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Medieval Hairstyles

Medieval movies have a great deal to answer for when it comes to the accurate portrayal of women's hair styling during the Middle Ages. Characters are usually shown with very long, flowing tresses and nothing or little more that a metal circlet around the forehead.

Reality, however, was usually far from that. This page covers hair styling and what to do about the hairline itself. To learn more about hats, crowns, circlets etc, please visit the headdresses page.

Women's hair has long been associated with sinfulness and temptation, and with medieval life centering heavily around the church, it was the general opinion that the less it was displayed, the better.

Hair in art
Any decent, God-fearing woman in England, France and some of Europe for the most part, went to great pains to conceal her hair in public. Even the upper classes and royalty restrained their hair. At right above is a detail from the Luttrell Psalter from 14th century England which shows women dressing their hair.

Flowing tresses can be seen in some illuminations with some styles of costume, although it is more usual for only unmarried, young women to have hair loose.

Generally, during the bulk of the medieval period, a married woman would have covered her head with veils, wimples, cloths, barbettes, hairnets, veils, hats, hoods or a combination of them to avoid her hair showing.

The notable exception on this hair-covering trend is Italy, where women usually tied their braids criss-crossed over the top of the head. Italian women abandoned the veil considerably earlier than her other counterparts and during the 14th and 15th centuries chose to adorn the hair with elaborate plaits, beads and wound ribbons.

Elaborate hair dressing also gave a woman the opportunity to show off her taste in hair accessories.

The images shown at right are dated to 1365-1380 and show Jeanne Burbonne who has a ribbon-encased hairstyle of folded braids. It is interesting to note in this case the entire fold of hair is not encased, only the front section is tied before the remainder of the hair is brought up behind and then upwards again.

The Roman de la Rose mentions sadly the advice of Friend, which talks of how:

..women are so vain that they bring shame upon themselves by not considering themselves well rewarded by the beauty God has given them. Each one wears a crown of gold or silk flowers on her head, and thus proudly adorned, goes about town showing herself off... she is willing t put something on her head that is lower and baser than she.. thus she searches for beauty in things that God has made much baser in appearance, such as metals or flowers or other strange things.

Broadly speaking, only a woman of very poor breeding or a prostitute did nothing with her hair and even peasant women made an effort to appear modest and decent. Only in some circumstances, like the marriage of a royal couple, can the bride be seen depicted with her hair out.

Braids and plaits
Plaited and braided hairstyles were extremely popular during the medieval period for women of all ages and all classes.

Shown at right is a detail from a painting The Nativity dated around the 1400s. It shows a young girl with a popular medieval hair style for workers- two plaits brought from the nape of the neck and crossed over the top of her head and tied together.

Not only was this style easy to dress at home oneself without assistance, it looked pleasing to the eye, was considered modest and kept the hair tied up and clean when performing manual chores.

Often these plaits were interwound with ribbon for decoration and also for securing purposes. Very often, these ribbon-encased plaits are mistaken for a padded roll of some kind with ribbon woven around it, which was not the case. Later in the later 15th century, some padded rolls attached to heart shaped hennins did have decorative features, but they are entirely different.

By the early decades of the 14th century, fashionable women in England discarded the barbette and fillet combination in favour of plaits worn in front of the ear on each side of the face. The hairstyle originated in France before the end of the 13th century.

The bust at left is dated between 1327 and 1341 is of Marie de France and shows this hairstyle although worn with a fillet.

Cornettes were the name often given to the hairstyle where the hair is either plaited or raised up onto the temples into horn-like shapes.

In the Townley Mysteries by the Surtees Society in 1460 a woman's hair is described-

"she is hornyd like a kowe.. for syn."

In 1350, Bishop Gilles li Muisis was greatly displeased by the vanity of women who adopted these hairstyles which he called cornes and headdresses of a similar style known as hauchettes, and repeatedly sermonised against them.

The Van Eyck painting known as the Aldolphini Wedding dated at 1434 shows the young woman with her fashionable cow-like cornettes under a veil with rows of pleats at the edges.

Around the end of the 13th century, a very popular form of hairstyle was the ramshorn, which was created by parting the hair down the centre and coiling the hair over the ears around into a scroll like that of a ram's horn.

This style became popular again in Europe in the later 15th century with the addition of silks, ribbons and veils interwoven into the side horns.

Jeweled brooches were often included as part of the dressing at the top of the head. Shown at left, a detail from the Portrait of Battista Sforza from 1465-1466 by Francesca showing the later ramshorn as it was worn by fashionable noble ladies.

