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. We also look at hair accessories and 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-natured and diplomatic man. He reigned with Queen Alexander by his side, until he died in 1910.
Influences on Women's Edwardian Hairstyles
Paris for the Ladies
Women’s fashion in Britain and America was mainly influenced by Paris. Therefore, women in both countries had very similar hairstyles. Paris also influenced hair accessories.
The latest trends were reported in publications such as The Queen (a London newspaper for ladies), The Delineator (for American women) and Ladies Home Journal. They were also full of advertisements for all sorts of hair treatments, hairdresser services and accessories.
The Gibson Girl
Ah, the fictional Gibson Girl! Created by American illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, she was particularly popular in the USA.
The perky Gibson Girl was the epitome of the feminine ideal. For one thing, she was tall and slender, yet curvy with an hourglass figure. Her hair was piled high on her head in the softly swirled pompadour style of the day.
The Gibson Girl represented the ideal beauty in America for nearly 20 years and influenced women’s Edwardian hairstyles. She lasted until World War I when changing fashions resigned the Gibson Girl to history.
Edwardian women wore hats outside of the home and for social occasions. And boy, did they like big hats! Quite simply, women’s hairstyles had to be big enough and structured in such a way to support the size and weight of the headwear. But 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 hot tongs were used regularly. Hair was always dressed up and away from the face, except a fringe, which could sit on the forehead.
The Full Pompadour
The defining hairstyle for Edwardian women was the pompadour. It is named after Madame de Pompadour (chief mistress of Louis XV in the mid-1700s), although the Edwardian version is fuller.
The full pompadour is high, rounded and curved away from the head. Creating this shape meant backcombing and rolling a woman’s long hair into the desired form. Matted pads or rolls of hair (known as “rats”) were to support the hairstyle. They could also use a pompadour wireframe.
Ultimately, there were many ways to dress a pompadour. For example, the hair could be straight, have a wave or be curled. Likewise, the hair could feature decorative elements like a top bun, soft coils, and fuzzy curled fringes.
The Low Pompadour
This version of the pompadour was dressed full and high at the front. However, the hair was not piled on top of the head. Instead, the bulk of the hair was dressed at the back.
As with the full pompadour, this style had many ways to be completed. A series of coils and puffs or a French bun were all popular. It was known in hairstyling books and publications for ladies as a “low coiffure”.
Cottage Loaf Pompadour
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 of a full pompadour created a “cottage loaf” look. It was one of the classic women’s Edwardian hairstyles.
Cartwheel Hat Hairstyle
This wide and flat women’s Edwardian hairstyle was designed to be worn under a broad-rimmed hat such as the cartwheel. The hair would most likely be padded with rats to give it the structure and bulk needed. This Edwardian hairstyle was seen from about 1908 to the mid-1910s.
This was a softer version of the cartwheel hat hairstyle. It was popular with young ladies, especially college students and those working in clerical professions.
This is a late Edwardian style, seen from about 1908 onwards into the pre-war years.
Teenage Girls & Crowning Glory
Teenage girls wore their long hair down. Their hair could also be tied at the nape with a simple bow or worn in a single plait. One way to wear a plait was by tucking it under and securing the end at the nape with a ribbon. It 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.
A girl entered the world of adulthood at about 17 years of age. At that time, their “crowning glory” would be dressed up into one of the popular women’s Edwardian hairstyles. From now on, it would be inappropriate for hair to be left down.
Marcel Wave & Curling Irons
The Marcel way of styling hair was in vogue for Edwardian women who didn’t have wavy hair. A Marcel Iron was used to create the distinctive peaks and troughs of this style.
Other curling irons were available and came in a few sizes. The larger sizes were used to create waves and curls. Smaller curling irons were used to create frizz – from soft and fuzzy edges on the fringe to curls along the nape.
Edwardian women heated curling irons in the fire, on a gas stove, or an alcohol lamp designed for the purpose. The hair was then twisted or wrapped around the hot iron.
Using hot irons could potentially lead to singed hair and even baldness. To help prevent this, the heat of the tongs could be tested on newspaper beforehand. Similarly, a piece of paper could be wrapped around strands of hair to protect it from rough or overheated irons.
The Marcel wave 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 large wad of money, most women could not take up the newfound permanent wave during this decade.
