The very large hairstyles of the mid 1870s have always fascinated me, logically much of it had to be created using false hair. Even those with famously long and luxurious locks (Empress Elisabeth of Austria to name one) don’t appear to have as disproportionately large plaits in their hair as many other fashionable women. This is surely because you can get more hair per square inch of scalp with a hairpiece! It’s not just logic but written and visual evidence of large hairpieces that support the use of fake hair in recreating these styles.
I decided I would set out to try a relatively simple style as I finally found enough fake hair to even attempt such an undertaking.
My own hair is very much that red-gold colour seen in portraits by Cranach of ladies of 16thC Germany so is very hard to match. As luck would have it the extremely cheap ponytail hairpieces at various “dollar” stores is rather close. Not perfect but there are two shades of “hair” which helps create the illusion that it does match.
Preparing the hair pieces
To start with I took three ponytails and decurled them using a well known technique of using boiling water. When used to set curls on wigs/fashion dolls this is called a “boil perm”. I set the pot to simmer then dunked each ponytail individually in the water. It literally takes seconds to soften the fibres enough to stretch them. Perhaps 5-10 seconds per hair piece. The weight of the water in the hair goes a long way to this stretch.
I would recommend trying to get dead straight hair in two steps for safety. Trying to manipulate the hairpiece while it contains very hot water is not a good idea.
Note the element is red this really was hot water. I know many are worried about hair melting, this should not happen if you set the water to simmer (not boil) and you keep the hair moving. The perspective is skewed though, the pot is in fact big and the element is the standard large size.
Once dry the hair can be combed to detangle and then dipped again. With a wide toothed comb it may be possible to lay the ponytail on the bench top and comb it a little more to get even more straightened.
Once they had dried I put a little leave in hair conditioner to soften the fibres and combed them with a wide toothed comb to smooth the hairs as much as possible (they are rather coarse and the wave makes them slightly frizzy, which is good for this style) then I pulled the snap on rings off the top (it appears to have been hot glued in place.) Two tails were simply plaited, fairly loosely to retain as much bulk as possible. The third was divided in two and plaited.
For three other pieces I wanted to utilise the curl but make them a bit closer to the fashion of the 1870s. to this end I started by simply washing the pieces in warm water with shampoo to remove whatever treatment had been put on them prior to purchase. This is that horrible crunchy feeling that probably puts most people off buying them. It does wash out and you can keep the curl! Just be gentle with washing and pat dry with a towel.
One piece I left as it was with open separated curls (on the left of the image to the left) the other two I combed as free of tangles as possible (middle of the image to the left) to create two sets of ringleted hairpieces (right of the image to the left.)
The curls were of some help but in fact made much of the preparation more difficult as it was very prone to tangling and drying out too quickly.
I sectioned the hairpieces by using two rows of weft then diving that into two or three sections.
Each section was combed further and straightened as much as possible. While it was held tightly I sprayed it with hairspray then quickly worked from the weft to wrap the section around a tapered stick to set the ringlet. This required a bit of care to smooth with the curl, something you can really only do by feel. If you remember the days of home phones that had spiral cords to the handset you will be familiar with the concept of trying to make the curls all go in one direction as you try to untangle the cord!
My “stick” was in fact a pen made from some sort of industrial bobbin. It was very handy for this process however.
One hairpiece was made to have fewer looser ringlets and the tighter ringlets.
arranging the hair
After all that work I had several pieces of hair that needed to be arranged and I needed to think of how to do so. I recalled seeing a portrait of a composer’s wife/lover from the mid-late 19thC on the cover of a book in a second hand store. I cannot recall who she was, nor the composer, but I do remember she had hair that was straight from the movie Portrait of a Lady starring Nicole Kidman. While I was familiar with large plaits on the head from this time it was the extreme size and indeed the placement of them that reminded me of the movie.
Yes I am aware I had a fair amount of hair to begin with, but to be honest it’s easier to just use hair pieces and leave the hair to rest.
I took my hair and combed it well then put it into a bun at the crown of my head. This started off rather a close and tight bun that I had to reshape further into the process. The bun will create volume but we don’t want to go too crazy with building height!
I sprayed my hair with a little hair spray so to keep the front nice and smooth while pinning and repinning the hairpieces.
The first piece to go on is one of the large plaits. I chose to start with my left side because of familiarity. I’m right handed and my first instinct is to start on the left. This is not compulsory however!
I pinned the wefted end about an inch behind my ear. The end of the hairpiece forms a flattish tube which is ideal for sliding a bobby pin along to secure it to the hair. Use a few pins to hold this end down
The plait is wrapped over the front of the head and the end to just above the right ear. I only loosely secured this section with two pins.
The reason for this is to allow the second plait to be fitted to and under the first plait.
The second plait is put on like the first and wrapped behind the first when they over lap across the top of the head. The end of the first plait is then pushed in under the second plait. Now the plaits can be more firmly anchored. I used pins to attach the plaits to my hair and to each other.
Next to pin were the ringletted falls. I pinned the looser set of ringlets so that the bottom edge of wefting was close to the where my hairline finished. This was just to prevent any accidental lifting of the hair to expose the wefting! While it’s fairly obvious no head could have generated as much hair as I am using, it’s not supposed to look that artificial.
The second set of ringlets sit just above the first, maybe half an inch at most. The wefted section is pinned carefully to the hair and the first set of ringlets. Both sets are pinned near the hairline to help prevent lifting of the pieces.
It was here that I realised I needed to flatten the bun. I would not recommend unpinning and repinning it at this stage as the pins holding the hair pieces rely on the tension holding the bun in place to stay in position.
The ringletted falls partially cover the ends of the wide plaits but to make sure they are completely hidden a more solid method is employed and this is why the narrow plaits were made. I started by pinning the wefted section which was now the centre of two narrow plaited sections to just behind the wide plaits at the top of my head. This can be used to help support the larger plaits if need be.
The ends are then carried down the sides of the wide plaits then over the open ends, carefully pinning them to each other to secure. The ends of these narrow plaits are crossed at the centre back and secured carefully to hide the very tips as much as possible.
Finally the full and curly piece was used to hide all that mess the narrow plait has created a border around. I pinned so the bottom edge of the wefted section was at the top of my head. This meant the hair could fall back over itself creating lift and helping to hide the edges of the wefted section in one go.
I used a mixture of french pins (U shaped pins with no grip) and bobby pins (flattened U shaped with grip that are usually sold as hair pins) to secure the curls to each other, my hair and the hair pieces.