Hair: The Styling of Society

An exhibition charting the history of hair is now on display at Chertsey Museum in Surrey. Here is a selection of some of the pieces on display

Painting of flamboyant 18th century women's hair

Hairstyles have evolved from displays of power and wealth to expressions of self and individuality, sometimes used as a medium to make political statements, rebel against social norms, or to tell one’s story. Throughout history hair has been braided, coloured, teased, and adorned to reflect not only the fashions of the day, but also the values of the era.

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An exhibition charting the history of hair is now on display at Chertsey Museum in Surrey, displaying a number of items from the Olive Matthews Collection which are rarely on public view.

Hair: The Styling of Society is on show at Chertsey Museum until 15 June 2013 and admission is free. For more information visit the museum website

Photo of three wigs on stands from different historic
Original 1920s metallic wig; wig in Elizabethan style; wig in Roman style © Chertsey Museum

Hairstyles of the Elizabethan era were characterised by high, frizzed hair often placed over wires or pads to create a heart-shaped frame around the head. Roman hairstyles had modest beginnings usually with simple tresses bound with a band on top of the head.

17th century women's wig with ringlets
Wig created in 17th-century style © Chertsey Museum

The 17th century saw a departure from the hairstyles made popular by Queen Elizabeth I, and a move towards the latest French trends. Inspired by Charles I’s wife, Henrietta Maria, the height of fashion for women was to part the hair in the middle, flatten the top, then frizz and curl each side of the head.

Photo of two Charles II wigs
Two wigs created in 17th-century style © Chertsey Museum

When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 his use of wigs renewed public interest in flamboyant styles: horse hair, yak hair, and human hair were customarily used in the wigs of the affluent. Men tended to keep their hair long and curly, and often used wigs as substitutes for their own hair.

Painting of flamboyant 18th century women's hair
Late 18th-century engraving by JR Smith © Chertsey Museum

The formality of hair in the 17th and early 18th centuries eventually gave way to the frivolity of the latter half of the 18th century, and hairstyles rose to great heights. Adornments ranged from ribbons and jewels to flowers and even stuffed animals

Painting of a flamboyant woman's hair
Late 18th-century engraving by JR Smith © Chertsey Museum

Women rarely wore whole wigs in the late 18th century, as these were intended for men. Instead, they hired professional hairdressers who added false hair to their natural locks.

Illustration of an 18th Century lady with large hair style
Late 18th-century engraving by JR Smith © Chertsey Museum

Eighteenth-century women were expected to augment their own hair with false hair, padding, powder, wires, and ornaments. Because these hairstyles were often held into place using lard, rats were attracted to the creations and often made homes in coiffures

Illustration of an 18th century woman with large hair style
Late 18th-century engraving by JR Smith © Chertsey Museum
A small black silk wig
Small rectangular black silk wig bag, c1780–90 © Chertsey Museum
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A small rectangular black silk wig bag with a silk tape drawstring at the top and a large black rosette with flat bow in the centre. The outer edge is trimmed with black pleated ribbon in three layers.

Cameo picture of a middle aged man
A Wedgwood blue dip jasper ware portrait medallion of Charles James Fox, c1790 © Chertsey Museum
Photo of three Victorian hair combs
Three late Victorian hair combs © Chertsey Museum
Photo of a hair accessory
Georgian hairwork snuff box © Chertsey Museum
Photo of a blonde wig with curls
Original 1920s metallic wire wig © Chertsey Museum