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“Beachy waves” are an incredibly popular modern hairstyle, and have been at least since the 1990s if not a decade or two earlier. But when this style turns up in Frock Flicks, we get stabby (see our beachy waves aren’t period tag for just a few examples). So, let’s break it down!
Beachy waves are that just-walked-out-of-the-ocean look, with the hair worn loose and looking like you went swimming in salt water and then let your hair dry naturally. To quote Bustle:
This summer, you’ve probably seen (and possibly drooled over) countless photos of dreamy beach waves on Instagram. Not only do these salt-spray tresses turn your seaweed green with envy, but they also make anyone want to throw out their scorching hair dryers. Yes, those Instagram glamazons have the sun-kissed, windswept mane down pat. But I’ve always wondered if getting beach waves IRL is a doable task — one that doesn’t involve handy extensions, a generous helping of sea salt spray, and the perfect photo filter.
It generally means SLIGHT waves, not real curls, that are tousled; they’re frequently straighter at the root and wavier as the hair gets longer:
Beachy waves, from a tutorial by Aveda.
There’s a lot of problems with seeing these styles in frock flicks. Now, I’m not talking about a natural wave or curl to the hair, as seen in these examples. Sure, it’s a major problem that the hair is being worn DOWN (i.e. unstyled up off the face and neck), when 99% of periods before the 1920s involved women’s hair worn up. But let’s ignore that (I know, it makes me pant too) and look at the hair texture:
Sure, it’s ridiculous that the women in Queen Margot are wearing their hair down. But at least Asia Argento as Charlotte de Suave actually DID have her hair up in the previous scene and has now let it down; the wave we see here comes from her earlier updo.
And okay, Jane Parker’s (Juno Temple) hair would probably qualify as “beachy waves” here in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008), except that through most of the film her hair is worn up and styled. I believe in this scene she’s meant to be half-dressed, so we should assume this is her natural curl pattern… and it’s plausibly seen a hairbrush.
What Parker usually looks like in the film.
Nor am I complaining about the women in Banished, who are living in an Australian penal colony. Sure, this is qualifies as a beachy wave, but these women are portrayed as SO low class that they wear their hair down in its natural state. We can argue with that, but at least the hair isn’t SUPPOSED to be read as “styled.”
I felt many things about Joely Richardson’s hair in The Patriot, but ditto, her hair isn’t meant to be “done” here.
And while I haven’t seen The Living and the Dead (2016), this is clearly the actress’s natural curl. Why her hair isn’t up, I don’t know!
Where I have a major, major problem is when the woman’s hair is supposed to be read as “styled,” “done,” “appropriate for public viewing and possibly even a formal occasion.” Because even if a pre-1920s woman DID go crazy and run around with her hair down, she would have either curled it with a proper curl, or brushed it out as smooth as possible.
Let’s look at some cinematic attempts at hairstyling and compare them with what would be plausible historically, separating things into two categories:
Naturalistic Beachy Waves
These are the styles where we’re supposed to believe this is the actress’s natural curl pattern, untouched by brush or god:
I haven’t watched 14th century-set Knightfall (it looks too horrific to do so), but clearly this lady is meant to be “dressed.” Her hair is in long, piecey waves that are flatter at the root than the middle/ends.
So first of all, any woman of this period would have worn her hair back off the face, up off the neck, and probably covered with a veil, like Joan I of Navarre and Marie of Brabant, 1285, Paris Bibliothèque nationale de France MSS Français 1589 – Meliacin ou le Cheval de Fust.
But even if we go to a religious painting, in which women’s hair is sometimes worn unstyled for iconographic reasons, these ladies’ hair is clearly either naturally curly from the roots OR consciously styled in straight and curled sections (see the two ladies on the far right) | Richard II presented to the Virgin and Child by his Patron Saint John the Baptist and Saints Edward and Edmund (The Wilton Diptych), c. 1395-99, National Gallery
In the 2003 miniseries Henry VIII, Emily Blunt as Queen Catherine Howard wears her hair slightly pulled back in front, straight at the root, and in a very slight, piecey wave.
