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It wouldn’t be Snark Week without a rant from Kendra related to hair, so here we go! Unmarried women wearing their hair loose historically has become a stereotype, so much so that we get all these young girls with hair down in historical films and TV series (okay, and adult/married women too, but see my hairpin rant about that). Unfortunately, by and large, young girls in the Western world generally wore their hair styled — often in similar styles to those worn by adult women, and sometimes in age-specific styles. But the idea of the maiden with long flowing hair? Is bullshit.
I think that this stereotype comes from the medieval and Renaissance trend for queens to wear their hair down at their weddings and coronations. It’s generally well known that this was a sign of their youth and/or virginity, but digging deeper, it appears that this was specifically a reference to the Virgin Mary. In Women in England in the Middle Ages, author Jennifer Ward writes that at the coronation, the greatest importance was placed upon
“…the invocation of the Virgin Mary. The queen was regarded as virgin and mother; she arrived at her coronation as a virgin, symbolised by her loose hair, and she was expected to bear the king’s children. This dichotomy is found even when the queen was already a mother, as the coronation of Elizabeth Woodville shows.”
This bride is indeed wearing her hair loose and flowing, although it’s pulled back over the ears and accented with a circlet | A Bridal Couple, 1470s, Cleveland Museum of Art
Isabella of Castile’s hair seems relatively unstyled, but it’s hard to be sure | Wedding portrait of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile (detail), 15th century, Avila Madrigal de las Altas Torres, Convento de las Augustinas
In The Last Medieval Queens: English Queenship 1445-1503, J. L. Laynesmith elaborates,
“When Elizabeth Woodville arrived… very probably with her blonde hair loose beneath a jewelled coronet (as was the custom in the procession on the eve of the coronation), she would have immediate reminded onlookers of the Virgin Mary depicted… in altarpieces and windows familiar to them.”
Laynesmith notes that Elizabeth of York and Anne Boleyn both wore their hair loose for the same reason, and it’s practically famous that Queen Elizabeth I did so as well:
I can’t find any surviving imagery from Elizabeth Woodville’s coronation, but despite being a widow, she wears her hair down in this contemporary image of her second wedding | The marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. Illuminated miniature from Vol 6 of the Anciennes chroniques d’Angleterre by Jean de Wavrin, 15th century, Bibliothèque nationale de France
Queen Elizabeth I in coronation robes, c. 1600, National Portrait Gallery
Of course, many brides did NOT wear their hair loose for their weddings:
Wedding of Louis X of France and Clemance Hongrie, Grandes Chroniques de France, 14th c., Bodleian Library, Oxford University
The Wedding of Stephen Beckingham and Mary Cox by William Hogarth, 1729, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Wedding dress (center) | Fashion plate, c. 1842, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Eleanor Roosevelt on her wedding day, 1905
Anne Hollander explains in Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress that there were only very specific moments and reasons when a woman might wear her hair loose, because loose hair was connected to female sexuality:
“Loose female hair was always a specifically sexual reference, the sign of female emotional looseness and sensual susceptibility, and a standard sexual invitation — Mary Magdalene wears it… Like female sexual desire, loose hair in the past was a potent female attribute not correctly displayed in public… But respectable unmarried girls, just like the Virgin Mary, wore loose hair to suggest the power of absolute female chastity… Queen Elizabeth I wore loose hair at her coronation… to advertise her virgin status as part of her power, both sexual and temporal. Brides also wore it. Virgin saints in pictures wear it. Respectable matrons might even have their portraits painted with their hair down, in a double feminine ploy suggesting both domestic chastity and erotic potency at the same time. For most women, it was necessary to have long thick hair, so as to be seen to have sexuality, but to show it publicly under very strict control.”
