Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Fat and a Rat: How I Got 18th Century "Big Hair"

I've enjoyed reading posts and seeing pictures recently of Williamsburg's Margaret Hunter shop's interns' experiments in hair dressing (via Two Nerdy History Girls), and of the Burnley and Trowbridge hair and cap workshop (via On Living History).  I've been trying for years with limited success to achieve "big hair" to match my eighteenth century clothing, and aside from a fairly positive wig experiment, I've been unable to recreate the style I want.

The missing pieces?  The key, if you will?

Fat and a rat.

The Rat

Eighteenth century rats--formative padding to shape and support the hair--weren't called rats; they were called rollers and cushions.  I find myself using the term favored in the 20th century--I think I just find the idea of rodents as hair accessories funny.  Before discovering their correct form, I went through several incarnations:

  1. My own hair.  I have a ton of hair, so thought, perhaps, I could use my own hair as a way to add height from underneath.  And though I got the height, shaping was difficult.  The look was bumpy, not smoothed.
  2. A formed roll, like a foam roller or--yes, I tried this--a mini paint roller.  I'd seen this recommended for WWII era victory rolls.  For my purpose? Too stiff.  They held well in the hair, but my hair tended to "fall off" the sides, creating an unflattering look.
  3. A short rat.  I first attempted a short, approximately four-inch-long "roller" thrown together out of the toe of an old pair of stockings and stuffed with wool scraps.  It worked far better than stiffer rolls or my own hair, but my hair still plumed in an unflattering shape and it tended towards lumpy.
Finally, I was lucky enough to read the Two Nerdy History girls blog post with pictures of the rollers used by the ladies in the Margaret Hunter shop.  They were longer and softer than what I'd tried--and that, friends, is the secret to a workable rat.  Er, roller.

Lacking wool scraps and fleece in the house, I made mine out of a "brunette" trouser sock stuffed with the leftover third of a skein of soft yarn that I wasn't going to use for anything else.

The result?  Excellent!  The malleability of the long, soft roller was the key--I rolled my hair onto it and then could mold the hair roll to my head and pin.  

I may be working on the art of big hair, but the art of the selfie is clearly beyond me.

The Fat

My other secret weapons?  I bought orange blossom pomatum and lavender-scented hair powder from Little Bits Historical (conveniently available on Etsy.)

Christina at On Living History posted about her experiments dressing her hair with pomatum and powder.  You know how, when  you do your hair in an updo (or have it done at a salon), you rely on hairspray, dry shampoo, mousse, some kind or kinds of product to get your hair "sticky" enough to hold a style?  That's the idea with using pomatum (a blend of lard, oils, fragrance, and other good stuff) and powder.  Forget the idea that powder was only used to lighten eighteenth century hair--it provided grip.

I not only have a ton of hair, I have textured, thick hair that I wash infrequently (curly hair--you wash it every day, you get a Brillo pad).  It already has a lot of hold to it.  So I found that I used far less pomatum and powder than Christina described, but the small amount I used made a huge difference.

Aside: I also used the powder as a dry shampoo to make my most recent blow-out last longer.  Works as well as commercial dry shampoo without the extra junk--so if you're into natural/few ingredient products, I'd recommend it!

So--the concept is simple.  Work the pomatum through the hair, dust with powder, achieve a texture that will hold a smoothed, high hairstyle.  And bonus--the pomatum serves to condition hair, and the powder, as I discovered organically, mops up oils and prevents a greasy look.  When combined with regular combing and brushing, there's an everyday haircare regimen. 

The fat and powder routine is especially helpful for getting the back of the hairstyle to behave.  Hair from the period is typically either rolled into curls or rolled upwards and tucked under--either way, the hair needs to be smooth, frizz-free, and easy to mold to look decent.  Ladies didn't fashion their front hair into a high roll just to whip their back hair into a messy bun, after all.  I rolled mine up, and then tucked the ends under and pinned them.

Then I dressed the whole dealio with a simple white cap.  For more really bad selfies.

With a little more practice, I can see myself creating this style on-the-go at living history events.  


Caroline said...

Awesome! I can barely manage my hair on a daily basis, so trying acts of 18th century dering-do are definitely out. Not to mention that I've been told that I dress too fancy for my group's impression, so I'm thinking that if I showed with high hair, I'd really be in the you-know-what. :-)

Rowenna said...

Thanks, Caroline! Yes, hairdressing, like any other historical fashion choice, does depend on chosen persona. I'm an officer's wife from a fashionable area, so it works :) At the same time, many lower-income women dressed their hair "high," too--prints show maids, tradeswomen like dressmakers and their assistants, and country girls with dressed hair. But a camp follower on a ragged campaign? Probably lost her hairpins long ago :)

Christina J said...

A little late on this post, but just came upon it doing some blog hopping.

Anyhow, I love that you mention the amount of pomatum and powder you actually used because it reminded me of a bit from the New London Toilet: "If the hair is dry by nature, then it will be dangerous to use much pomatum or powder; but if the hair is fresh and in full growth then you may use any quantity of powder you please..."

It's things like this that make it so worthwhile to experiment with the past. =)

Also, in response to the camp follower on campaign dressing hair, it's interesting to look at images depicting camp laundresses because it does seem that there is something going on beneath their caps. A fun area for exploration.