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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!
My claim to fame is ensuring every female cast member in our (very) community theater production of A Christmas Carol did something with their hair. It could be a simple bun, but it wasn’t down. The girl with the very cute pixie cut got a mob cap. The budget was like $3, so don’t hate on the mob cap. Her hair was “done.” Again, I blame this blog as a source of information.
Greetings from another community theater designer. Good for you! I went to a (community) production of Christmas Carol last year that was a mess. I know the costumer and had to wonder at some of the things she put on that stage (e.g., men in modern jackets but w/ the lapels turned up or otherwise “altered”). The hair was just as bad. Thank you for making the effort.
This drives me insane! Long, down hair just looks wrong with historical clothing. Not that the historical clothing is always much better…
It does look wrong (beachy hair with a corseted bodice–yuck) and it’s such a lazy way of telegraphing age, social status, or whatever the filmmakers want to tell the viewers. I don’t like the implication that I’m too dumb or ignorant to figure out such details myself.
Elle Fanning’s Regency knitwear is making my eyes twitch.
Can people really not grasp that the whole point of a biggin, fortunate or unfortunate, was to keep the hair clean and out of the way by covering and containing it?
Also, who also thinks that those biggins in Wolf Hall and All is True will have been constantly falling off? You can’t park a loose linen hood thing on flowing locks and expect it to stay there. Which is yet another reason why historical people didn’t do that.
One of the worst cases was Mathilde in 18th cent. French film Ridicule where she played the non-corrupted ingénue (vs the whicked whigged court), all in long hair and bangs strolling in the fields….depressing!
But how else could the audience possibly tell she was the uncorrupted ingenue?
I started paying more attention to historical hairstyles when I started having to design hair for community theater productions. I still have a lot to learn, but BOY did I start noticing some egregious howlers. I always wonder how much is laziness and how much is the director telling the hair designer, “No, I don’t care about HA, I want all the unmarried females to wear their hair down.” or some such nonsense.
Juana of Castile and Aragon was Catherine of Aragon’s elder sister. Her son became Carlos V/Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Typo?
I’ve often thought films should hire Janet Stephens and just stay out of her way.
Am I correct that Anne Boleyn had her hair up and bound for her initial, flamboyant, journey along the Thames by barge to the Tower at the start of her coronation festivities – but then wore it loose to her waist for her state entry into the city two days later and then again for her actual crowning in Westminster abbey? I also remember seeing a contemporary sketch of her by Holbein, which showed her coronation banquet, where she sits in state and wears a crown but, from what I recall, she clearly has her hair flowing free and loose. Do you think that this was in representation of the virgin Mary and spoke of her fertility (she was quite heavily pregnant at the time from what I’ve gathered) or do you think it was more for romantic aesthetics, creating a more ‘Arthurian’ feel to match her lavish robes/gown, as well as for the practicalities of the crowning itself?
Yes, Anne Boleyn wore her hair down for her coronation (and yes, for the banquet). Yep, it was a Virgin Mary reference!
This is the only portrait of a girl pre 1900 with hair that seems to have been combed, but nothing else done to it: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/nl/collectie/SK-A-3097
She is Miss Schimmelpenninck, and her family was pretty progressive, with the education of the children strongly influenced by Rousseau.
Yep, that’s part of that late 18th century/early 19th century naturalistic trend whereby it looks like girls mostly DID wear their hair down and either curled or just natural.
I’m curious about whether the unstyled hair for younger women might be more accurate in the case of Little Women than in some of the other examples, at least for everyday? The March family is based on Alcott’s own somewhat eccentric, Transcendentalist upbringing, and I know that in some of her later books (Eight Cousins, if I recall correctly) she has characters do things like eschew corsets and tight-fitting clothing, so being out of step with fashion might not be too surprising. I’m afraid I don’t know enough about the history of hair in that period to say with any confidence, though, just curious!
You’re right there, although as I ranted in my review of the most recent Little Women, Meg specifically is described as putting her hair up for her wedding, so I’m guessing Meg and Amy would be more on-trend.
That’s very true! And if everyone else’s hair was historically accurate, having certain people in period movies wear their hair unstyled deliberately for character reasons (like Jo March, or the Renaissance women deliberately styling themselves after the Virgin Mary) would stand out more!
You should snark Camille for the young and dishy Colin Firth, too.
I have my hair in a ponytail, and I’m trying to calculate the sexual message of it.
I have to disagree somewhat with your suggested (and we’ll-researched) source of this trend. I don’t think most costume/hair-dressing designers look at history with that level of nuance and knowledge of period sources.
I am almost certain that “hair down for young ladies” comes rather heavily from Pre-Raphaelite inspiration, where the long, flowing hair was ALL about sexuality intertwined with purity. The Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic absolutely shaped the designs and visual style of early silent films and once it was established in the movie industry, it just became convention as a visual shorthand.
Ditto to Tanya’s point. This hairstyle is now SO ingrained as a “visual shorthand” that I think anything else looks wrong to the layperson. As someone said on a different post, “not excusing, just explaining.”
I would agree with the comment above that a lot of this is probably 19th century imagined ideas of what the medieval era was like. But that just shows a lack of research, or reliance on one’s own impressions rather than actually looking at period sources or good secondary sources.
