Evils of the Victorian Chignon in the Late 1800s

Parisian hairstyles of 1870. Author’s collection.

There were many fashion evils during the late 1800s, but the evils of the Victorian chignon were said to be the worst. A chignon was a hairstyle that had a knot or coil of hair arranged and worn low at the back of a woman’s head or at the nape of the neck. However, by the 1890s the chignon’s placement was higher on the head and the styles between the 1870s and 1890s were also more feminine and elaborate.

The main objection to the Victorian chignon seemed to be that they were not created from a woman’s real hair. Rather they were composed of false hair pieces that one person designated “hirsute deceptions.” Another person noted that they were “an offense against elevated morality, because, though they deceive nobody, they are intended to deceive, and deceit in any form is an offense against sound morals.”[1] There was also this gem, “‘Glory of a woman is in her hair’ … but nothing is said about the glory being attainable by the use of somebody else’s hair.”[2] In fact, hair pieces were so popular one contemporary writer of today notes:

“By the end of the 1850s, 950 hairdressers were listed in London, along with 27 wig makers and 17 hair manufacturers, and between 150,000 and 200, 000 pounds of  hair, valued at nearly a million dollars were imported into the US. Hair was big business, the trade monopolized by the French, with Paris ‘Hair Merchants’ who ‘harvested’ hair mainly from France, Germany and Spain, which was then treated and sold in the major capitals of Europe and New York.” The hair was used remedially to counter the harmful effects of being what one writer calls ‘twisted, frizzled, dyed, curled, greased, powdered, or otherwise tortured to please the styles of the day’ but also to provide the fashionable large chignons which were all the rage from the mid-1860s.”[3]

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

Although the chignon has it roots in ancient Greece and was worn by both men and women during that time, it was French and English women who embraced the fashion in the 1860s. Part of the reason women may have liked the style was that the chignon was classic and gave a woman a sense of equality as a woman with scant hair could appear as if she had more. Moreover, the chignon supposedly presented a charm of “innocent naughtiness.” There was also the fact that the chignon could be worn in all sorts of styles, as described:

“Plain chignons; frizzed chignons; chignons woven into a pattern similar to the large basket work used chiefly for waste paper baskets; chignons with supplementary curls; chignons with straight flimsy tresses pendent from them; chignons of every variety, have long been familiar to the male observer.”[4]

As much as women loved it, most males found the chignon foolish or absurd. In fact, many male writers of the Victorian era enjoyed poking fun at the style, despite the chignon being popular enough with women that it was worn by both young and old alike. One man who poked fun was the novelist Anthony Trollope who called the chignon “absurd” and “monstrous.” Another Victorian gentleman noted chignons were “odious things,” and, in 1866, a man by the name of Crabwood Sowerby wrote to a British weekly satirical magazine known as Punch stating what he thought of chignons. He said in part:

“The modern chignon, even if natural, is an excess of hair arranged in a grotesque form. … The modern and artificial chignon is the ludicrous imitation of a superfluity, justifiable by no rule of taste, except by the necessity of concealing a large wen, or other excrescence.”[5]

Cartoon satirizing the chignon. Author’s collection.

Sowerby was not alone in his criticism. Another gentleman who critiqued the style stated:

“Yesterday I saw a lady in a store who was deliberately and premediatatedly [sic] buying a long coil of some horrible imitation of natural hair, which, I believe, is called a jute. When I thought of all the horrible stories of parasites, and ‘such like,’ which I had heard connected with this stuff, I felt creepish all over as I thought of her coiling it along her own living tresses.” [6].

There was also this negative view of the evil chignon:

“If any woman’s head grew into such monstrous shapes as may now be seen in all directions wherever women are congregated together, it would be a cause of mourning to her family, of consultation among eminent surgeons, and she would probably spend the greater part of her time in judicious seclusion. Here shall be a woman with small delicate features, a small head, and of small stature. Instead of making the most of the natural beauties with which she is gifted, she frizzles, and cuts, and gums her front hair into all sorts of uncouth forms, and surmounts her back hair with an enormous ball of somebody else’s tresses! The lady appears to have two heads, one (the artificial) considerably larger than the other. The hat has to be perched on the nose, and a most preposterous result is presented.”[7]

One critic humorously decided that chignonology was called for because “if chignons increase and multiply we see no reason why a science of comparative chignonology … may not be established.”[8] Thus, he provided the following chart identifying the varieties of chignons that he claimed were available:[9]























The Chignon, by George Cruikshank in 1870. Courtesy of Courtauld Gallery.

