Good Hair: 1840s Edition

A dear friend recently declared the following to be fact–“men had SUPER weird hair in the 1840s.”

In retrospect, I suspect she was goading me…she’s a professional costumer with a keen appreciation and respect for all past styles and modes and would never outright dismiss something as weird.

But in the moment, I took the bait.

Well what on earth do you mean by “weird” I asked.  I need some evidentiary proof, because I remember our hairstyles as being perfectly normal.

She responded with a series of pictures, and I said, still, I don’t understand what is so odd about these.  Other than the bloke who looks like a circus clown, these are perfectly dashing and well-suited for hats.

True, she says, hadn’t thought about the hat bit. But still…and then she threw down the gauntlet–“Half of them have Twilight hair.”

Oh no she didn’t.

So, in defence of the 1840s, I’ve elected to share the series of photos she sent my way, humanising each with reference to one of my mates, matching up hairstyles to indicative personalities to give a sense of who wore what and why.

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Photos #1 & 2

young geoffolder geoff

These blokes remind me very much of my husband, Geoffrey–the one on the right, especially, as it was rare to find Geoff in an actual bad temper.  (Unless deeply disturbed, he only participated in dramatic bad tempers, worn like a cloak in a three-minute downpour.)  These men are also dressed to the height of upper-middle class fashion, whereas Geoffrey purposely had regency fashions made over to set himself aside from the herd.  All that said, the hair is just about perfect.  When I met Geoff in 1834, he was sporting something quite like Mr. Sulking.  And over the years he let his curls run a bit more wild, resulting in something alike to Mr. Happily Pensive.

And what about these styles is weird, I ask you!?  Shiny, coiffed, and obviously slicked with a light soap and extract of essential oil…probably rose or spearmint…mmmm.

Photo 3:


This (admittedly handsome) devil reminds me of my mate Paul, with whom I had a love-hate relationship.  Paul was already well ensconced in the circle of friends I inherited once associated with Geoff, and therefore there was nothing I could do about his presence in my life.  How to describe the bastard…Well, his real name was Ambrose Anderson–The Honourable Ambrose Anderson–and we all called him Paul, anyway, for one of two reasons: half of us thought he was a right, cracking politician (PAUL-itician); half of us thought he cast a pall (PAUL) over the world wherever he went.

You can guess to which half I belonged…

This haughty style with painfully select clothing, diving lapels, and high hair shine achieved with the likely use of bear oil was one often sported by the aristocracy, particularly those who determined to make something of themselves, rather than coasting on name alone.  Paul achieved this look until he started to go bald at the deliciously young age of 25, and then he had to wear his hair more like the bloke below in the most obvious comb-over to ever comb over.

This style is also not weird.  Shave down the sides, and you have the modern hipster, for chrissake.

Photo 4:


Aside from being the style for the balding, I also associate this style (but not the dour expression) with my dear mate Theodore, who had bone-straight hair and therefore couldn’t achieve the curled locks and pompadours of those with natural wave.  Theo wore this style a bit shorter, and instead of using oil, he used soap with a hint of jasmine.  The thing about soap, though, is that it doesn’t always hold straight hair, and so his fringe was always falling in his face, much to his annoyance.  It didn’t help that he wore a broad-brimmed hat associated with the traditional style of his German-Jewish family, and it was forever catching the wind and throwing things into disarray.

I happened to very much like his disarray and made every effort to cause it during the brief months we were together as a couple.  That’s all a terribly convoluted story, though.  The point here is, although this hair might look a bit odd now, it was meant to suit hats, peaking out around the ears and collar.  I find it charming on the right man, obviously.

Photo 5:


This style, as you can likely see, was also meant for hats–curled at the ears and fluffed on top, while flattened at the temples, probably with macassar oil.  It was also the quintessential style of the solidly middle class, and therefore I associate it with my mate Christopher.  Chris was by far and above the most “normal” of all of us–he studied banking, wore a great deal of plaid and assertive muttonchops, played tennis and rugby and cricket and all that, and was straight as an arrow.  He was, to use a modern term, a “bro.”

That said, the man had depth.  He never once batted an eye at the rest of us and our collective inclinations, and he was a brilliant painter, rendering up strange pieces that I would now associate with the modernist style.  What’s this, I’d say.  Well it’s a bloody lake, he’d answer.  Then why is it so…squared off and hazy and purple?  And he’d blink at me and say some people just don’t understand art.

Photo 6:


Aaaaand the circus clown.  No, I didn’t have a mate with this hair…”style.”  Who do you think I am?

