The Borgias: Kick-Ass Hair: Season 1


The Borgias ran on Showtime from 2011-13, and while it wasn’t always perfect, DAMN if they didn’t do an amazing job with the visuals. Set in the 1490s, the show centers around Pope Alexander VI, his three adult children (Cesare, Lucrezia, and Juan), and his mistresses (Vanozza and Giulia). We podcasted about the first three episodes way back when, and compared it to its competition later in the series. And while I sometimes laughed at Juan’s mullets, thought Cesare was un-hot (sorry! Something about his rabbit upper lip), and felt that the plot was a little heavy-handed, I ALWAYS adored the costume design and, in particular, the women’s hair.

I’ve come back to images from the show repeatedly for ideas for 15th/16th century hairstyles, and thus was inspired to share my Borgias hair lust with y’all. Now, I can get a little OCD about this kind of thing, so I thought I’d better split things up into the three seasons (although I am having a hard time finding screencaps for season 3 — anyone have a source?).

Interestingly, while the women’s hairstyles change over the course of the series, it’s less done by character-growth and more of an allover change that affects all the female characters. I’m not sure if they were trying to show fashion change, or if different hair designers decided to go in different directions.

IMDB credits the following artists for hair design: Marilyn MacDonald (1 episode, 2011) and Stefano Ceccarelli (2 episodes, 2012); along with key hair stylist Lisa Pickering (1 episode, 2011); additional hairstylists were Judit Halász, Egonné Endrényi, Rita Balla, Attila Végh, Márta Antal, and Erzsébet Rácz. Ceccarelli was nominated for an Emmy for the show in 2012, and Variety notes,

“The art is ‘to make “period” fresh,’ says Stefano Ceccarelli of ‘The Borgias.’ ‘You can’t go too severe. Sometimes you have to compromise because the hairstyle has to go with the actor’s face.

“‘But you must always think of how what you do will be perceived by the audience. The challenge is a fresh look that could be accepted, making the audience believe that it’s true.’

“Inspired by Renaissance paintings, Ceccarelli’s styles vary between various social classes and settings for individual characters. In courtly formal appearances, Lucrezia Borgia (Holliday Grainger), gets an intricately woven golden crown and cascading rivulets, but in boudoir scenes the character literally lets her hair down” (Hairstyling: Nominees throw a curl into period hairstyles).

Now, let’s look at the main female characters in season 1, and compare their hair to historical sources of the period. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from studying Italian fashion of the 16th century, it’s that there’s tons of variation depending on what city/city-state you’re in, and I’m guessing that holds true for the late 15th century as well. I’m not going to get all “here’s what was worn in Rome, here’s what was worn in Milan” because I’ve got a life to live, but do note that the historical images I’m pulling are those that seem similar and you may know more than me (if so, weigh in!).

Lucrezia Borgia in The Borgias

Season 1 shows Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger) develop from the sweet young miss who is the apple of her family’s eye, wearing decorative caps that are luckily too pretty to be unfortunate bigginses with her hair up in front and down in back, to married and oh so jaded, with hair in various beaded nets (symbolizing her captivity? Probably not, since all the other ladies wear them too).

The Borgias (2011-13)

A sweet pink brocade cap to match her gown.

The Borgias (2011-13)

At a formal evening event, her caps morphs into more of a decorative bit.

The Borgias (2011-13)

This cap is very much improved by the hanging multi-colored ribbons, ostensibly to tie it under the chin but clearly there for decorative purposes.

The Borgias (2011-13)

A satin cap that matches the fabric in her gown’s sleeve. Note the beading on the “ties.”

Do you see back-hair-down styles like this in the period? Yeah, but more so on images that are probably allegorical or religious, like this one of Mary Magdalene (anyone biblical is probably painted to look ye-oldey-timey):

Piero di Cosimo, Legend of Mary Magdalene, c. 1500-10, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica.

Piero di Cosimo, Legend of Mary Magdalene, c. 1500-10, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica.

The Borgias (2011-13)

A rare, pre-marriage “grown up” style. Her hair is still down and perfectly waved in back, but it’s caught in a pearl and bead net.

You absolutely see beaded nets like this in the period:

Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis, detail from Portrait of a Lady (Beatrice d'Este?), c. 1485-1500, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana.

Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis, detail from Portrait of a Lady (Beatrice d’Este?), c. 1485-1500, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana.