The real Catherine Howard would have worn her hair combed straight and smooth, center parted, and arranged in some kind of bun or other ‘do at the back of the head or nape of the neck | 1540 miniature by Hans Holbein thought to be Catherine Howard
You have to look at allegorical paintings to find any example of a woman with her hair down in this period. Here, the Roman goddess Venus’s hair IS down and waved, but notice how smooth those waves are — they have clealry seen a hairbrush | Hans Baldung, Venus and Amor, 1524-25, Kröller-Müller Museum
I’m pretty sure this is meant to be Catherine Howard again, this time in The Tudors (2007-10). Okay, so plausibly this could be the actress’s natural curl pattern, but it should be brushed out (and then STYLED FOR GOD’S SAKES).
Beachy waves were RAMPANT in The Tudors.
All Is True (2018) is a recent film about an older Shakespeare that got a LOT of the costumes shockingly accurate! What they didn’t do was buy the actresses a hairbrush or any hairpins.
Even here, Shakespeare’s daughter actually has her hair styled AND correctly covered with a
unfortunate biggins cap, but the front hair is left long and very loosely curled at the ends.
A lady of this period very well may have worn her hair in a curl, either natural or created, but then it would be WORN UP | Elizabeth Wriothesley, Countess of Southampton (1572-1655) c. 1618, the Bedford Estate
Okay but Shakespeare’s daughter isn’t a countess, you might say! Well let’s look at one of the best images of people across the class spectrum in Elizabethan England, where we’ll note that the lower/middling class women all have their hair covered by caps and hats | Attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder, A Fête at Bermondsey or A Marriage Feast at Bermondsey, c. 1569, Private Collection
Kate Winslet‘s character in A Little Chaos EMBRACED the beachy wave. Okay, so she’s middling class, AND she’s a working lady, you might argue!
It pains me to have found this idealized “costume” or allegorical painting of a shepherdess with hair very similar to Winslet’s. However, let us note that the image is DEFINITELY not meant to portray an actual woman dressed for daily life — SHE’S PLAYING WITH HER OWN NIPPLE FOR GOD’S SAKE | Paulus Moreelse, The blond shepherdess, 1624, Alte Pinakothek
Let’s look instead at this lower class French mother, with her hair presumably up and covered by a complicated veil | Mother sewing with two children, 17th century, French school, Fondazione Cariplo collection
Winslet’s character isn’t THAT poor, you might argue! Okay, then let’s look at this middling class group and note the woman has her hair artfully curled and worn up | Robert Tournières, Concert, 1690s, Louvre Museum
But even Boucher’s shepherdesses wear their hair UP and fully curled where curls are desired | François Boucher, Are They Thinking about the Grape? 1747, Art Institute of Chicago [note: they are not thinking about the grape]
Cathy Linton from Wuthering Heights (2009) falls victim to the same problem. She’s a “child of nature” so the filmmakers give her tousled, beachy waves worn down.
A woman of this period who wanted to seem “natural” would have worn her hair in a tousled, classically-inspired updo, like this Frenchwoman | Portrait of Diane Adélaïde de Simiane, c. 1800, Christie’s
Then we get to category #2:
Consciously Beachy Waves
I’m not 100% about my terminology here, but these are examples where there’s no pretense that this is the actress’s natural hairstyle. Clearly, some kind of curler/iron was used to create these curls… and it’s either a super modern curl pattern, flattened at the root a la classic beachy wave style (or a 1980s perm that’s grown out a month), or both.
Queen Isabella of Castile’s hair drove me CRAZY in Isabel (2011-14), but what really gets me is how much her spiral curl looks like something I would have rocked in the 80s (fist bump, Sarah Jessica Parker) — AND how modernly artificial the straight roots look.
