Marie Antoinette’s Tall Ship Hairdo – Who Wouldn’t Want One?

OK, so maybe a whole lot of people wouldn’t want one…but a whole lot of other people do. To follow-up yesterday’s Weekend Wow post, here’s some information to help your own set of locks make ready to set sail, so to speak.

("Independence Coiffure, or the Triumph of Liberty")

(“Independence Coiffure, or the Triumph of Liberty”)

First, the historical background.

In 1778, France signed a treaty and formed an alliance with the fledgling United States and, therefore, against their traditional enemy, Britain. The Battle of Ushant took place that year and was the initial major conflict between the French and the British. In the course of battle, a French frigate, the Belle Poule, badly damaged a British ship. The news quickly became a source of great pride for France and Paris was enraptured.

“All Paris was enflamed by the news,” the Vicomtesse de Fars recorded, “and for a month the ladies enshrined its memory with an object of fashion of bad taste, called the coiffure à la Belle Poule. This coiffure represented, more or less, a ship in full sail.”

This quote if from When Fashion Set Sail, by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, is an excellent and concise essay about the history behind the wearing of tall ships as a coiffure and can be found at WornThrough: Apparel from an Academic Perspective.

Coiffure à la Belle Poule

Coiffure à la Belle Poule

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Anonymous, Le Négligé Galant Ornés de la Coëffure à la Belle Poule, 1778, Bibliothèque nationale de France, cote cliché RC-B-05642.

Anonymous, Le Négligé Galant Ornés de la Coëffure à la Belle Poule, 1778, Bibliothèque nationale de France, cote cliché RC-B-05642.

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Anonymous, ‘Nouvelle Coëffure dite la Frégate la Junon’, Gallerie des Modes, 1778, MFA Boston, acc. no. 44.1290.

Anonymous, ‘Nouvelle Coëffure dite la Frégate la Junon’, Gallerie des Modes, 1778, MFA Boston, acc. no. 44.1290.

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(original source and artist unknown)

(original source and artist unknown)

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Ms. Chrisman-Campbell also writes (the emphasis being her own):

Though minor chapters in the story of American independence, in France these naval battles assumed a psychological importance far exceeding their military significance. Along with other events, places, and patriots who played key roles in the Revolution, they were celebrated in operas, ballets, card games, dances, and, especially, in fashion. At a time when women had no presence in government or the military, hats and hairstyles allowed French ladies to show their support for the American cause.

While the queen clearly had no objection to wearing elaborate confections on her head, and these may have included ships, there is absolutely no evidence to support either the identification or the interpretation. On the contrary, ship hats formed part of a much wider expression of French support for the American cause. They were worn by many women, if only for a short period of time. Some may have questioned their taste, but in political terms they were perceived as being patriotically anti-British rather than problematically extravagant or anti-monarchist.

And so a briefly lived flurry of fashion was conceived, born and ran its course. It is said that Marie Antoinette only worn her model of the frigate once.

But what a notion of over-the-top frivolous luxury these historical images have left with us. They are outlandish, hardly subtle, and somehow have managed to embody that mis-attributed notion of “Let them eat cake.” (Which was never said by Marie Antoinette, but very likely spoken 100 years before her by Marie-Thérèse (Maria Therese of Spain, Queen of France and Navarre, the first wife of Louis XIV.)

So, let’s say one is in the mood for a bit of nautical millinery. Is there a modern equivalent? Or are we reduced to playing with popsicle sticks, balsa wood, miles of string and globs of glue? Well, here are some examples gathered from the web to give you some idea of what others have been inspired to create. Whenever possible I’ll credit the creator, but there is a lot of un-credited genius out there.

Philip Treacy - 'The Ship,' a hat he made for Isabella Blow in 1995. He created a smaller version for the Museum of London...the hat shown in yesterday's post.

Philip Treacy – “The Ship,” a hat he made for Isabella Blow in 1995. He created a smaller version for the Museum of London…that’s the hat shown in yesterday’s post.

So grab a big mess of hair, make a ship and wave your magic wand. You don’t need an 18th century gown or  lavishly embroidered topcoat. As a Greek goddess apparently once uttered, just do it. Have fun, play, work with the possibilities and create a statement piece that will last.

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Looking for One Big Heap O’ Hair

Bad hair days - they're historically correct!

Extreme hair: good news – it’s historically correct!

hair style à la victime

hair style à la victime

As the early bustle dress is coming together, it’s time to consider my hair or, more appropriately, the lack of it. I cut my hair short a few months ago and I absolutely love. But it makes for some difficulties when it comes to historically correct hairstyles. Outside of an à la victime (“like the victim”) cut that became popular in post-revolutionary, guillotine-crazed France from around 1789–99,  I pretty much need to add hair of some sort or another.

And in the early bustle era, that means adding a LOT of hair. The basic guideline is simple: more is better. Just like the ruffles and bows and pleats and layers of lace on the dresses of the time, piling up and on the hair and then adding more is the only way to go.

Wonder why women wore those early bustle era hats so far forward? There really weren’t many other options, because early 1870’s hair looked like this…

And just how did these intricately styled masses of hair come about? They used fake hair – LOTS of it. Styles became so extreme that the practice of adding gigantic hairpieces was lampooned in Punch:

Punch - March 25, 1871

Punch – March 25, 1871 (I love the teeny, tiny hat perched at the very front.)

Knowing I needed to acquire a few hairpieces led to another fact: my hair has changed. As I’ve aged it’s gone from board-straight to wavy. It’s a dream come true for me, since I’ve wanted wavy hair for just about ever. It’s also changed color through the years: strawberry blonde as a kid, then into blonde with red highlights, then into ash blonde, then dark ash blonde, then light ash brown, then light ash brown with ever-increasing amounts of grey.

I don’t mind the grey – I figure I’ve earned it. The color wasn’t my favorite, but so it goes. I would have lived with it. Except it was impossible to find hairpieces that “went” with my natural color. I didn’t mind that I couldn’t get a perfect match. I doubt many women of the 1870’s could, either. But I definitely didn’t want to look like I’d taken someone else’s hair and put it on my head. And that was where I was headed…no pun intended.

So, after lengthy consideration, I colored my hair today. I bought the box of magic over a year ago, so it was a lengthy consideration indeed. I now sport a cool medium brown which just happens to match my natural eyebrows perfectly, makes my eyes look super-blue and is compatible with a number of commercial, historically correct hairpieces.

Now the questions is: braids or curls? The answer? Why both, of course!