2011-13 The Borgias

At her first wedding, Lucrezia’s hair gets way more complex: still up in front, down in back and waved, but now we’ve got: tiny braids behind the ears, a twist coming down from the front hair, and the back hair is caught with a beaded band. She wears a veil for the ceremony (left), which then comes off for the reception, but keeps the jeweled bands across the crown of the head throughout.

The Borgias (2011-13)

Soon after her marriage, despite her growing disillusion, she spends some time in her demure-young-maiden style…

The Borgias (2011-13)

But as she becomes more jaded (and more hot for her servant), she embraces the beaded nets. Here her hair is in a long, low twist, covered with a brown and pearl beaded net, and then topped with a flat cap. She wears this same style multiple times at the end of the season, although usually without the flat cap.

Back to these beaded nets, this kind of style, where the hair isn’t just hanging down in back, seems much more akin to what was done in the period:

Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis, Bianca Maria Sforza, c. 1493, National Gallery of Art.

Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis, Bianca Maria Sforza, c. 1493, National Gallery of Art.

2011-13 The Borgias

Another all-growed-up style — on the left, all the hair is in a burgundy/pearl beaded long caul for making out with servants, and on the right she’s pulled out one strand of wave for talking to her brother.

Here’s what I think is a long caul, although obviously not netted:

Raphael, Detail from Portrait of a Woman, 1505-6, Pitti Palace

Raphael, Detail from Portrait of a Woman, 1505-6, Pitti Palace.

The Borgias (2011-13)

At a formal Vatican event, all (or most?) of her hair is caught by this green/pearl net.

Giulia Farnese in The Borgias

Giulia (Lotte Verbeek) is the new, fashionable, and beautiful mistress of Rodrigo Borgia/Pope Alexander VI, replacing his longtime mistress and mother of his children Vanozza (below). She’s the cultured, cosmopolitan, grown-up counterpoint to Lucrezia, and you just know I adore her in her redheaded glory.

The Borgias (2011-13)

Giulia’s hair is center-parted, waved, and caught back in a burgundy and pearl net.

Here’s another example of a decorative net:

Lorenzo Costa, detail from A Concert, c. 1485-95, National Gallery

Lorenzo Costa, detail from A Concert, c. 1485-95, National Gallery.

The Borgias (2011-13)

When she has her portrait painted, Giulia loses the net and just goes full Renaissance-maiden.

Giulia is holding a goat for her portrait, and it seems they were trying to reference the famous Young Woman with a Unicorn painting… but they clearly went a different direction with the hair:

Raphael, detail from Portrait of Young Woman with Unicorn, c. 1505, Galleria Borghese

Raphael, detail from Portrait of Young Woman with Unicorn, c. 1505, Galleria Borghese.

The Borgias (2011-13)

This may be what her hair is doing under those nets, but here she’s accented it with a simple pearled band.

The Borgias (2011-13)

Now the hair is up in a full, long caul. I love how they placed this caul so far back on her head!

The Borgias (2011-13)

Another pretty beaded net effect, but this time with extra waves around the face and a ferronière (the headband across the forehead).

The term “ferronière” is obviously French, I’m not sure what the Italian term was! The French term is tied to this famous painting by da Vinci:

Leonardo da Vinci, detail from Portrait of a Woman (sometimes incorrectly called "La Belle Ferronière"), c. 1495-9, Louvre Museum.

Leonardo da Vinci, detail from Portrait of a Woman (sometimes incorrectly called “La Belle Ferronière”), c. 1495-9, Louvre Museum.

The Borgias (2011-13)

The beaded nets seem to always coordinate with the gown.

The Borgias (2011-13)

She wears her hair up in this caul for traveling (to see/visit Lucrezia, and deal with the French king).

Vanozza Cattaneo in The Borgias

Vanozza (Joanne Whalley) has nice but comparatively boring hair for season 1, which accounts (in my opinion) for Rodrigo ditching her. If she’d only rocked the hairstyles she did in later seasons, maybe he wouldn’t have wandered off! (Just kidding. He was clearly not one for commitment).

The Borgias (2011-13)

Vanozza spends most of season 1 with short tousled curls on top, and the hair up. Here you can see it’s twisted and there’s a small red beaded net in back.

The Borgias (2011-13)

Vanozza is also VERY Team Veil.

The Borgias (2011-13)

Same tousled curls, yet another veil.

You certainly see veils in the period:

Piero di Cosimo, Portrait of a Woman, 1500s, Pitti Palace

Piero di Cosimo, Portrait of a Woman, 1500s, Pitti Palace.

Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, detail from Portrait of a Woman, 1508, Pitti Palace

Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, detail from Portrait of a Woman, 1508, Pitti Palace.


Caterina Sforza in The Borgias

Caterina (Gina McKee) is a smaller player in season 1, and both times we see her she’s wearing her hair up in a braided coronet that’s interwoven with burgundy velvet ribbon and accented with pearls.

The Borgias (2011-13)

Caterina’s hair is lovely, but wait for season 2…


Other Female Characters’ Hair in The Borgias

Ursula Bonadeo

Cesare’s blonde mistress has SUCH an Italian Renaissance look! Before hitting the convent (and, presumably, shaving her head), she’s in waves with a long twist down, covered with yet another beaded/pearled net.

2011-13 The Borgias

Again, let’s compare with a beaded net from a period source:

Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis, Portrait of a Lady, 1500, National Gallery

Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis, Portrait of a Lady, 1500, National Gallery. I’m pretty sure she has a long braid or twist hanging down her back, but it’s hard to tell.

Sancha of Aragon

Poor Sancha (bride of Joffre) doesn’t get to rock much hair at all — instead she’s got this white pearled caul and veil that’s in line with some of the other styles, but just seems like something that came from Michael’s craft store to me.

The Borgias (2011-13)

Too many white pearls just reads plastic to me!

Thanks to for the screencaps! (And if you’ve got a source for season 3 screencaps, please let me know!)


Stay tuned for season 2 of The Borgias, when the hair gets Fabulous Up the Wazoo! What did you think of the styles in season 1 of The Borgias?


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.

10 Responses

  1. Susan Pola

    I loved the costumes for this show. Being such a teal-obsessed person, my favourite were both Giulia Farnese’s and Lucrezia’s teal dresses. An it seemed that Lucrezia’s was used throughout the series.
    I thought the hair designs were telling. The women, Lucrezia and Giulia, hair seemed to have a dual purpose. Showing their growth in age, window, etc. and also image control of how they wanted to appear.

  2. Kathleen Norvell

    What drives me crazy in period films is the fact that hair is always pulled back off the face and secured somehow at the back of the head. This goes for both men and women — one of the reasons I won’t watch any of the “Viking” stuff. If you look at the portraits, you see that the women did not, for the most part, have their hair pulled back — you do NOT see their ears! Maybe modern hairdressers want to show the actresses’ faces. I don’t know, but as a long-time SCAdian, I’m used to seeing period hairstyles done correctly — no matter how unflattering. I remember one woman with very long, blonde hair and an Italian Renaissance persona. She actually curled her hair into tiny ringlets, slept on it wet, then when she undid the curlers, she had perfect, wavy Renaissance hair. And she topped that with a beautiful beaded net. She looked like she walked out of a portrait.

    • Hespera

      Would you happen to know of any resources for just how to get those Renaissance waves without heat? I absolutely love the look, but I can’t find anything historical or otherwise that tells me how they got their hair like that and braids certainly don’t work on my hair.

      • Vanesa Cano

        You could try to twirl yoir hair around a rag, in small locks. It should gave you little waves once you brush it

  3. Kathleen Norvell

    From what I’ve been told, wet your hair and braid it. You can do a lot of little braids rather than one big one. Sleep on it overnight. When you unbraid it, it should have all those Renaissance waves. Probably finger comb it rather than use a brush. My own hair is naturally very wavy, so all I have to do it wet it and let it air dry.

  4. Cate

    Ooh! Thank you! I love the Borgias, sadly you don’t have much posts about them. Will you do the dresses too? They are gorgerous! Thank you

  5. Lin

    Was there a phase a few years ago where we were all wearing those beaded hairnets? Or am I just making things up?

  6. anon

    The hair in the first season was my favorite. I felt as the seasons went on the hair became very unrealistic due to how many extensions they were putting on the actresses. While the styles were nice, the extensions were very obvious and they could have done the same hairstyles just smaller without the excessive extensions and it would been just fine.
    Also I thought they should have kept Lucrezia’s hair the same color as the first season. I understand they darkened and curled her hair to make the character appear darker, but I think the light tone suited her, it made her scheming appear more devious in season 1.

  7. Lea

    Nice article. I agree that they did an amazing job with the visuals in the series. I think they took a lot of inspiration from original portraits and sources, so I find it generally convincing to look at.

    Your whole website is great, by the way :) I have to admit that I LOVE adaptations of historical figures and events for entertainment purposes, but the real fun is to check and compare it with the facts afterwards. I absolutely have to take my time and read through all your articles :)