The Dangers of Big Hair
Wigs and hairpieces have been a feature of western European fashion since the Renaissance and remained so today. However, seldom were wigs more elaborate, unpleasant, and downright dangerous than in the eighteenth century. Simply put, a Georgian lady’s hair had to be ‘big.’ Up until 1760, most ladies were content with a modest, egg-shaped dome of hair. This dome was created by curling the hair and then piling it over pads or wireframes to create height and volume. If the natural hair was insufficient, false hair- often from horses- was used as a supplement.
However, Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire took wigs to a whole new level- literally. Not content with a modest amount of elevation, the young Duchess pioneered an entirely new look. Her hair towered up to three-foot above her head, adorned with accessories such as stuffed birds, waxed fruit- and even model ships! Not to be outdone, other English society ladies followed suit and a new fashion craze was born.
However, such substantial hairstyles were not without their problems. Firstly, there was the question of practicality. Because of the time, it took to style it, not to mention the cost, the hairstyles had to last for weeks. This complication meant that ladies had to sleep upright to preserve their hairstyles. Even the simple business of traveling in a carriage was troublesome, as most could not accommodate women’s crowning glories. This problem meant fashion conscious female passengers often had to sit on the floor!
Then there was the issue of hygiene. Not being able to brush let alone wash the hair for weeks at a time meant that head lice infested the head. So these itchy hairstyles needed another accessory – the scratching rod. The rod was used to poke into the deepest recesses of the hair to provide some relief from the discomfort.
But irritation aside, these prodigious hairstyles were a health hazard. The society papers of the time were full of tragic tales of often fatal misadventures involving a lady’s hair and fire. However, in July 1778, ‘The Morning Standard’ had an extreme case to report. Lightning struck a young lady sheltering from a storm in St James Park. According to the paper, her hair was “erected to an enormous height, and consequently stuck full of long wire pins: unfortunately, these acted as conductors and set her headdress on fire by attracting the lightning.”