Thus, if you look at images of historical girls and women, you hardly EVER see loose, unstyled hair unless it’s an image of the Virgin Mary or a saint, or a wedding or coronation portrait. While I can’t go over every possible era or location, let’s take a wander through some images of young girls from the late medieval era through the end of the 19th century to see just how styled they wear their hair:
This teenager’s hair is so “up” that you can barely see any of it under her hennin! Portrait of a Young Woman by Petrus Christus, c. 1470, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin
Hair center parted, wrapped with tapes, and pinned up — with a little bit down in back (on her left shoulder) | Either Catherine of Aragon or her elder sister Juana) by Juan de Flandes, c. 1496
The future Queen Elizabeth I was at most 14 when she had this portrait painted… with her hair styled exactly like an adult woman | Portrait of Elizabeth I when she was princess, attributed to William Scrots, 1546-47, Royal Collection
The future “Queen Margot” was 7ish here. Nonetheless, all those hairs are up and accented with pearls to boot! Marguerite de Valois by François Clouet, c. 1560, Condé Museum.
Maria would have been 11 here; she died when she was 17. I see no hair a-flowing! Portrait of Maria de Medici by Agnolo Bronzino, 1551
Moving into the 17th century, this princess’s hair looks just like the styles worn by adult women. She was born in 1638, so maybe the dating is off, but she’s basically a toddler | Portrait of Mary Magdalene Farnese of Parma and Piacenza by Justus Sustermans, 1639-40, Galleria Palatina
The future queen of France was at most 14 here, and she’s ROCKING that hair style | La Enfanta María Teresa de España by Diego Velázquez, 1652-1653.
But what about the more average people? Well this girl has to be under 10, and seems more likely to be 5-7 in my mind | Head of a Girl by Isaac Fuller, early 1660s, Dulwich Picture Gallery
She’s three, y’all, and not only is her hair styled, it’s also powdered up the wazoo just like an adult. Yes, short and curly ‘do’s were popular in this decade | Portrait of Princess Maria Felicita of Savoy by Louis-Michel van Loo, 1733, via Wikimedia Commons
So this young girl hasn’t had her hair styled yet, but she’s got it wrapped in curl papers in anticipation of that happening – today, not in 10 years | The Lavergne Family Breakfast by Jean-Etienne Liotard, 1754, The National Gallery
Check out the children of Queen Marie-Antoinette! Elder daughter Marie-Therese would be 9, and her hair is styled like an adult woman; baby Sophie around one, and her hair is covered by a cap | Marie Antoinette and her Children by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1787, Palace of Versailles
Okay, so there does seem to be a period in the 1780s to 1790s when young girls DID wear their hair down! I found several images showing looks like this, although let’s note the girls probably have had their hair curled, not just left au naturel | The Marsham Chlidren by Thomas Gainsborough, 1787, Gemäldegalerie
By the 1830s, however, we’re back in business with Actual Styled Hair | Horsewoman: Portrait of Giovannina and Amazilia Pacini, the Foster Children of Countess Yu. P. Samoilova by Karl Bryullov, 1832, Tretyakov Gallery
A sample of photographs from the Notman photographic collection. Note these girls are TODDLERS and most still have their hair styled | From L to R: Miss Alice Hamilton, Montreal, QC, 1861; Fanny Tuson, Montreal, QC, 1861; Missie Mary Frothingham holding a doll, Montreal, QC, 1861; Miss M. Stephenson, Montreal, QC, 1865. All by William Notman, McCord Museum
This toddler’s hair isn’t very long, but it’s been curled and pulled out of the face | Francisca Keban (1858-61) by Joseph Nitschner, 1861, via Wikimedia Commons
And yes, these very young girls’ hair is definitely down in back in a way that an adult woman wouldn’t wear… but the front part IS pulled back, contained, and accented with a bow | Pink and Blue: The Cahen d’Anvers Girls by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1881, São Paulo Museum of Art
And now, let’s look at the many, many movies and TV series that fuck this up entirely by showing girls with totally or nearly unstyled hair in comparison to their adult counterparts:
Nonetheless, young Princess Mary gets only a faux-French hood headband for her long, unstyled hair.