However, the striped waistcoat and loud cravat do remind me of a partner Geoffrey had later in life–a chemist named Maxwell whose penchant for laboratory explosions transferred to his choices in neck ware.  Probably part of why they got on so well…

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Twilight my arse…


You say Victorian, I say Pseudo-Regency

I don’t actually believe, in the end, that I’m much of a Victorian.

I am part of an in-between generation, much in the way of the put-upon Millennials of this day and age–born between old and new technologies and world-views, somewhat comfortable with both, and generally regarded as being the root of all problems by those too lazy to question their own proclivities and shortcomings.

You are Scarlet Johansson.  I am Emily Bronte.

Would rather be ScarJo, though, really would.

What does this look like in practice?  Well…

I arrived on the scene in 1818, as part of the post-French Revolution “baby boom,” as you might call it.  Disembarked soldiers arrived back on the shores of England, told stories of heroism, took up with young women, and populated our tiny island with soon to be orphans.

I came up as a very young man in an almshouse in Yorkshire, walked to London when I was 12, discarding my lilt and taking up something a bit more Cockney, and then came of age in the city.  I had a printer’s apprenticeship, a poor boy’s scholarship to University College London, which had just opened thanks to that blessedly eccentric Jeremy Bentham, and a feeling of continual bewilderment.

I was a transplant, you see, and I could never entirely shake that.

For instance, I developed active, functional literacy, but rather slowly, with the topics of my tutelage quite differentiated from those of young men and women who were brought up in traditional homes.  Where they read the classics, histories, and Shakespeare, I hadn’t the cultural scope for such things, and cut my teeth on pamphlet literature, newspapers, and music.  (Although I did come back around and discover Shakespeare.  Don’t worry.)

Or to take another example of this in-between becomingness–I was just shy of penniless throughout college, which does colour one’s attitudes toward reasonable goals.  So while my mates purchased finery, fought over politics, attended the season, and planned their first, or in some cases, second European tour, I purchased brown bread and cheese, ignored all the politics because lord knows I couldn’t vote in an election anyway, and occasionally tagged along after them at social events in a borrowed, ill-fitting suit and a consistently droopy cravat.

And even aside from my own personal out-of-placement, I was not privy to those things that 20th and 21st century folks tend to think of as Victorian nor was I really high Regency.

I lived in a world as of yet uninformed by John Stuart Mill, George Eliot, or Oscar Wilde.  But I had also missed the heyday so vibrantly described and lived by John Keats, Lord Byron, or Jane Austen.

I was born after the dawn of the factory system…but only just–my birth missed the Luddite movement by only two years.  So, the air that I breathed was a mite cleaner than the air of later Victorians, but sooty enough to inspire the Chartist labour movement, of which I was proudly a part, despite my apprenticed status.

Coincidentally, I attended this 1848 Chartist demonstration, somewhere in that sea of flat caps.

I was born in the age of the King Georges.  Victoria did not take the throne until 1837.

I was born before the height of empire, before the extension of the franchise and the era of mass politics, before the earliest welfare systems of the late-nineteenth century.  Before germ theory, votes-for-women, the decline of the aristocracy, or Darwin.

I remember the Irish Famine, but I was not alive to see the struggles for Home Rule.

I remember the Corn Law battles between the Whigs, Tories, and Radicals, but the resultant liberal and conservative parties were fledgling at best when I passed on.

I remember reading Karl Marx when he was fresh off the presses in the Springtime of the Peoples, and I read things off the continent in that year of revolutions, just out of translation.  But the resulting conservative backlash and  nationalism, as you know it, was still in flux–an open and contested project, rather than the stuff of flags and anthems.

I did drink a lot of tea though.  That stereotype holds.

And I was forced to participate in my fair share of lawn games and parlour games and turns about the park.

You try enjoying this bloody game when you top out at 6’2″ and all the gear is created for persons ranging from 5’0″ to 5’5.” Go on, tell me how much bloody fun you have…bending in half and sticking out at all angles and looking like some kind of deranged grasshopper with a hammer. Indecorous, I tell you.

So, I suppose my point is, when I speak on things Victorian, keep in mind that my experience of that romanticized world was quite rough and tumble at times, and quite oddly situated, and quite idiosyncratic.

Keep in mind that when I did develop a politics of sorts, they were radical.  I was and am a (small R) republican, a feminist, an anti-imperialist, an abolitionist, a philanthropist, a revolutionary, and an advocate for all rights broadly queer.

And if you ask me about Charles Dickens, expect a full on profanity-laced tirade.