the Hair???!!! Part 1

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Poldark. It’s probably the current TV show that should be most up my alley, being set in the late 18th century (my favorite era of all time). And in some ways it’s working for me, and in others, it’s not. I’ve been watching Poldark (2015) on British time (read, I’m not done but I’m farther along than most of you are), and now that the first episode has aired here in the US, I can finally ask: WHAT’S UP WITH THE HAIR?

This has got to be part 1 of 2 posts, because I have more thoughts on this as the series progresses, but I don’t want to spoil anything. So I will try not to get into any plot points beyond episode 1 (although I may include a few, non-spoilery images from later episodes, just to make my point).

Interested in learning more about 18th-century hair and wigs? Want to try making your own? Check out Kendra’s book, 18th-Century Hair and Wig Styling: History and Step-by-Step Techniques!

What Era Are We In?

Somehow I had decided that Poldark was set in about 1790, but now I can’t figure out where I got that date from. Obviously Ross Poldark went off to fight in the American Revolution (1775–1783) and is now home. The first book is specifically set in 1783-7, so let’s go with 1783/4ish.

But that being said, we are looking at General Late 18th-Century Hairstyles here, not early, mid- or later 1780s. Our ladies are in “18th century” updos:

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Elizabeth: Vaguely “late 18th century.” If anything, sort of 1790s.

Verity. I have no idea.

Verity. I have no idea.

Elizabeth's mom: 1780-2, I'd say.

Elizabeth’s mom: 1780-2, I’d say.

What SHOULD the ladies be wearing? Well, if it’s 1783-4 and they’re cutting-edge fashionable, then it should be big, frizzy styles that are wider than they are high:

Anne, Duchess of Cumberland by Thomas Gainsborough (Royal Collection), 1783 | Gogmsite.com

Anne, Duchess of Cumberland by Thomas Gainsborough (Royal Collection), 1783 | Gogmsite.net

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Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire; bust portrait, facing three-quarter to right, looking towards the viewer, ribbon in hair, after J Nixon (British Museum – London, UK), 1783 | Gogmsite.net

Lydia Henrietta Malortie, Mrs. Henry Hoare by George Romney (Killerton - Broadclyst, Exeter UK), 1784 | Gogmsite.net

Lydia Henrietta Malortie, Mrs. Henry Hoare by George Romney (Killerton – Broadclyst, Exeter UK), 1784 | Gogmsite.net

But you’ll say, “Cornwall! Middle of nowhere! Gentry that is struggling financially!” Okay then, how about we backdate to about 1780?

There were three main styles fashionable in England around 1780:

1) Straight-ish, loose-ish, with height on top:

Lady Emilia Kerr by George Romney (Tate Collection - London UK) Tate Collection, 1779-80 | Gogmsite.net

Lady Emilia Kerr by George Romney (Tate Collection – London UK) Tate Collection, 1779-80 | Gogmsite.net

2) High on top in a triangular or hot-air-balloon shape:

nne, Duchess of Cumberland by Thomas Gainsborough (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool UK), c. 1780 | Gogmsite.net

Anne, Duchess of Cumberland by Thomas Gainsborough (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool UK), c. 1780 | Gogmsite.net

3) The frizzy style that’s going to be popular mid-decade, and which you can see above, but generally taller than wide:

Lavinia, Countess Spencer, née Bingham (1762-1831), in mauve dress with white frilled collar, powdered upswept hair by Samuel Shelley (auctioned by Christie's), 1780 | Gogmsite.net

Lavinia, Countess Spencer, née Bingham (1762-1831), in mauve dress with white frilled collar, powdered upswept hair, by Samuel Shelley (auctioned by Christie’s), 1780 | Gogmsite.net

And what about the men?

A range of styles on some of the older men.

A range of styles on some of the older men.

Now, this isn’t such an issue for the men. 18th-century men, particularly in England, tended to wear “fossilized” styles that were representative of their class, station, or profession. This is a big reason why men wore wigs in the first place. A style might be fashionable in the 1720s, but hang around through the end of the century as THE style worn by, say, doctors.

For example, this gent is wearing a style that was fashionable in the 1730s, but clearly he’s an older man (who wasn’t even born in the 1730s). He’s wearing a “physical” wig as an indication of his profession: a clergyman.

Patrick John McMor(e)land (Scottish, 1741-circa 1809) A Cleric, wearing black cloak, white bands and powdered physical wig. | Bonhams

Patrick John McMor(e)land (Scottish, 1741-circa 1809), a cleric, wearing black cloak, white bands, and powdered physical wig. | Bonhams

So this wouldn’t be such an issue, except that NO ONE is wearing a fashionable 1780s hairstyle. Yes, it’s Cornwall. Yes, even the gentry in this series are struggling financially. There still should be at least one character wearing a bushy 1780s hair/wig style.