You know, I’m even going to throw some shade at Wolf Hall (2015) which, despite being pretty much a paragon of getting 16th century costume right, has the young gentry girls with their hair down under unfortunate biggins.
I mean, in this portrait of Holbein’s family, the baby girl barely has any hair, yet it’s still braided and pinned up | The Artist’s Family by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1528-29, Kunstmuseum Basel
And the little girl in the foreground of this kitchen scene has her hair entirely wrapped in a kerchief | Kitchen interior by Marten van Cleve, c. 1565, Skokloster Castle
Getting back to it: Young Bess (1953) makes the future Queen Elizabeth I look young by leaving the back half of her hair down and adding an unfortunate biggins.
While adult Catherine Parr wears her hair up.
Hamlet (1990) also used an unfortunate biggins to make Ophelia look young. Those braids aren’t passing muster with me as an “adult” hairstyle!
Sure, Gertrude also wore braids, but her looped style (with proper headdress) reads mature.
Elizabeth (1998), actually did a great job with Queen Elizabeth I’s coronation hair.
But that doesn’t excuse her pre-coronation, just-hanging-out flowing locks.
When clearly they had some concept of period hairstyling.
In All Is True (2019), the 20-something daughters go with long, loose hair again with unfortunate bigginses, as contrasted with Shakespeare’s older wife.
In Anonymous (2011), young (but crowned) Queen Elizabeth I wears her hair mostly down…
While her older version wears her hair styled in an actually historically accurate do.
In Angelique, Marquise des Anges (1964), they give the title character looped up braids in the world’s most 1960s way possible to show she’s young.
Older, yet still unmarried, so she gets pigtails.
AFTER her marriage, she gets an Actual Stylist for her hair.
In Forever Amber (1947), we first meet Amber as a 16 year old, with her hair loose under an unfortunate biggins.
Once she’s all growed up, she gets gorgeous (if not exactly historically accurate) ‘do’s.
When she’s unmarried, Princess Caroline of Great Britain wears her hair half-down in A Royal Affair (2016).
But after she moves to Denmark and marries, she wears updo’s (with inaccurate side parts to boot).
I’m convinced that The Great (2020- ) switched hair designers after the first episode, because we first see Catherine with hair loose except for the front.
Luckily, in later episodes, she’s in Russia (although still unmarried) and has figured out hairpins.
Désirée (1954) can theoretically claim “but it was the 1790s!” on their unmarried lead. But I’m not buying it, especially with those Bette bangs.
Adult Désirée, by contrast.
In Sleepy Hollow (1999), young Katrina generally wears her hair mostly loose.
While her adult step-mother has her hair entirely up and styled.
Harlots (2017-19) made younger sister Lucy look innocent and naive with total Alice in Wonderland hair.
While older sister Charlotte got all the updo’s.
Mary Shelley (2018) clearly didn’t give too many fucks about hair styling, period, but here’s unmarried Mary…
War and Peace (2016) can again claim that the turn-of-the-nineteenth-century influenced the younger hairstyles.
But I totally think it was to show age progression.
In 2005’s Pride & Prejudice, hairpins were in short supply, but eldest sister Jane generally managed to wear her hair up, while the four younger were all slovenly.
Someday we REALLY have to snark Camille (1984), if for nothing else than Greta Scacchi’s long flowing curls and bangs covered by an unfortunate biggins — in the 1840s??!!
Because that’s clearly meant to contrast with growed-up Camille’s snood-y updo’s.
Most versions of Little Women distinguish the sisters, and show age progression, with Alice in Wonderland ‘do’s for the younger. (1933 adaptation)
Yes, they’re hippies. But let’s get some pincurls going on someone other than Amy, okay? (1994 adaptation)
Never forget Scarlett O’Hara’s unmarried hair in Gone With the Wind (1939). Yeah, they got the front up, but the back half gives me palpitations.
Compare it with her lovely, actual 1860s hairstyles once she’s married!
So, the next time someone claims that an actress’s loose hair is okay because she’s young or unmarried, you can call an educated bullshit!