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Here we look at women’s Edwardian hairstyles, from the fictional beauty of the Gibson Girl to the huge pompadours worn to support the enormous hats of the decade. We also look at hair accessories and give a nod to the hats of the era, as they had such an influence on a woman’s hairstyle.
The Edwardian Era
The Edwardian era started with the death of Queen Victoria in January 1901 and the succession of her son Edward.
King Edward VII was an affable, good mannered and diplomatic man, who reigned with Queen Alexander by his side, until his death in 1910.
Influences on Edwardian Hairstyles
Paris for the Ladies
Paris was the dictator of Edwardian women’s fashion in Britain and America, while London influenced men’s apparel. Therefore, women in Britain and America had very similar hairstyles due to the shared Paris influence. The influence not only included the hairstyles, but the accessories worn in the hair.
The Gibson Girl
Ah, the fictional Gibson Girl. She came about in the satirical pen-and-ink-illustrated stories created by American illustrator Charles Dana Gibson from the late Victorian era to the early 1910s.
The perky Gibson Girl was the epitome of the feminine ideal. In short, she was tall and slender, yet curvy, with her hair piled high on top of her head in the softly swirled pompadour style of the day.
The hourglass-figured, swan-necked Gibson Girl was seen as representing the beauty ideal in America for nearly 20 years, until World War I and the changing fashions resigned the Gibson Girl to history.
Edwardian women wore hats outside of the home and for social occasions. The Edwardian love of large hats affected hair fashions and how the hair was dressed. That is, hairstyles had to be big enough and structured in such a way as to be able to support the size and weight of the head wear. More on hats later.
Women's Edwardian Hairstyles
Overall, women’s Edwardian hairstyles had a soft, fluffy and loose fluidity about them. They were large and often padded to create the bulk and size fashionable during this era. The hair could even be quite fuzzy, especially if Marcel tongs were used regularly. Hair was dressed up and away from the face, with the exception of a curled fringe, which sat on the forehead.
The defining hairstyle for Edwardian women was the pompadour. Named after the Marquise de Pompadour (Louis XV’s chief mistress in the mid-1700s), the Edwardian version is fuller than the Madame’s.
The pompadour shape is high, rounded and curved away from the head. A woman’s long hair would be backcombed and rolled to create the desired shape. Backcombing was also used to form a matted foundation over which the outer layer of hair was brushed.
To further shape and support the hair, it was drawn over a “rat” (a matted pad or roll of hair) or a pompadour wire frame.
A pompadour could be dressed in all manner of styles, therefore the hair could be straight or have a wave or curl to it. Hair could be simply swept up with a bun, or feature decorative elements like soft coils, chignons and fuzzy curled fringes.
Cartwheel Hat Hairstyle
This type of hairstyle was seen later in the Edwardian era, from about 1908 on. It was designed to be worn under a broad-rimmed cartwheel hat.
The hair was wide at the sides, yet flat across the top. It would most likely need to be padded with “rats” to give the hairstyle the structure and bulk needed to support the large hats.
A pompadour could be decorated with a bun, chignon or knot, depending on what was in vogue at the time and the occasion. A bun situated on the crown created a “cottage loaf” look.
Teenage Girls & Crowning Glory
Teenage girls wore their long hair down. Hair could be restrained by tying it at the nape in a simple bow, or by wearing it in a single plait. The end of a plait could also be tucked under and secured at the nape with a ribbon. This was known by some as a doorknocker.
Young ladies would practice putting up their hair. For example, those at boarding school may have put their hair up for evening tea, giving themselves some much-needed practice before the real world beckoned.
Hair would be worn down until they entered the world of adulthood at about 17 years of age. At that time, their “crowning glory” would be put up into one of the popular women’s Edwardian hairstyles at that time. From now on, it would be considered inappropriate for hair to be left down.
Marcel Wave & Hot Irons
Edwardian women had curling irons that were heated in the fire. The hot irons were then applied to the hair, potentially leading to singed hair and even baldness.
Heated waving irons were also used to create frizz – from soft and fuzzy edges on the fringe to curls along the nape.
The heat of the tongs could be tested on newspaper beforehand, or paper could be wrapped around individual strands of hair to protect it from rough or overheated irons.
The Marcel wave was in vogue and is most likely the inspiration for the invention of the permanent waving machine by German hairdresser Karl Nessler. His “electric permanent wave machine” was patented in London in 1909. However, with perms taking many hours to complete and costing a huge wad of money, understandably not many women could take up the new found permanent wave during this decade.
Perming involved wrapping the hair around rods and covering it with substances like alkaline paste and asbestos. Gas was used to steam the curls tight. Understandably, it could really damage the hair.
Edwardian hats were big and got bigger through the decade. So much so that some theatres insisted women remove their enormous hats while attending a performance, thereby allowing the poor suckers behind to actually see the stage. Removal of these large hats was not a minor undertaking!
Hats were part of everyday life, from morning to night, and the hair was styled accordingly to accommodate the hat. At the start of the Edwardian era, hats sat more on top of the head. However, by about 1904, some were worn tilted at an angle.
The seasons affected what hat was worn. As a general rule, lighter straw hats were worn during summer, while heavier velvet or felt was favoured for winter. Ladies with their finger on the fashion pulse would wear their new spring hat on Easter Sunday, most likely to church.
Large hats were not suitable as sportswear, so smaller hats were introduced. The straw boater, which had been around for a few decades, was very popular as sportswear.