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Charles Rousseau Burney by Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1780 | Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Detail from Admiral Harry Paulet by Francis Cotes, n.d. | Metropolitan Museum of Art

But let’s look at individual characters, and I’ll try to better explain:

 

Ross Poldark

In flashbacks, Ross’s hair isn’t bad. It’s wavy and long enough to go into a queue (a hanging tail, here tied with a black bow, which was very common):

Flashback Ross -- mid- to late-1770s?

Flashback Ross — mid- to late-1770s?

But now he’s back, and he’s broody, and he’s chopped off his hair into some kind of man-bob:

Man-bob is broody.

Man-bob is broody.

Now, the 1780s is when a lot of things went out of the window, what with the whole effects of the Enlightenment and coming French Revolution to shake everything up. There was a big trend for “naturalism” in fashion, which translated into less wig-wearing for the younger set, and shorter, more disheveled hair. And clearly Ross is a forward thinker. So his lack of wig checks out, and I can even forgive his lack of queue (ponytail). But somebody send him to the barber for a trim, because that man-bob is just out of control!

More along the lines of how someone like Ross would be wearing his hair in the 1780s:

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 10.29.24 PM

Patrick Heatly by Zoffany, 1783-7 | Yale Center for British Art

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 10.28.57 PM

The Rev. and Mrs. Thomas Gisborne, of Yoxhall Lodge, Leicestershire, by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1786 | Yale Center for British Art

I think what they’re going for is something like this, although note this is still a lot shorter:

Augustin Pajou (1730-1828), sculpteur by Laurent, 1800 | Musée de l'abbaye royale

Augustin Pajou (1730-1828), sculpture by Laurent, 1800 | Musée de l’abbaye royale

 

Elizabeth

Ross’s true wuv has some seriously wack hair moments. I can live with her updos:

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until: 10/03/2015 - Programme Name: Poldark - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 2) - Picture Shows: Ross Poldark (AIDEN TURNER), Elizabeth (HEIDA REED) - (C) Mammoth Screen - Photographer: Joss Barratt

Elizabeth on the right.

Even if the back of her hair is seriously Modern Bride:

pol_1741

The pearls! Quick, someone pin this to your Wedding Ideas Pinterest board!

What SHOULD the back look like? There should be a portion, from the crown to behind the ears, that’s long and straight (at least at the roots). Yes, it could be braided, or put into a ponytail, or in ringlets, but it’s not worn up, Modern Bride style. (Yes, this image is French, but sculpture busts are the best source for hairstyle info!).

Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun (1755-1842), peintre, by Pajou, 1783 | Musée du Louvre

Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun (1755-1842), peintre, by Pajou, 1783 | Musée du Louvre

But honestly what KILLS me is when she’s hanging out at home with most of her hair down, and just the front up. I picture that there’s a barrette up top there.

She does this. A LOT.

She does this. A LOT.

It’s VERY “I’m just a schoolgirl in 1984”:

Anne Hathaway in "The Princess Diaries"

 

Verity

Ross’s cousin is supposed to be a plain Jane, so it makes sense that they try to give her dumpy hairstyles. (Although as always, I am peeved on her behalf — she’s lovely! And very cute! But I think that’s the point, we’re supposed to see in her what her family doesn’t). But I’m not sure if her ‘do is Victorian or 1940s!

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From the front, it’s weird but not egregiously so.

pol105_2722

But the back? WHAT THE HELL? She’s got a braid wrapped around her head, and then her hair is wrapped up around the braid at the nape of the neck.

pol103_0910

It reminds me of one of those 1940s scarf-rolls:

1940s. Not 18th century.

1940s. Not 18th century.

 

Margaret the Prostitute

(Kind of like “Thomas the Baker,” but different. Maybe she comes from a long and distinguished line of Cornish prostitutes!). You only get a glimpse of her in episode one, but I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that 1) you’ll see more of her, 2) she’s gorgeous, but 3) those goth-y magenta streaks in her hair are FABULOUS but SO 1990s:

pol103_2450

You think I’m kidding, don’t you? That’s a ribbon in her hair, you’re thinking!

poldark102_0206

Oh ye of too much faith.

pol105_2661

THOSE ARE MAGENTA STREAKS. They’re FABULOUS. But they ain’t 18th century. (From a later episode, but I’m trying to show you the magenta).

 

George Warleggan

FABULOUS hair! For 1799, 1800, 1820 … Yeah. About 20 years too soon.

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Classic Regency hair.