The famous artist George Cruikshank also poked fun at the chignon with his art. He created “The Chignon” of 1870 that is shown to the right. Cruickshank drew a bow-shooting cupid atop a woman’s head and wrote beneath the picture that a chignon was a “cupid’s nest” and a “Ladies delight.” He summed up his poem with these three lines: “To keep him from firing away from Morn till night but the brave Chaps who are hit, Know ’tis their lot, And if the truth must be told, they like love Shots.”

One gentleman critical of the chignon noted that he preferred a woman’s natural hair and then provided the following story to demonstrate why:

“I remember once calling upon a lady friend who, not being very well, came down with her bright black hair twisted into a hasty but classical knot at the back of her head. Her hair was by no means over-abundant, but this knot was so exactly in accordance with the shape and size of her head that the eye — pleased with this harmony of proportion — saw in her a grace and a beauty which had been hidden before, when the fine and womanly outlines of her had been hidden under that odious half bushel of braids and puffs called a chignon.”[10]

Fortunately, for critics the chignon eventually went the way of the dinosaur, but before it did, one funny 1871 writer hoped for its demise with the following ode titled, “The Downfall of Chignons.”

You lasses of —— come listen to my song,
‘Tis concerning the fate of the fancy chignon;
The ladies of Paris are determined ’tis said,
To wear their own hair at the back of their head.
They have given o’er wearing such queer-looking lumps
Of nasty old rubbish screw’d up in great bumps,
To cast them adrift they have made up their minds,
To be ugly for ever they don’t feel inclined.


The Chignons are going we’re happy to hear,
From the young ladies they must now disappear,
They are not in the fashion and soon must be gone,
It’s all up the spout with the saucy chignon.

‘Tis a good job they’re going, for the darling young girls
I am sure would letter better in natural curls;
Madame Rachel has worn such a whopper ’tis said,
She is quite bandy-leg’d thro’ the weight of her head:
Girls that want to be married before Whitsuntide,
Pull of your Chignon and throw them aside,
If you practice economy you’ll find it true,
That a fancy chignon will make bustles for two.

Those boxom old ladies who like to be gay,
At the change in the fashions are out of the way,
For with wig and chignon they all come the grand,
Tho’ their heads are as bald as the palm of your hand.
The ladies at first will feel rather strange,
They will get light-headed I hope by the change,
It will seem rather awkward at first I suppose, To wear hats on their heads now, instead of their nose.

Now what’s to be done with the left off chignons,
They are sure to amount to some millions of tons!
To set them on fire would make all the world sneeze,
And slaughter some thousand industrious fleas;
For bachelors they would do very fine,
Or three in a bunch for a pawnbroker’s signs;
They’d pay very well to boil down for grease,
Or they would make some good beds for the country police.

If the chignons were gathered, it would be a treat
To see them made use of for pitching the street,
Or perhaps they would do, either black, red, or brown,
To fill up the quaries about the —— Downs:
If the volunteers had them they’d make cannonballs.
And tell —— enemies to look out for squalls,
If a foe should come here to do us a wrong,
They’d get blow’d to old Nick with a charge of chignons.

The poor cows and horses will welcome the change,
And pigs with their bristles on freely will range,
No more country crops for the women in jails,
Nor donkeys lamenting the loss of their tails.
No more bags of sawdust to weigh down your heads,
Nor rags tied in bundles as big as a bed.
The ladies declare that the fashion is gone,
They’ve clapp’d the bum-bailiffs on all the chignons.[11]


  • [1] Phrenological Journal and Life Illustrated, 1870, p. 115.
  • [2] All Year Round, 1869, p. 41.
  • [3] Riberio, Aileen, Facing Beauty: Painted Women and Cosmetic Art, 2011, p. 249.
  • [4] All Year Round, p. 41.
  • [5] Punch or the London Charivari, 1866, p. 118.
  • [6] Phrenological Journal and Life Illustrated, p. 121.
  • [7] All Year Round, p. 41.
  • [8] Littell’s Living Age, Volume 92, 1867.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Phrenological Journal and Life Illustrated, p. 121.
  • [11] Curiosities of Street Literature, Comprising “Cocks,” Or “Catch Pennies”, 1871, p. 149.

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