The Higher the Hair…

The higher the hair the closer to God or the roof of your carriage- whichever is nearer.

The preposterous Headdress or The Feathered Lady 1778 after a drawing by Mary Darley

A witty one liner from the wonderful Dolly Parton of course (although not the carriage bit- queen of song though she is, Dolly doesn’t have a carriage) an icon and diva for our times-  the unapologetic owner of many cathedral like wigs, stacked and curled ready to top her petit frame.

Caricature of ladies’ wigs (After Cruikshank c 1800)
A pot lid from a container for bear grease.

But she might have been describing the fabulous hairstyles and wigs of Georgian England when money and status could be measured by the length of time a hairdresser took to concoct an elaborate confection on top of a client’s head.

A lady’s (or gentleman’s) tresses would first be combed through with bear grease (yes, really) to stiffen and give structure to the hair. It was then looped and piled over additional padding to lend form and height with ringlets and woven bands of extra hair securely pinned into place.

A gentleman’s wig being thoroughly dusted with powder.

And there we are!

Magnifique!  -the whole towering edifice at last ready to be dusted with fine powder like a cake with sugar and the lady (or gentleman) appearing to have gained at least a foot in height.

From contemporary portraits of the time, we can see that beauty demanded (and she is ever demanding) not only fabulous hair but also a flawless skin created by the application of white makeup. Made in part from highly toxic white lead, sadly, this ethereal pallor hastened the death of several courtesans who felt obliged to maintain their ghostly complexion on a daily basis.

Interestingly, during the late 18th century Edo Period in Japan, improbably sculpted hair including many, if not hundreds of bun designs and stark white makeup derived from white lead and rice flour, similarly denoted great beauty as in Georgian society.

Makeup was applied with a special soft wide brush after shaving away the natural eyebrows and on to this blank canvas, new linear black brows were drawn high on the forehead creating balance to the face. The mouth was reddened with colour made from safflowers and painted inside the natural lip line to create a perfect rosebud shape.

Beauty, in eastern society’s eyes then ran completely counter to the west and demanded that women’s teeth were blackened using a mixture of iron filings, vinegar and tannins derived from tea.

Curious if not repellent to us, this fashion was seen to enhance a woman’s loveliness particularly in the glow of lamplight and mystery found in the shadows and dark of evening.

Bear grease and black teeth! Brazilians and Kardashian bottoms!

What I wonder, could possibly be coming next?

Edo period Japanese print by Kitao Masanobu (1761 – 1816) showing literary courtesans Tagasode and Hitomoto 1784

Georgian Period 1714 – 1830

Regency Period 1811 – 1820

Jane Austen 1775 – 1817

Edo Period in Japan 1600 – 1868

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Jane

    this is all really fascinating, clearly some have been willing to pay the high price of fashionable beauty for centuries!
    I believe a traditional wedding in Japan still dictates that a bride should shave her face so that makeup can be applied flawlessly.

  2. 66 North

    Great content! Keep up the good work!

    1. Penny

      That’s very kind of you! Thank you and Happy New Year2022.

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