 

But Wait, There Are Things I Liked!

pol_0978

Most of the men’s wigs were GREAT, if you ignore the fact that none of them have a 1780s look to them (see above; perfectly plausible in the individual, just not as a whole).

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There’s a nice variety in men’s wig styles as is appropriate. Ross’s banker is wearing a turned-under-on-top style.

pol103_0921

Uncle Charles’s cropped-top wig is another perfectly period option.

poldark102_0183

Love that the men who wear wigs hang out in caps at home. Here’s Carly Warleggan, scheming.

poldark102_0351

Uncle Charles keeping his pate warm.

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I like that a few of the older men, and most of the young, aren’t in wigs. This is an era when the younger, more liberal, and more fashion-forward started to forgo wigs.

Aunt Agatha is wedded to her caps, which makes perfect sense: When she was young, caps were very fashionable, and she (like many elderly ladies) is hanging on to her younger hairstyle.

I’ve got lots more thoughts on other characters and developments, but those will have to wait until a few more episodes have aired!
What do you think of Poldark‘s hair choices?

And don’t forget to check out Kendra’s book, 18th-Century Hair and Wig Styling: History and Step-by-Step Techniques!

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About the author

Kendra

Website

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.

33 Responses

  1. Maureen

    Thank you– I’m not the only one! Elizabeth’s hair and lack of headcovering was just ruining it for me last night!

    Reply
  2. Veronica

    All of the above. I can’t take one more wind swept cliff walk with wild tresses being wild. Hats, Hats, Hats, Hats. Also Shocking lack of petticoats.
    ( I blame The Tudors and Reign)

    Reply
  3. Shawna

    What about the long, sculpted sideburns on Ross — isn’t that completely wrong for this time period as well? Of course, I’ll forgive Aiden Turner almost anything. Just sayin’….

    Reply
  4. Kathleen Norvell

    Yeah, the hair bothered me a lot, especially Elizabeth’s (as an aside, I didn’t like Elizabeth in the original series, either.)I tried to chalk it up to Cornwall being the back of beyond….. It looked like they cheaped out on the women’s hair or wigs. From the back, it looked like she had several hanks of hair of different colors woven in. Not a good look. I have to agree that it did look like a shot from a bridal mag.

    And Ross’ sideburns — romantic, but… What bothered me the most was his perpetual 5 o’clock shadow. One the other hand, he probably wouldn’t want Judd to shave him.

    Reply
    • MoHub

      Even as a current trend, I’d like to see 5 ‘o clock shadow die a quick death. And when it appears in period pieces—unless the guy recently survived a shipwreck—even more so. I’ll take Robin Ellis’ look any day.

      Reply
      • Kristina

        Yes! The long sideburns are so annoying. I was under the impression that that look was NOT in style during the 1780s. 1790s, maybe, but not during this earlier period.

        Stubble pops up time and time again in these period pieces, and it’s usually inappropriate. It’s particularly silly when a character’s stubble stays the exact same length throughout the production, as though he is carefully trimming it every day instead of shaving. Unfortunately, the vast majority of productions fall into this category. I’ve always been annoyed, for instance, that Donald Sutherland’s Mr. Bennet in the 2005 Pride & Prejudice has perpetual stubble that never seems to grow at all.

        Older period dramas typically avoid the 5 ‘o clock shadow, but there are a few exceptions. For example, Robert Swann, who plays Colonel Brandon in the 1981 BBC adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, has stubble when he returns to Cleveland after what must have been a 160-mile round trip (80 miles from Cleveland to Barton) to bring Marianne’s mother to her. Does that seem to you like an appropriate use of stubble in a period drama, or is it more likely that a man would have stopped halfway through such a journey to shave his face?

        Reply
        • Wolfmanjack

          Sideburns and a tricorn hat? Absolutely ridiculous in my view. It never happened. The three-day growth of beard that never gets shorter or longer? Abandon all credibility. What were they thinking?

          Reply
          • Kristina

            Oh, I agree completely that it’s ridiculous. Are you referring to Poldark or responding to my comment about Mr. Bennet in the 2005 P&P film? It’s true that both have the same problem: sideburns, a tricorn hat, and stubble that stays the same length and is never shaved off.

            Reply
  5. Michael L. McQuown

    The concomitant to wearing wigs was shaven or closely cropped heads, which is why caps are often worn indoors by men. I suppose it’s asking too much for an actor to go that far. But yeah — sideburns? And I’m generally tired of the 5 o’clock shadow on men on TV.

    Reply
  6. Lea-Anne

    Have you seen the original 70s series Poldark? I think they worked better especially with the ladies hair.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      I agree! The ’70s version wasn’t perfect but it has a more historical feel overall, whereas this reboot just has a general ye oldey timey romantic windswept look to it.