It’s weird also how many contradictory ideas we always seem to have about past eras, particularly medieval. They had terrible hygiene! But also crazy hairstyles! Except when they didn’t care about doing anything with it! Also they thought dumb things like the earth is flat! Haha weren’t they stupid.. Erm, no. We know more than them, but take them out of the chain of human history and we would not be where we are. Also, just from a practical thing–is anyone thinking about all the tangles that would be happening in those girls’ hair? There’s a reason most parents today also still do something with their kids’ hair.
“Unfortunate Biggins” is a FANTASTIC name for a fictional character! I just see so much that could be done with that name!
Maybe for a Hobbit drag queen?
As someone with very long hair, I cannot imagine leaving it loose in an era before showers, detangler, wet brushes, and de-frizzing products. I have tried different periods’ alleged hair care methods, and I can tell you they are pretty much all on history’s trash heap for a reason. I call bullshit on the idea of anyone who didn’t have a personal dresser running around with free-flowing hair if they could possibly help it.
Or anyone with children! I’ve spent heaven knows how long combing food, snot, leaves, and head lice out of my children’s flowing locks and I have unlimited access to hot running water, electric lights, and moderately toxic chemicals to help.
The difficulty with using portraits to judge how hair was worn, is that they are formal images and not everyday life. A quick search I have made, turned up several portraits of young pre-teen girls and one on the cusp with their hair long, down and actually rather messy. I have thought that the putting up of one’s hair was one of the steps into adulthood for a young girl (and adulthood did start earlier than today), as being breeched was for a young boy. So I wouldn’t object to any girl under twelve or thirteen with their hair down, but after that would begin to wonder.
Exactly. Especially for those very young girls, I doubt they had it done that way every day.
There were very practical reasons for tying back and covering your hair in the days of cooking over open fires and smokey great halls. Women made a virtue of necessity by turning their head kerchiefs and caps into fashion statements. Loose hair, except under specific circumstances, like a wedding, meant dirt poor or slutty.
“…but the front part IS pulled back, contained, and accented with a bow…” So the American Girl Samantha doll has a historically accurate hairstyle, ha ha! But would Felicity have worn her hair back in a ponytail?
Samantha – yes! Felicity – nope!
Yes, I have seen quite a lot of hairstyles for 19th century young girls (I mean, I have seen then in period journals, not personally) where the hair is left loose in the back, maybe curled a little. But the front part was always styled and braided or otherwise put up. There was usually a bow involved somehwere.
Also, they were usually quite clearly smart hairstyles, for some unusual, dressy occasion. Definitely more often the hair is braided in some way, especially for everyday outfits.
One thing though – little girls with loose, shoulder-length hair do turn up in journals on occasion. So maybe they could get away with it as long as their hair didn’t grow very long. But I still wouldn’t call it “unstyled”, as the hair is quite clearly neatly arranged, maybe curled a little, and often with bangs.
I don’t know if this could be a future snark post, but how about waking up in bed and the hair is perfectly styled? This always bugs me when watching Elizabeth in PoC – wouldn’t it be historically accurate across all times/periods that your hair is messy and needs to be styled after getting up in the morning? Just putting that here given the topic of long locks.
Sorry to be “that person,” but–
If girls and unmarried young women never actually did this IRL back in the late 19th century, then why are there so many images of them depicted with their hair down, but fully dressed (not déshabillé) and in everyday settings?
Renoir painted scads of girls and even young women with hair loose, with only the front part pulled out of the eyes and secured at the crown, and with the hanging part not even looking particularly well-combed– such as this 1880 portrait of 8-year-old Irène Cahen d’Anvers, sister of the girls in “Pink and Blue”:
or this 1894 portrait of 15- or 16-year old Julie Manet, daughter of the painter Berthe Morisot and niece of Édouard Manet:
Being part of a family of artists (and later a painter and diarist), Julie Manet was frequently depicted in paintings and photographs, and by her teen years was usually shown with this same loose hanging hair, as in this photo contemporary with the Renoir portrait:
And Renoir at least once depicted a young– but presumably married– adult woman with long, loose hair cascading over her shoulders, in this 1876 painting:
While the young mother is wearing a coat with a fur collar and cuffs, her light-colored hair appears to be falling loose over her shoulders as well.
And it’s consistent with the woman’s hairstyle in this 1873 painting by Édouard Manet, which depicts 29-year-old Victorine Meuret, his frequent model (and a painter in her own right), as another woman out in public with a child:
And then there are photographs of women with similar hairstyling, like Annie Oakley, who always wore her hair pulled back but hanging loose in back– as in this photo dated to the 1880’s, when she would’ve been in her 20s:
Sure, Oakley was a stage performer with a “Wild West” image (and short hemlines), but there are quite a few photos of other women– possibly carte de visite photos– with the same hairstyle from that era:
So while I certainly wouldn’t say having loose flowing hair was commonplace, everyday styling in this era, it would appear to be at least somewhat more prevalent IRL in at least some eras, and somewhat less of a movie cliche than is the conventional wisdom here.
To be fair, “loose” and “unstyled” aren’t necessarily the same thing. The photo of Annie Oakley, for example, shows her with fashionable bangs and pulled-back hair, which could be called styling.
Good points, though, especially the examples on adults!