Perming involved wrapping the hair around rods and covering it with substances like alkaline paste and asbestos. Then, gas steamed the curls tight. Understandably, it could damage the hair a lot.
Edwardian hats were big and got larger through the decade. So much so that some theatres insisted women remove them when attending a performance, thereby allowing the poor suckers behind to 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 the wearing of hats. 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 to church on Easter Sunday.
Large hats were not suitable for sportswear, so smaller hats were introduced. For example, 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 were big and oversized.
- The Merry Widow was named after the operetta by Viennese composer Franz Lehár. Performed in London in 1907, the lead actress wore a large, black plumed hat. 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 were also popular 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 specially designed for adventures in the car and 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 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 it was fashionable to wear accessories, polite society considered it unnecessary to wear too many items at once.
Bows & Ribbons
Ribbons created bows to attached to the hair. They were worn at the nape or tied on the end of a teenager’s plait. Bows were large and a prominent accessory.
Black was the most commonly seen colour. Velvet was a popular material for ribbon, as was taffeta and tulle.
Braids were a popular element for both women and girls. Switches could also be used to add a braid to 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 replacing 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 could add decorative detail, such as a chignon or braid. Likewise, women could buy fake ringlets and fuzzy fringes (known as a frisette). Wigs (or transformations as known then) were not uncommon.
The big Edwardian hairstyles required large amounts of hair – and not everyone was naturally blessed with rivers of hair. However, false hair was used with discretion in mind. In short, fake hair was not to be noticed and blended into the hair.
Fresh blooms were worn in various ways – for example, tucked behind the ear or pushed into a bun, plait or chignon. Popular flowers include pink roses, violets and forget-me-nots. Similarly, a sprig of green could be added, such as some maidenhair fern.
Hatpins kept the big hats secured to the hair. Ultimately, big hats needed big hatpins, which could be as much as 14 inches long.
Hatpins 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 hatpins on buses. Interestingly, suffragettes had to remove hatpins while attending court, in case they stabbed someone!
Hatpin collections would be stored on a padded pin cushion with a series of loops to hold the pins.
Plumage & Feathers
Feathers were popular, and the feathers of many a feathered friend became the fashionable hair and hat adornment. This 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.
Feathers were often worn in huge and luxurious quantities. Sometimes, the whole bird was strategically placed as a dive-bombing hat decoration!
The destruction of birds for fashion (along with hunting) was vast. It led to the formation of the National Audubon Society in the USA in 1905.
The Society established the Audubon Plumage Law, which banned the sales of plumes from native birds. It also banned the importation of aigrettes and other such feathers.
For similar reasons, the United Kingdom established the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It first appeared in 1889 as the Plumage League in protest at the number of birds killed for clothing. A Royal Charter was granted, which led to laws banning certain types of plumage in fashion.
Subsequently, goose and chicken feathers became the substitute material. The feathers were dyed and artistically fashioned into decorative pieces.
Female baldness was not uncommon in Edwardian times caused, for example, by overheated tongs, perming and hair dyes.
Cosmetic products were not subject to safety testing, and it was not required to list ingredients on labels. Hair products could contain all sorts of toxic or harsh chemicals, including radium which gave things a glow-in-the-dark effect.
Women used half, three-quarter and full wigs to enhance their natural hair and create the big styles of the era. Likewise, false hair concealed the baldness created by the fashion for big hairstyles and heavy hats.
End of the Edwardian 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.
Find Out More
- Photographs from Edwardian Britain
- Book on Edwardian hairdressing and barbering by Arthur Moler, published in 1906.
Thanks for the photodetective link. It’s a very informative site. Unfortunately, some of the images are not found. Also, the menu links are under the letters C L O S I N G, as of 29 June 2021, so I’ve no idea how long the site will remain available. Check it out while you can, since it has tons of information.
Thanks Art. The wonderful Photodetective site has had “closing” on it for years now, so hoping it’s not going anywhere soon. The photos are a fantastic resource!
I love the picture of the girl with the cottage loaf hair and would like to use it for a book cover. Is that photo copyrighted, or may I cite its source and use it? Where do you find it? Please let me know ASAP.
Hi Barbara – have a look at http://www.photodetective.co.uk. The contact details are on there.
I’m in a production fo the Pirates of Penzence which has been set around 1913 and they want us to find a hair style for the show, but my hair is a bob and so I’m not sure what I can do with it. Any idea?
