Georgian headdresses of the 1770s, 1780s, and 1790s underwent changes and went from extremely towering hairstyles and tall headdresses to less lofty creations. However, between 1770 and 1780 extraordinary super-structures made a distinct fashion statement that is still talked of today. That was because the French considered their hair or headdresses to be one of the most important articles in a woman’s toilet and they went to extremes to ensure their hair stood out.
Hairstyles or headdresses, known as poufs, became increasingly large as hair was placed over pads and cushions, sometimes with wire supporting the overall creation. In addition, the hairstyles were pomaded, curled, frizzed, powdered, and secured in placed with large pins. The high dos were also laced with large eye-popping curls that were placed on either side of the head, as well as curls that often went from bottom to top. Usually, at least one curl was placed vertically or horizontally behind the ears, and sometimes chignons or plaits were added into these headdresses.
The magnificent Georgian headdresses were completed by hairdressers, known as friseurs. Of the Parisian hairdressers of the 1770s Isaac Disraeli wrote:
“In 1777, We find that the hair dressing of ladies was so important and increasing an art, that it became necessary to augment the number of these artists of these edifices of beauty. In consequence … a declaration was given at Versailles, the 18th August, and registered in the Parliament, that six hundred ladies hairdressers, should be admitted to the company of Maitres Barbiers-Perruquiers. Besides this company, there were hairdressers for the ladies of the lower class of people, and the Bourgeoises; the talents of those we are noticing, were to be devoted only to illustrious and brilliant heads.
But the affairs of these ladies hair-dressers, became more serious in the year 1780. Their order was augmenting at every hour, and they formed one of the most important bodies at Paris. Proud of the daily favours, they enjoyed, and giddy with their pride, they openly shewed their utmost contempt for the rest of their honourable confraternity. Barbers and wig-combers, they considered as unworthy peers, and attempted to separate themselves from such ignoble associates. They even pretended, that they had a just right to be joined to some scientific corps. This imperious rivality, and the lamentable groans of the barbers, became an object for the government’s vigilance. Another decrees was issued from the king, dated 24 January, which fixed their number to six hundred; prohibits their having more than one apprentice every three years, to keep schools of hair-dressing; and above all, to place under the signs, the words, Academie de Coeffeurs!”
Some of these hairdressers or friseurs took hours to complete a single creation, such as the 1780 coiffure en bandeau d’amour shown below. Their creations were also embellished with everything and anything. For instance, they were trimmed with ribbons, satin, silk, lace, and pearls to feathers and baskets of fruits and vegetables or bunches of flowers.
After all this hard work and hours of preparation, women did not want to wear the hairdo for a few days. They wanted it to last for months. One friseur, named James Stewart, wrote a treatise on how to take care of these outlandish structures and claimed women could make their Georgian headdresses last for months if they adhered to special preparations at night and after rising in the morning. However, Stewart said, when the “hair gets straight and clotted and matted with dirty powder. Then it is absolutely necessary to comb it out.”
These fabulous steeple creations served to popularize fashion crazes, relate current events, and make social and political statements. Everyone wore them including Marie Antoinette, but it wasn’t just the Queen who embraced these towering fashions. Her friends, such as the Duchess of Polignac, the Duchess of Chartres, and her Superintendent of the Household, Marie Thérèse of Savoy, better known as the Princesse de Lamballe, also embraced these towering fashions and big hairdos.
Perhaps, one of the most remembered Georgian headdresses worn by anyone was one worn by the Queen to honor the Belle Poule, a French frigate that, according to the French, won a victory against the British in June of 1778. Marie Antoinette’s headdress was known as the pouf a la Belle Poule, and, as you can see below, not only did it include the complete frigate but also her masts.
There are also several interesting versions about Marie Antoinette and one of her colossal headdresses that is claimed to have occurred in February of 1776. One story is that she was invited to attend a ball given by the Duke of Chartres, brother-in-law to the Princesse de Lamballe. However, the Queen’s headdress was so towering the étage of the staircase had to be removed in order for her to enter the ballroom. Another version claims that at this same party, rather than the étage of the staircase being removed, it was Marie Antoinette’s headdress. A third version comes from Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book and reports that the Queen’s headdress was so high she was unable to enter her carriage and was forced to remove it and replace it at her destination. Exactly, which of these three versions is true, remains to be seen.
There were several problems with the towering Georgian headdresses. First, removing a headdress was not always possible and some women with soaring non-removable headdresses who had to travel in carriages, it turned into a problem. In order to fit in the carriage, they either rode with their heads out the windows or knelt on the carriage floor until they arrived at their destinations. There were also other problems. For instance, the headdresses could be so high women were in danger of catching their heads on fire. This occurred when walking beneath lit chandeliers, which could result in their headdress going up in flames. Another issue was itching. It was practically impossible to itch a woman’s scalp with a headdress until a useful head scratcher, known as a grattoir, came along. Grattoirs were long handle, flattened tools made from ivory, silver, or gold with a curve at the end that allowed a woman to discreetly scratch her head without ruining her headdress.
By the mid-1780s, the towering Georgian headdresses that had been so popular in the earlier decade were slowly being replaced by less lofty creations. It was also during this time that hairstyles became wider and loaded with curls. The front portion of the hair was often styled away from the face and the top portion of the hair was either crimped, frizzed, or curled. The lower portion of the hair was usually arranged in cascading ringlets or large curls that sometimes flowed to the waist and added a note of carelessness to the overall arrangement.
One reason the towering Georgian headdresses declined and did so slowly had to do with the expectation that women should still appear in court wearing them. However, this meant in the early portion of the 1780s women continued to embellish their hairstyles with anything and everything imaginable. For instance, in the 1872 journal of Frances Burney (better known as the English novelist Madame d’Arblay), describes a friend’s head as being “full of feathers, flowers, jewels and gewgaws, and as high as Lady Archer’s.” Eliza de Feuillide, who was visiting France in 1782, echoed a similar sentiment about Marie Antoinette’s hair after attending an event where she was present. Eliza wrote, “[the Queen’s] hair which is remarkably handsome was adorned with the most beautiful jewels of all kinds intermixed with flowers & a large plume of white feathers.”
Eventually the more outlandish decorations gave way to colossal hats. Eliza de Feuillide mentioned large hats in May of 1783 stating, “Large yellow Straw Hats such as I believe You may have seen worn by the Hay Makers are universally adopted, they are called a la Marlborough as well as everything else of late.” By 1790 large hats were the rage and could be found regularly on every woman. These giant hats, with their wide brims and stiff crowns, were usually worn either straight or at formidable angles. Adding to the stunning eye-popping effect were plumes of large ostrich feathers that were often dyed to match the hat’s color.
One prime example of an outlandishly large hat, and one that created a torrid sensation throughout Europe, was worn by the celebrated beauty Georgina Cavendish, better known as the Duchess of Devonshire. She created it herself and wore the ostrich-feather and black-brimmed creation when artist Thomas Gainsborough painted her in 1785. When the painting was hung at the Royal Academy, women dashed to their hat-makers demanding similar hats, and Gainsborough’s painting became thereafter known as the ‘portrait’ or ‘picture’ hat.
-  Disraeli, I., Domestic Anecdotes of the French Nation, During the Last Thirty Years, 1794, p. 273-274.
-  Burney, F., Fanny Burney, London, Vol 1., 1910, p. 154.
-  Le Faye, D., Jane Austen’s ‘Outlandish Cousin’, London, 2002, p. 54.
-  Ibid., p. 58.