Some of the ladies hats seen in Edwardian times include:
- Flat caps which were very large in size;
- The Merry Widow, named after the operetta by Viennese composer Franz Lehár. When it was performed in London in 1907, the lead actress wore a large, black plumed hat and it led to women wanting the same style.
- Cartwheel hats with a wide-brim and made from straw;
- Picture hats often heavily decorated with flowers, fruit, feathers and tulle;
- Straw sailor hats with black velvet bands – also popular for sportswear;
- When riding in the open motor cars of the day, ladies would use a wide chiffon veil about three to six feet in length to drape around their hat and tie under the chin to keep it secure.
- Automobile bonnets were silk hats especially designed for adventures in the car. They were worn with goggles to keep the dust from one’s eyes.
Of course, hats were not worn in the home. Instead, women may wear a lightweight boudoir or matinee cap. It was often made from muslin or net material and could be decorated with ribbon or lace. Crocheted hats were popular, as they could easily be made at home.
A fashionable lady would always wear decorative hair accessories to evening functions and for special occasions. However, while wearing accessories was fashionable, polite society considered it unnecessary to wear too many items at once.
Braids were a popular element for both women and girls. Switches could be used to add a braid into a hairstyle.
Combs were both decorative and functional, with two or three keeping the hair in place for the day.
The large Mantilla combs (usually worn at the back of the head) were often highly-decorated with coloured stones, baroque pearls and gold filigree.
New plastic materials were also being used to replace the traditional materials of ivory, bone, tortoiseshell and horn. For instance, celluloid and Bakelite were not only cheap, but easy-to-mould materials that could be produced in various colours.
False Hair & Wigs
False hair was commonly used to adorn or bulk out the large pompadour styles. Switches and clusters were used to add a decorative detail, such as a chignon or braid. Likewise, a women could buy fake ringlets and fuzzy fringes (known as a frisette). All such items were made from human hair.
Wigs (or transformations as they were known then) were not uncommon. The large Edwardian hairstyles required large amounts of hair – and not everyone was naturally blessed with rivers of hair.
Whatever false hair was used, it was done so with discretion in mind. In a word, fake hair was not to be noticed and had to blend into the real hair.
Fresh blooms were worn in a variety of ways, for example, tucked behind the ear or pushed into a bun, plait or chignon. Flowers such as small pink roses, violets and forget-me-nots were popular. Similarly, a sprig of green could be added, for instance, some maidenhair fern.
Hat pins were used to keep the incredibly large hats secured to the hair. Ultimately, big hats needed big hat pins, which could be as much as 14 inches long.
Hat pins were decorated at the head, featuring designs from the simple to the ornate. Silver, glass and jewels were often used.
The ends were very sharp and, therefore, potentially dangerous. For example, women were not allowed to wear unprotected hat pins on buses, and suffragettes had to remove hat pins while attending court, in case they stabbed someone!
Hat pin collections would be stored on a padded pin cushion with a series of loops to hold the pins.
Plumage & Feathers
Feathers were very popular, and the feathers of many a feathered friend became the fashionable hair and hat adornment. This particularly gained momentum in the second half of the decade, taking over from the ribbons and flowers.
Feathers from the ostrich, bird-of-paradise and the tufted plume of the egret (called an aigrette) were all the rage. The feathers were often worn in huge and luxurious quantities. Sometimes, the whole bird would be strategically placed as a dive-bombing hat decoration.
The destruction of birds for fashion (along with hunting) was so vast that in 1905, the National Audubon Society was formed in the USA. The Society established the Audubon Plumage Law, which banned the sales of plumes from native birds and the importation of aigrettes and other such feathers.
Similarly, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds was established in the United Kingdom. It first appeared in 1889 as the Plumage League in protest at the number of birds being killed for clothing. It was granted a Royal Charter, which lead to laws banning the use of certain plumage in clothing.
Subsequently, goose and chicken feathers became the substitute material. The feathers were dyed and artistically fashioned into decorative pieces.
Pompadour Wire Frames
Wire frames in a variety of shapes and sizes were used to help women achieve the large pompadour hairstyles. Once it was secured to the head, the hair could then be swept over the frame. False hair could also be used to fill in gaps or create extra fullness.
Rats & Padding
A rat was a matted roll of hair that was used to create padding and bulk to support the height required in the hairstyles.
The hair used to make the rats came from the woman’s own combs and brushes, stored in a little pot called a “hair receiver“. This pot would sit on the dressing table. Hair could also be put into little material bags, known as a “hair tidy”.
The modern version of rats are the synthetic hair buns or sausages you can buy in hair suppliers.
Ribbons & Bows
Ribbons were used to create bows that were attached to the hair, worn at the nape or tied on the end of a teenager’s plait.
Black was the most commonly seen colour and velvet was a popular material for ribbon, as was taffeta and tulle. Bows were large and a prominent accessory.
Female baldness was not uncommon in Edwardian times, caused by things like overheated tongs, perming and hair dyes.
Cosmetic products were not subject to safety testing and ingredients were not required on labels. Hair products could contain all sorts of toxic or harsh chemicals, including radium which gave things a glow-in-the-dark effect.
Half, three-quarter and full wigs were used by women to enhance their natural hair and create the big styles of the era. Likewise, they were used to conceal the baldness created by the fashion for big hairstyles and heavy hats.
End of the Era
It may have been a brief period in the scheme of things, but the large hats, pompadour hairstyles and corseted figures of the women make the Edwardian era a distinct and memorable one for fashion.
As Britain moved into the 1910s and the reign of George V, the continued rise of the Suffragettes and the onset of World War I saw women taking a new direction. Things were about to change.