This style of hairstyle was not suited to the working classes, who would have found it most impractical.

Hair Dressed European Style
While hair tended to be covered with veils and elaborate headdresses throughout France and England, veils seem to be discarded in Italy in favour of hair dressed with pearls, ribbons, beading and brooches.

As with the later ramshorn style, these hairstyles would have been worn by the upper classes only as the time and effort required to dress and finish off these hairstyles would not have suited the lifestyles of the working classes

Marian Campbell, in her publication Medieval Jewellery in Europe 1100-1500, discusses the number of 15th century paintings in Europe showing young girls without veils and with elaborately-dressed hair-

In Italy, by contrast, numbers of 15th century portraits survive showing women with their heads barely covered and their hair artfully plaited and dressed, and adorned with strings of pearls, coral, beads and jewels. However many of these portraits, of sitters now unknown, may have been painted specifically to show a bride in her special finery and uncovered hair.

Shown at right is a detail from a painting from 1465, Pollaiulo's Portrait of a Young Woman, showing a transparent veil containing some of the hair, wrapped over the and secured with both cords and beads with a decorative jeweled brooch at the top

Hairnets were known and extensively used in medieval times as the way of restraining a woman's hair. A hairnet could be used in conjunction with many of the beautiful and strange medieval headpieces.

Hairnets were almost always worn under a veil of some kind during the medieval period. During the renaissance, the hairnet known as the snood was worn alone. The snood tended to be less fine and often set with jewels.

Shown at left is a hairnet found at a London dig, dated in the 1300s, which looks like the type that is available today. Four examples of hairnets have been discovered in London excavations- one made of silk from the late 13th century and three knotted silk ones from the 14th century.

These are all the finer kind, hand knotted and with fingerloop braid around the edges which were popularly worn before the heavier mesh cauls became sturdier and jewels were attached.

Eyebrows & hairlines
During a large portion of the medieval period, the beautiful woman emphasised her high, round forehead. If a woman was unfortunate to have been naturally cursed with a low hairline, the correct and fashionable look was artificially enhanced by the plucking of the hairline back up towards the crown of the head. This look was accentuated by reducing the eyebrows to a barely-there line.

Even though plucking the eyebrows and hairline at the top of the forehead was commonplace for many women, the church was, as always, extremely unhappy about this. In Confessionale, clergymen are encouraged to ask those who came to confession:

If she has plucked hair from her neck, or brows or beard for lavisciousness or to please men... This is a mortal sin unless she does so to remedy severe disfigurement or so as not to be looked down on by her husband.

Many books cite small tweezers made from copper alloy or silver as part of medieval toiletry sets. The tweezers above are dated from the 15th century and feature brass tweezers, an earscoop and a nail pick, all hinged to fold away when not in use.

False Hairpieces & Wigs
In a time where modesty and virtue were embraced and desired, it seems unlikely that additional hair would be called for, but it appears that wigs and false tresses were in vogue and the makers of such were regulated and had a guild of their own. Hair extensions have been found in archaeological digs dating from early times although only one or two examples date to the medieval period specifically. A plaited silk hairpiece attached to a silk fillet which was probably jeweled, was found in London and dates to second quarter of the 14th century.

The Old Woman from the Roman de la Rose offers this advice for a woman whose hair is lacking:

And if she sees that her beautiful blond hair is falling out (a most mournful sight), or if it has to be cropped as a result of a serious illness and her beauty spoiled too soon, or if some angry roister should happen to tear it out so that there is no way in which she can regain her thick tresses, she should have the hair of some dead woman brought to her, or pads of light coloured silk, and stuff it all into false hairpieces. She should wear such horns above her ears that no stag or goat or unicorn could surpass them, not though their head were to burst with the effort..

Stella Mary Newton, in her book Fashion In The Age Of The Black Prince, has this to say about the wearing of false hair:

In 1310, the Bishop of Florence gave orders that nobody of any class or standing whatsoever was to indulge in fraud by wearing of the head, with intent to deceive, any fluffed out false hair- long falling hairpieces strands of hair or curls, although any woman whose own hair was manifestly inadequate might wear plaits of flax or wool or silk attached to her own hair, thus avoiding undue ornamentation while appearing natural.

None to surprisingly, the clergy tried to discourage the wearing of false hair by women by denouncing false hair as the sin of vanity. Gilles d'Orleans, a preacher from Paris in the 13th century reminded his parishioners that the wigs they wore were likely to be made from the shorn heads of those now suffering in hell or purgatory. False tresses were known to be made of flax, wool, cotton and silk.

Copyright © Rosalie Gilbert
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