First of all, the real Isabella would have worn her hair up with a cap or veil | Isabella I of Castile (1451-1504), c. 1490, Museo del Prado
Secondly, here’s an actual period example of Isabella WITH HER HAIR DOWN, posing as the Virgin Mary (one of the only reasons she WOULD wear her hair down, and certainly not something she would ever wear outside of her bedroom). Notice the hair is waved and BRUSHED OUT | Flemish school (??). Attributed to Gerard David (??). Anonymous Fleming (from the Jan Gossaert Circle), Possible image of Isabel la Católica, Queen of Castile (о Santa Catalina de Alejandría), in the altarpiece «La Virgen de la Mosca», c. 1520, La colegiata de Santa María la Mayor, de Toro (Zamora)
Then you get the “but we need the actress to look young!” like poor Cosette in Les Misérables (2012). Amanda Seyfried looks like someone from an insane asylum by 1830s standards.
The 2018 production of Les Misérables had the same problem, this time with more tousle.
The problem is the whole “young girls wore their hair down” mostly applied to VERY YOUNG girls, like these two | Mathias Stoltenberg, Portrait of the sisters Marthina og Fernanda Debes, 1834, via Wikimedia Commons
Getting to wear your hair up was a MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENT, because it meant you were on your way to becoming a Grown Up Woman. MOST images of teen and pre-teen girls of the 19th century show them with their hair styled and either entirely or partially worn up | Tomasz Tyrowicz, Portrait of three sisters from the Hausner family, 1839, National Museum Kraków
Then you’ve got “plausibly historical, but in no way historical,” like these face ringlets from Doctor Thorne (2016). Note how much these thick curls…
Look nothing like the actual ringlets worn in the period | Portrait of a young Lady, 1850, Private Collection
Beachy Waves annoyed me on Timeless (2018). Sure, Lucy’s character was a modern woman who traveled in time. But given the fact that it was made clear there was a whole costume department suiting up the time travelers, I’m pretty sure someone would have avoided a modern beachy wave style…
In favor of a pincurled, BRUSHED OUT and then styled ‘do typical of the 1940s, the era in which Lucy is trying to BLEND IN | NBC–photographer: Ernest A. Bachrach, Publicity photo of singer Connee Boswell from the radio program Kraft Music Hall, 1941, via Wikimedia Commons
Do beachy waves make you twitchy too? Let loose in the comments!
Beachy Waves in period film look glaringly out of place. Not only bc they’re out of period but I want to yank them up with Bobby pins and put proper head gear on them. Like biggins, hats, wimples or worn up.
Beachy Waves is the poly baroque satin/panne velvet of period film hair.
My 2nd ex could look at any period movie and tell you in 10 seconds what year the film was made because of the hair and makeup. “Dangerous Liaisons” might have been an exception.
Those “ladies” in the Wilton diptych are actually angels. I’m not sure you want to base an argument on their appearance.
That’s the point — you have to go to mythical/religious/not actual people images to find ANYTHING like the long curls/waves you get in so many of these films, and even then, the curl/wave pattern isn’t the same.
Thank you! Angels weren’t portrayed as female until the 19th century. Religiously, they were considered genderless and were portrayed with neither obviously male nor female features.
Yeah, hair continues to be something many directors and designers just can’t face doing the historical way, even if otherwise they’re decent on the historical look. It totally is the sort of thing where you can date the production very easily by hair and makeup. I mean, I get it—I strongly dislike some of the historical hair styles. But… you can probably find some way to make it better.
I did really love little women but apparently Gerwig was like, this communicates bohemian, and I hate bonnets… Girl, you’re so talented and attuned to so many things.. why you gotta hate on the historical reality?
If you hate bonnets, maybe the 1860s isn’t your era. I hate bonnets, and I hate the 1860s!
She clearly loves the original novel, so bonnets were no impediment to making it? And as the director she just stopped them. I am a hat wearer myself and I like bonnets, but I can understand how they’d be annoying. Still, there should’ve been more hats, even if the principals were hatless Bohemians… but they also should’ve had their hair up more. So… many things I loved about it, but costumes and hair were disappointing.
The second Catherine Howard photo (from The Tudors) is one of the few examples of where you would see it in period “in public” – a queen wearing her crown and no veil. (And yes, it was a callback to depictions of the Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven.)
It would have been neatened up/styled to impress though as you note in the portrait of Isabella, and it was for more special occasions.
