British Hairdressers’ Academy First Hairdressing Contest of 1866

The British Hairdressers’ Academy first hairdressing contest and ball of 1866 was scheduled after the academy was established on 2 November 1865 at 71 Davies Street. That is when British hairdressers unanimously passed a resolution to extend membership to any coiffeur (now more commonly called a hairdresser or hairstylist) of any nation. Employers were admitted as honorary members with a payment of one guinea annually and journeymen were charged an entrance fee of a half-a-crown, plus a subscription of one shilling per month. At the time of this resolution, the following was also mentioned:

“The committee appointed now appeal to the employers to forward their names and subscriptions for enrolment, and to their fellow workmen to aid them by their immediate subscriptions, … The cheering result of their first soirée encourages the committee to hope for the general support not only of the trade, but of perfumers, florists, brush and comb makers, &c., who are so intimately connected with the trade, to whom, also will be extended the privileges of membership. … The committee venture to hope that they will receive sufficient funds to warrant them in taking chambers in a respectable locality.”[1]

Various hairstyles from the “La Mode Illustrée” of 1864. Public domain.

A few months after the establishment of the British Hairdressers’ Academy, they held their first event on 23 January 1866 at the Hanover Square Rooms, rooms that had enjoyed royal patronage between 1785 and 1795 by George III and Queen Charlotte. Tickets for the academy’s event were five shillings for gentleman and three-and-sixpence for a woman. The price included the hairdressing contest (identified as a soirée), a ball, refreshments, and supper. During the soirée, coiffeurs were to dress women’s hair in a variety of different styles and forms that included court, ball, powdered, and evening head-dresses. The contest began at 8pm with its object being to allow spectators to witness the skill of forty coiffeurs.

Hanover Square Rooms circa 1830s. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A procession opened the soirée and each of the forty hairdressers trooped into the grand salon accompanied by a woman dressed in a white frock with disheveled hair. In the center of the room were long tables placed end to end and covered with white cloths. Atop them were oval hand mirrors, boxes of hair powder, hair pins, and various hair decorations that “the aspiring ‘dressers’ … had provided.”[2] In addition, chairs were placed around the table so that as each woman arrived she was placed in one of these chairs with her coiffeur standing behind her.

The British Hairdressers’ Academy competition began with a wave of the chairman’s baton, which was a comb. Once underway, the contest prompted one spectator to state:

“There are about forty female heads under operation; three of them, who cannot find room at the principal board, taking their meal of dressing at a side-table. No two heads are to be dressed alike; but each operator is free to follow his own fancy. There are all shapes of heads, all colours of hair. Some ladies have a profusion of rich glossy locks; others have scarcely any.”[3] 

The styles the hairdressers created varied and ranged from simple to elaborate. For instance, one woman’s hair was frizzed using hair pins instead of hot tongs. There was also one woman whose hair was “dressed in the fashion of Queen Anne’s days, the hair being pulled up over a cushion, and powdered with flour; another [was] arranged in lateral bandeaux, and powdered with glittering pearl; a third [was] frizzed, decked with sprigs, and powdered with gold. Yonder [was] a black-eyed, cherry-cheeked damsel being arrayed as a bride, with orange-flowers and a long white veil.”[4] In addition, hair decorations also varied and included twinkling golden stars, marabout feathers, or ostrich feathers like the type that Marie Antoinette and the Princesse de Lamballe used to wear. There was also an intertwining of muslin scarves or twigs of coral and coins placed throughout the hair.

British Hairdressers’ Academy - hair piece examples

Examples of hair pieces from the 1860s. Public domain.

As 200 spectators looked on at the first competition given by British Hairdressers’ Academy they “saw with awe and amazement what art can do for hair,”[5] slow music played in the background. The women getting their hair dressed, assisted their coiffeurs by handing them combs, puffs, hairpins, flowers, and net or whatever was necessary to complete their style. The first to finish his hairdressing creation was the academy’s president, a Mr. James Carter. It took him 12 minutes, and his design was described by the Dundee Advertiser in the following manner:

“[F]eathers play an important part, and ‘the feather headdress’ will, it is thought, be widely adopted by the fashionable world. When Mr. Carter, working upon the hair of his own child, finished ‘the feather headdress’ several minutes before any other operator had completed his task, the performance was hailed with a round of applause.”[6]

Other stylists took at least ten to fifteen minutes longer to finish. However, all hairstyles were completed within a half an hour, and when all the hair was dressed, spectators gave a thunderous applause. An announcement was then made that the hairstylists would escort their ladies and promenade around the room twice while a band played a slow solemn march. During this promenade, spectators got a good look, inspected the results, and saw “the various triumphs of art in hair.”[7] One spectator noted:

