Dramatic Victorian Hairstyles

Updated February 21, 2017

The Victorian era of the United Kingdom lasted throughout the reign of Queen Victorian from 1837 to 1901. The early Victorian period is characterised by modesty and reservation; women became interested in renouncing the previous era's flamboyant and indulgent styles in favour of what they considered more natural looks. These "natural" looks, however, were time consuming and often involved heat styling. The later Victorian period was heavily influenced by styles imported from both Belle Époque continental Europe as well as Gilded Age styles from the United States.

Sugar Curls

Throughout the Victorian Era, curly hair was perceived as signifying a sweet disposition in a women, with straight haired women often being represented as reserved and awkward. Thus, Victorian women went to great lengths in their pursuit of curly hair. Sugar curls, also known as Barley curls, were long drop curls first worn exclusively by little girls. In the mid-19th century, adult women began adding these drop curls alongside the chignons at the backs of their heads. As part of their efforts to look "natural," grown women would often follow the example of Empress Elizabeth of Austria and adorn these chignons with real flowers.

Marcel Wave

In 1872, a French hairdresser named Marcel Grateau invented a new, natural looking wave by turning a curling iron upside down. The Marcel Wave, as it came to be known, was created by turning a heated iron upside down and curling the hair with tongs rather than crimping it. This created hairstyles that looked more naturally curly. Women would curl their hair, then pin the curls to the top of their heads as high as they could get them to stand. Because most women would never cut their hair, and the hair was so heat damaged, they often had to collect hair that had been pulled out by their brushes and make fake hairpieces called rats to make their tall styles structurally sound.


The trend for tall hair took off in the 1880s, and women created and purchased rats and other fake hair pieces in an effort to make their hair ever taller. This period saw the rise of the Pompadour, a hairstyle named after 18th century French king Louis XV's mistress, Madame du Pompadour. This style involved bringing the hair at one's forehead back to the crown, swept as high as possible. The hair at the back of a woman's head would be set in a French twist, a chignon, or a plaited bun. Despite what late 19th century British painting may suggest, a grown woman would never wear her hair down in public.

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About the Author

Elizabeth Hannigan began writing freelance articles in 2005. Her work can be found in "Orientations" magazine. She holds a Master of Arts in art history from the University of Delaware.