Hi Joanna. Basically to add bulk/length that can be styled accordingly to your shorter hair, the way is by either using hair pieces/cluster, or a wig. Hair pieces/clusters are good, as you can use your own hair at the front and add the hair piece at the back to create the appropriate style/shape (e.g. plaited and wrapped round itself to create a bun). Your own hair would be largely pinned back to: a) remove the bob look and b) create a base to securely pin the hair piece on to. But you can still style some of your own hair too, to help create the look you want e.g. you could dress it in and pin it as you wish. All depends on your character and what sort (how fancy) their hair would be. Hair nets are great for holding everything in place and will not show on stage. Also – are you wearing a hat or head covering of some sort? This needs to be factored in, but can help cover up a transition from your hair to the hair piece if not 100% matching in colour. Ladies hair was up during this period. Hope this has given you something to go on 🙂
Hey, Joanna! I would suggest making your hair as full or curly as possible. Hope you have a great day!
Do you know of any step by step ‘how to’ ways to style the hair like that? With pics of course 😛
Oh my, this surely seems to require a maid or a sister or mother. Thank you for the essay.
Super helpful article! I’m an actress in a production of the Music Man, and these sorts of styles are needed to maintain the authenticity of the era. I’ve been playing around with a pompadour- I’m wearing a huge derby hat- but my hair is so thin it’s basically hopeless. Do you guys know of any place I could buy a pompadour hair frame? Obviously not a common tool anymore but I think it would do the trick. Thanks so much!
Hi Bennett. Film/TV/theatre wig makers, as they use wire frames to create structure for the really big wigs. Or someone who is handy with DIY who could make you one. An alternative: the modern version of wire frames and “rats” would be those synthetic hair buns and sausages you get from hair suppliers. They can be easily cut and shaped as you need – plus they are cheap and easy to get the shape you want 🙂 Maybe cosplay suppliers have wire frames? 🙂
Hi I’m writing a report for my Pastiche and padding class just wondering do you know what they used to pad out there hair in the 19th and 20th century?
i have to find pics of the different types of padding and finding it difficult
Hi Lou Lou – women could use a variety of things to pad out hair or create height, including false hair (made from human hair), wire frames and “rats”. Women collected hair from their hairbrush and kept it in a “hair receiver”, rolling it into “rats” to create padding. The hair could be stuffed into material to create various shapes as required. Cheers 🙂
Trying to date a photo of two young ladies, friends.
One would have been 25 if the photo was shot in 1908. The other looks about the same age.
Oval picture in or on cardboard. (I have only a photo of it)
Both gals wear high necked white (?) blouses with sleeves very slightly puffed at the shoulder seams and have watch bobs pinned on their left lapels.
Both also appear to be wearing glasses.
The girls have large ringlet shaped curls on both sides of the head, ending at the bottom of the ear. On the top their hair is thick, either pulled to the side or rolled back, but the appearance is flat, not sticking up as high as pompadours.
They each wear a large white (?) flower in their hair.
Can you help me date this picture?
Hi Marianne, A look at the photo of the photo 🙂 may help us try and help you date the picture (can always pop it on our Facebook page or email). For photo comparisons, have a look at PhotoDetective – a great website with lots of Edwardian photos and a bit about what styles were seen in photos and when. Maybe there’s a similar blouse/dress style on there? Ringlets throw us a little, as nowhere near as common as during Victorian era, but occasionally still seen. Ladies wore watch fobs on their blouses (left side) until wrist watches started to be seen around the end of WWI.
Have a look: http://photodetective.co.uk/
after the war would they have their hair down?
Hi Charlotte, Not in public/for any social occasion – women wore their long hair up, it simply wasn’t the done thing to wear one’s hair down. For work, women also wore their hair up (from the manual jobs kept after the war, to nursing, maids/servants, the WRAF and so on). Hair only started to be worn down, as such, when the short-cut bobs came in during the 1910s.
great page, help with my essay thank you
Glad we could help 😉
Hi, Would posh ladies have had their hair done by a maid or someone? Really like your period makeup posts!! Thanx
Hi Natalie, Thank you – and yes, indeed, “posh ladies” would have had their “lady’s maid” do their hair for them – plus upper-class women may have changed their outfits several times a day for social reasons (receive a visitor, attend an event, pay a call etc.) and the hair may have been changed too = not easy styles to do without a lady’s maid! Hope this helps.