The American Gilded Age saw immense economic growth, the rise and fall of industry tycoons, and some of the most intense hairstyles ever to be en vogue in the US. HBO’s The Gilded Age follows this turbulent, transformative era in US history.
But if I’m being honest, I’m more than a little distracted by the hair. The women of The Gilded Age don elaborate, tightly curled updos. While these looks might be tedious to create today, they seem downright impossible in the late 1800s.
So, in between watching high society duke it out amongst themselves, I wondered: were they wigs? Would those wigs be human hair? Did they have actual curling iron (as in the metal, not the tool)?
Here’s what I found after diving into the rabbit hole that is 1800s couture.
Recreating The Past
The late 1800s were certainly some of the most elaborate years of US fashion. This era marked the birth of American haute couture. Additionally, what would now be considered “old” money was still “new.” Class permeated the entire fashion world.
Thus, the more decadent, the better the dress. Women’s fashion (namely, rich women’s fashion) consisted of complex bustles, corsets, and heavy fabrics. While they chose to keep their makeup simple, their hair matched their dresses in intricacy.
The Most Popular Gilded Age Looks
Hairstyles evolved even within the confines of the Gilded Age period. Of course, we saw most of this variety in the über-wealthy—laborers had bigger fish to fry than making sure their hair looked good (like not starving or dying on the job).
Generally speaking, volume and texture were big components of the hairstyles of the times. Twists, braids, and curls all played into the final product, which is why many women of the time grew their hair long. Of course, not everyone is blessed with Godilock hair, so hairpieces were also popular to supplement volume.
The pompadour became popular around the 1880s. In this high-rise style, women piled their hair on their crown and let loose curls fall at the sides of their faces. The “French pompadour” changed the look slightly with curls hanging over the top of the forehead.
Cynthia Nixon’s character, Ada Brook, often wore the latter style. The Gilded Age crew was able to recreate these looks with wigs and arsenals of modern hair tools. But how did the women of 1880 manage?
Woman Finds A Way, No Matter What
A woman’s innovation knows no bounds, so it’s unsurprising that our foremothers managed to accomplish what would still be a challenge today. And as it turns out, their methods weren’t that much different from ours (well, some of them).
Wigs were not uncommon in the late 1800s, but it was primarily men who wore them. While women did use extra hairpieces for a volume boost, they often made these pieces themselves by collecting hair out of their brush for weeks on end.
To achieve tight, chic ringlets, women used tongs that they would heat over the fire. A popular “safety” measure was to wrap the hot metal tongs in thin paper, supposedly to protect the hair. In a not-so-shocking twist, this often didn’t work. Women suffered burns on their ears, neck, and hands. Sometimes, the hair would burn off completely.
Others opted for a no-heat technique in which they wrapped their hair with papers or pins and let it set overnight. Of course, this technique often employed hair-curling liquids that included borax, wine, and camphor. So, you decide which is worse.
Luckily for the cast of The Gilded Age, we’ve come a long way from the chemical cocktails and torched metal tools of the past. But if Gilded Age beauty tips tell us anything, it’s that women will stop at nothing to look their absolute best.