“We were disappointed that no prize beyond applause was given; we had thought that at least a small-tooth comb, after the fashion of those said by Miss Emmeline Lott to be used in the Turkish harems, would have been bestowed. But perhaps it would have been dangerous to have given so decided a preference to the hair of one lady over that of another, for after all it must be with some difficulty that the subjects of the exhibition are collected.”[8]

After the British Hairdressers’ Academy soirée, a ball followed at 10pm. A Mr. J. Weever’s band provided the music, refreshments were liberal, and the festivities lasted late into the evening. One participant who attended the ball stated it was “delightful”. The person also reported:

“[E]tiquette and the proprieties [were] strictly observed; but not too strictly. No affectation, and certainly no vulgarity [existed]. … My impression is, that I have never seen at a ball so much natural politeness and easy courtesy. If these hairdressers, and their wives, daughters, and sisters, are not ladies and gentlemen … they are the best imitation of them I have ever met with among what is called the industrial classes. That many of them are ladies and gentlemen in the true sense, I was fully assured by their intelligent conversation and good manners. … I retire into a corner to gaze in silence upon the giddy scene.”[9]

Besides hosting the soirée and ball, committee members of the British Hairdressers’ Academy also proposed that they hold a demonstration or general practice night once a week and then the following evening a general meeting be held. Part of the reason was because British women preferred French hairdressers and the British also lagged the French in sharing ideas and elevating the art of hairdressing. Thus, these weekly events would permit academy’s members to improve their skills. Additionally, it was noted:

“[N]ovelties in the trade, whether in hair-dressing, new ornaments, or inventions connected with false hair, perfumery, brushes, combs, in short, everything practically beneficial to the trade, will be exhibited and their merits discussed. They also hope that they may be enabled to engage ‘subjects’ for each practice night, as they consider practising upon blocks to be worse than useless; and they further propose a succession of soirées; when the operation of ‘dressing’ will be systematically gone through. They trust that by these various means they may realize a large return, to be placed in furtherance of their ultimate object, — ‘a hairdressers’ club-house of all nations.’”[10]

British Hairdressers’ Academy - the Chignon

The Chignon, by George Cruikshank in 1870. Courtesy of Courtauld Gallery © The Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London.

While some people thought the British Hairdressers’ Academy and its goals were wonderful, at least one person offered this alternative view.

“The grand triumph of Ionic barbers, the invention of a mode of plaiting which occupied many hours, and could therefore be repeated only once a week, and require those who wore it to sleep on their backs with their necks resting on wooden trestles, hollowed out lest the bed should derange the hair, has not indeed been repeated, though under the fostering care of Mr. Carter even that perfection may one day be attained. Still we have the auburn dyes, and the pins, and all the Athenian devices, it is not quite certain that the ‘chignon,’ the nasty mess of horsehair and human hair which women have learned to stick on the back of their heads, and which is actually sold in Regent-street attached to bonnets, is not an additional triumph of nature. We have a picture somewhere of a chignon more than three thousand years old, but if we are not mistaken there are feathers on it as well as hair, the very idea which the President of the Hairdressers’ Academy on Tuesday reinvented, and for which he was so heartily applauded. Of course, with the new rage of artificial arrangement, false hair, dyes, chignons, hair crepe, hair frise, and we know not what, the hairdresser’s art is looking up, and the sensible tradesmen who practice it … which is, we take it, half comic, half a genuine effort at self-assertion — are making the most of the opportunity.”[11]


  • [1] Oxford Times, “British Hair-dressers Academy,” January 27, 1866, p. 2.
  • [2] “The British Hairdressers Academy,” January 27, 1866, p. 3.
  • [3] C. Dickens, All the Year Round v. 15-16 (London: Charles Dickens, 1866), p. 110.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] E. Littell and R. S. Littell, The Living Age v. 88 (Littell, Son, 1866), p. 585.
  • [6] Dundee Advertiser, “The Academy of Hairdressers,” January 30, 1866, p. 2.
  • [7] C. Dickens, p. 110.
  • [8] E. Littell, and R. S. Littell, p. 585.
  • [9] C. Dickens, p. 111.
  • [10] Every Saturday v. 1 (Boston: Houghton, 1866), p. 196.
  • [11] Dublin Weekly Nation, “Hairdressing in Excelsis,” February 3, 1866, p. 14.

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