The Women of Confederation

Canadian women from 1865-1900

Crowning Glories

“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.”
Brothers Grimm

Looking at pictures of Agnes Macdonald, Lady Dufferin, and other Confederation women, how can one not notice the hair? These women’s hairstyles are astonishing!

Agnes_hair Agnes in 1873 with elegant updo. Source: Library and Archives Canada.

 

Dufferin_hairLady Dufferin wearing a similarly intricate hairstyle. Source: Manitoba Archives.

Isn’t that something? How long did it take to put together those styles?

Quite a while, I should think. Just take a look at the first few steps for creating an updo in the following instructions.

Hair-instructions

Going to Great Length

Canada’s women of Confederation wore large and elaborate hairstyles. (They may have been taking their cue from their American neighbours, where hairstyles had been quite plain during the Civil War era – often simply parted in the middle and pulled back – but had also gotten larger in the course of the 1860s.) It looks as though a mass of hair was needed to put together those styles, and often the women did indeed have very long hair.

Aline_Vallandri Soprano Aline Vallandri with floor-length hair.

Vallandri, in an interview for Every Woman’s Encyclopedia described as “the famous Cantatrice, who has the Most Wonderful Hair in Europe,” advised women similarly endowed to keep hair and scalp clean, but also “to avoid any excessive use of water.” Instead, she suggested “much brushing” – a practice religiously followed by women of the time – and to avoid curling tongs but to massage the head regularly. She also endorsed “cutting the hair and singeing the ends with a lighted taper [as] beneficial for the growth.”

It’s fairly obvious from Vallandri’s picture that she grew her hair all her life, and that was standard practice for Victorian women. Never mind that the sheer weight of the hair must have given them constant headaches! Hair was considered the “crowning glory” of a woman’s beauty. It was also an indicator of social class – no working woman could afford to fuss with her hair for an hour before going off to scrub floors – and of maturity. In public, only young girls wore their hair loose or in braids. Adult and married women wore it pinned up. No exceptions. Letting her hair down, literally, signified privacy and intimacy.

“Fare Thee Well, My Beloved Friend”

Another common practice was the exchange of locks of hair for sentimental reasons. In a time when travelling to see friends or relatives who had moved elsewhere wasn’t nearly as easy as it is today, and when, frankly, life expectancies were shorter and mortality rates higher, locks of hair were mementos – literally a piece – of someone loved and perhaps lost.

In L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (published in 1908 but steeped in Victorian culture), Anne asks her bosom friend Diana for “a lock of [her] jet-black tresses in parting to treasure forevermore,” when the girls believe that they are never to meet again. Anne intends to sew the lock of hair up “in a little bag and wear it around [her] neck all her life” (110, 111). She intends the lock of hair, in other words, to be an instrument for remembrance.

Little Helpers

Masses of hair might have been nice, but not everyone had them. Fake stuff to the rescue!

Elaborate_hairstyle

The appearance of luxuriant, thick, long hair could also be achieved with the use of fillers (also called “rats”) and multiple hair pieces. For instance, if the woman’s own hair was heat-damaged – the Marcel wave that relied on curling irons was invented in 1872, and curls supposedly indicated a milder, sweeter temperament – fillers and hair pieces could be deployed to create the volume and height essential for the era’s elaborate styles.

hairstyle_backview

Not ratty

Hair rats could be made from a woman’s own hair.

Hairreceiver Source: Jackie Hyman

Hair receivers (ceramic or crystal) were commonly found in women’s boudoirs. Stray hairs were collected from the brush after brushing and put through the receiver’s opening for storage. Once sufficient hair had accumulated, it was rolled by hand into a tight sausage shape. The natural hair was then arranged over it and secured with pins. Voilà ! Great style.

Hairdresses (here with velvet pansies), hair wreath (with forget-me-nots), combs and pins were also used in creating the period’s styles.

Headdress

Hair_wreath

Hairpin

The Power of Hair

Toward the end of the Victorian era, the Delineator, a popular American women’s magazine read and appreciated also by Canada’s women of Confederation, summed up the importance of women’s attention to their hair as follows:

“A potent factor in any woman‘s appearance is her coiffure. Indeed, no other item of her toilette is really so influential, either to emphasize or to lessen her natural attractiveness, since no fashion is so capable of affecting the actual expression of her countenance as is one that pertains to the arrangement of the hair. The often-admired ‘crowning glory’ may be rendered almost a disfigurement if disposed unbecomingly, while a tasteful and careful dressing of the tresses, even though they are not very beautiful, will lend a decided charm to a plain face.”

Fashions are subject to change, but the complexity of Confederation women’s hairstyles is another indicator of the (self-)discipline that was part of their lives.

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Works Cited

Every Woman’s Encyclopedia. https://archive.org/stream/everywomansencyc07londuoft/everywomansencyc07londuoft_djvu.txt, accessed November 2, 2014.

“Fashionable Hair Dressing.” Delineator, December 1894.

Montgomery, Lucy Maud. Anne of Green Gables. New York and London: W.W. Norton Critical, 2007.

 

2 Comments

  1. Great article–fascinating. This is something everybody ‘knows’ about but most of us don’t think about, all the time and effort and attention that women’s hair required in the nineteenth century. No wonder beautifully coifed hair was such a marker of upper-class status. Things haven’t changed that much, have they? We are no longer required to have such masses of hair, but many women still spend inordinate amounts of time and money keeping their crowning glory glorious.

    • Thanks for taking the time to reply!
      I always thought the women’s elaborate hairstyles were hard to ignore, but I must admit I didn’t realise that they required so much effort. And really, floor-length hair must have been torture – the Victorian response to foot binding or neck stretching – and all in the name of feminine beauty.

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