Just about everyone else needs hairpins.
And the side parts!
To be fair, the series Isabella later picture the Queen with the sypical veil, and all her hair and neck covered. She even wears a cap when she is at bed
Yes! Historical hair done well helps us see the character in their time better. Beachy waves = fail.
After watching Anne of Green Gables, I loved the idea of excitedly waiting to turn 16 so you could wear your hair up. And I love the wild and wacky 1830s hairstyles from Wives and Daughters.
As someone with thick, past-waist-length hair, I cringe to think of a middle class woman in basically any historical time period doing chores or going out with her hair just down and loose. My hair gets so knotty and unmanageable if I don’t have it up or at least in a neat braid.
“As someone with thick, past-waist-length hair, I cringe to think of a middle class woman in basically any historical time period doing chores or going out with her hair just down and loose. My hair gets so knotty and unmanageable if I don’t have it up or at least in a neat braid.”
It’s like watching cooking shows with women chefs who won’t tie their long hair back. I always cringe watching them cook with their hair hanging loose over their pans and mixing bowls.
I have almost waist-length hair, and I usually wear it in one or two braids. I rarely wear it down, and when I do, I last an hour or two before it annoys me and I braid it again. I don’t put it up as often, since I’m still figuring out how to do that without giving myself a headache, and most mornings I don’t have the time or patience to mess with it, but I definitely don’t like leaving it down all the time. It catches on things, it gets in my face…I like having long hair because it means I can braid it out of the way–when I had shorter hair for a while, it eventually irritated me that I couldn’t put it up or back the same way.
Old timey ladies weren’t stupid, they knew loose hanging hair and cooking over open fires didn’t go together. Not to mention, cleaning and child care. Hair up and covered was safer and tidier.
I feel compelled to mention that wavy/curly hair with straighter roots doesn’t always indicate intentional beachy waves, or artificial curls in general. My own wavy/curly hair has a tendency to be straighter at the roots the longer it gets, although the obvious cowlick and curls around my forehead and center part should be enough to indicate it’s a natural curl. It’s probably a matter of the weight pulling out some of the curl higher up, and it’s pretty common in general with curl type 2As and 2Bs (wavy to wavy-curly fine-textured hair). So yes, that mess on top of my head? All mine, and all natural, God (and Shea Moisture curling milk) help me.
But most of the examples shown here? Yeah…not natural, and, of course, a severe Lack of Hairpins/styling in general. sigh
Agreed! I have longish 2b hair, about as close to ‘natural’ beach waves as I think you can get, and my hair is pretty flat until around ear height. The images from “Banished” and “Nightfall” look reasonably like my natural hair texture, while the image from “The Tudors” of Katherine Howard looks more artificial to my eye.
The point still stands that they should all have their hair tied back, though!
Orson Welles once said you could tell what year a historical movie was filmed because no actresses would allow themselves to be clothed or coiffed in accurate period fashions. I still smile at Vivien Leigh’s 1940’s shoulder pads in “That Hamilton Woman” that was set in 1795-1815.
Orson Welles should have known better (if he actually said that) — it was the studios (the farther back you go), the directors (& he was one of ’em), & the costume designers, far more than the actresses themselves. Under the Hollywood studio system, actors had little choice of what to wear on or off-screen! They were a totally packaged product.
Much talk about out brushed hair, but when did the hair brush actually show up? I know of loads of finds of combs from 1000s of years ago, but brushes?
This was going to be my question, too! Definitely no hairbrushes in medieval Western Europe. That is the limits of my knowledge, though.
Fun fact: When I was getting my hair cut, the hairdresser asked if I wanted “Beachy waves”. I was so used to seeing them as a bad thing from this site that I almost said no automatically.
Dont even get me started on Grace from Peaky Blinders! It’s called a hair curler. Use it!!!!
i think the theory is that, when the hair is taken out in a casual or relaxed setting, it has retained it’s wave from being plaited and under a hood ( in tudor examples ) while in 20th century examples, particularily the 1910s and 20s, curls would be retained from being crimped, waved or plaited.