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Hairstyles Throughout History Part 1

Our hair is a fundamental part of our social identity; we put a lot of time and effort into styling it, Anne of Denmarkcutting it, and coloring it all because our hair is part of how we present ourselves to the world. Scientists think that we’re hard-wired to respond positively to healthy-looking hair, as it’s an easy indicator of overall health in a potential mate.

It’s not surprising that humans have been fussing with their hair since the dawn of civilization! Hairstyles have evolved throughout the years to reflect the overall cultural trends in each society, and have ranged from very simple to overwhelmingly bizarre and complex. We couldn’t go into the full history of hair styling, but here are a few of our favorite past styles.

The Hurly-Burly, Love-Locked 1600s
17th-century France was known for its extravagance, especially during the Baroque period. Neck ruffs, wide skirts, and multiple layers were common for fashionable women, and their hair was similarly fancy. The hurly-burly style consisted of shoulder-length ringlet curls, falling dramatically over one’s head from a straight center part on the scalp. The curls were set and maintained using gum arabic, literally gluing the style in place. Women would also curl and pile their hair on top of their heads, pinning it up to be as high as possible and using hairpieces to extend the updo even more.

Men’s hairstyles underwent a dramatic transformation throughout the 17th century. Early in the period, young men would grow out small sections of hair to cascade down over the left shoulder. These sections were called lovelocks, and they were very highly prized among fashionable gentlemen. Later in the century, when French king Louis XIV began to go bald, he began to wear a thick flowing wig to cover his thinning locks. Once the king established a style, the rest of the court followed close behind; huge wigs became standard for men, and would remain so for another hundred years.

Dying to Dye
Humans have been dyeing their hair since the days of cavemen when plant fibers, ash, dirt, and flower pollen could be used to tint the hair. Before the chemical innovations of the modern era, hair dyeing was accomplished through these natural methods, but some of the ingredients used for head-turning hair may make your stomach turn instead. In the Renaissance era, women would tie tree bark, alum, apples, and leaves onto their heads, leaving the entire concoction on for up to two days. For brown hair, they’d apply a mixture of lead and sulfur; black dye came from the bodies of green lizards cooked in oil.

Blondes have historically had more fun, in part because they were genetically unique in Ice Age Europe and thus highly desirable as potential mates. Yellow hues have maintained their popularity since then, but before bleach and hydrogen peroxide there weren’t many palatable ways to achieve light hair. Early dyes would use the acidic properties of vinegar to lighten tresses, and women in the Baroque period would resort to caustic soda or potassium lye to bleach their locks! When dark grey hair became fashionable after the Victorian era, silver nitrate was used as a darkening agent. A common side effect of this treatment was the hair turning purple due to over-use. Hydrogen peroxide’s bleaching effects were discovered in the 1800s.

Keep an eye out for next week’s post, when we’ll discuss some more crazy hair styles throughout history, including the perils of a hairdo that’s taller than the woman who wears it, and how one man’s baldness can influence an entire century of hair fashion.