      Reply
  7. Cassidy

    Yep, same feels. It’s off enough that I feel no desire to talk about what it’s doing on Tumblr like I did a bit with Turn – I just resolutely switch that part of my brain off. The necklines especially are killing me.

    I mainly feel sorry for Ruby Bentall. She gets so typecast as “the plain one” – twice as “the dumb plain one” – when she’s absolutely pretty! I hope she gets a star turn one of these days.

    Reply
    • Hilary

      YES!!!! Where’s the neckhandkerchiefs/tuckers?? None these ladies can afford a length of lace/strip o’ linen? Their gowns just look unfinished, and the boobage hazardously exposed. And how about a small ruffle at sleeve openings?

      Reply
      • Kristina

        I’ve grown used to the fact that so few period dramas these days bother to fill in the necklines on the actresses’ gowns. But you’re right: they are far too exposed.

        Reply
  8. nak00

    I really don’t like all the guys with the very short regency hair, I would rather think they had a bit longer hair in a smal pony tale, but not curled like in regency period. It’s irritating me al the time! (more than Elizabeths hair)
    It’s a shame that in series or movies they wear so little small hats or caps. And petticoats, it’s like they have to little of them.

    Beside that, it’s gorgeous.

    Reply
  9. LindaS

    I really love your website! I studied costume/fashion design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, though I never worked in the field. Yes, I noticed that the hair didn’t seem to be “of the time” when I watched Episode 1 on Sunday. At least the dresses are better than Reign.

    Why can’t a program be more accurate? Are they cutting costs or trying to appeal to what they believe will be a broader range or viewers? I do think the actor who plays Poldark is seriously cute but he doesn’t need a five o’clock shadow or sideburns. In fact, I rarely like the stubbly look that is so popular nowadays. Many men look homeless to me.

    Reply
    • Cassidy

      To be fair, I have seen Aiden Turner in a movie set in the 1960s, and when he’s clean-cut and shaven he loses a lot of his charm.

      Reply
    • Kendra

      I think they’re always balancing any desire for accuracy with the desire to appeal to modern audiences!

      Reply
    • Jenni

      “Dresses on Reign” …giggle.
      I just finished watching season 2 ep1 and thought “what the hell is with the hair?” And came to Google. Thank you for confirming the hair is a big fat ?. But oh I need a long olive green skirt and jacket!

      Reply
  10. MoHub

    For Regency where it belongs, y’all might want to check out Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, currently airing on BBC America. I find the looks to be very accurate, especially the fronts of the men’s pants.

    Reply
  11. Hilary Ray

    Ugh. Just saw episode 2: not one but two characters in suspenders. :Q

    Reply
  12. karinchu (@karinchu)

    OK. I get the annoyance, BUT I think Ross’s hair is also a lot about, Ross don’t care. He could give two figs for doing something fashionable or trendy to his hair. (And yes, it’s also about Aidan looking fabulous). I think Elizabeth’s hair early on is about trying to keep her a little bit thought of as younger. Just out of the schoolroom. The only thing I really really did wonder about and do everytime I see it is the magenta strands. It didn’t just happen on miss loose hips. there were a few village girls rocking it too. I just don’t know about that or why they chose to do that.

    Reply
  13. Black Tulip

    Only just come across this – thank you, thank you, thank you! Margaret channeling Cyndi Lauper was bad enough, but Verity’s 1940’s roll was a pure, “What the . . .” moment.

    Reply
  14. Melanie

    You can blame the original novel (rather than the costume department) for the red streaks in Margaret’s hair.

    IIRC, she’s described as a natural brunette who was still showing patchy evidence of a botched red dye job. But I definitely agree that the particular shade of magenta they used here looks way too 90s.

    Reply
  15. Elizabeth West

    Ross shows up in Season 2 with shorter hair, a bit closer to the Patrick Heatly portrait. But yeah, the women’s hairstyles bug me, too. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I doubt Demelza, who actually does actual work around the house, would wear her (admittedly fabulous) long red hair loose all the time. It would get in her way and she’s a rather practical sort.

    The story is so great I just try to ignore it, though. And frankly, they could shave Aidan Turner bald and he’d still be spectacular in this role. :) <3

    Reply
  16. Rae

    Omg. I’m just starting the first episode and her hair is driving me nuts! Very grateful the snark is already flowing ;)

    Reply
  17. Rob Pittam

    Anyone notice the two big portraits of two high-Victorians in the hall of the Poldark family residence?
    Inexcusable, frankly.

    It was George Warleggan’s Regency coif that first alerted me to the anachronisms!

    Reply

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