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  • Elizabeth Little

The Shortly Lived Short Hairstyle of the Early 1800s

“Half Dress,” 1816 Fashion Plate, Ackerman’s Repository of Arts. Image from personal collection of physical fashion plates.

I was recently browsing eBay as I do too often. In an effort to decorate my room, I’ve been after antique prints to hang on my wall. Fashion plates – a type of illustration that was used to advertise new clothes before the invention of photography – have been a favourite of mine to collect. Just the other night, I found one and quickly added it to my cart, but when I received it in the mail today, it wasn’t the soft colours which have been wonderfully preserved that caught my eye, but rather the wearer’s short hair. Prior to the 1920s, short hair on women had been rather unusual, so the short hair on this 1816 fashion plate really stood out. But it just so happens, that was the exact period short hair made a brief – but striking – appearance on many well to do women.

When looking at this fashion plate from 1816, you’ll need to go back to the French Revolution to fully trace this hair trend. During the revolution’s Reign of Terror and the French Aristocrats were being rounded up by the masses, those who didn’t face jail served a much harsher sentence: the guillotine. A detail that is often glossed over in history was that the victims of the guillotine had to have their hair chopped off – usually cut close to the head in a buzz cut fashion – in order for the blade to make a clean cut (even infamous Queen Marie Antoinette wore this haircut, as seen in her final portrait).

“Marie Antoinette on the Way to the Guillotine,” Jacques-Louis David. Image via Wikipedia Commons in the public domain.

The interesting thing, however, was that following the Revolution in the late 1790s and early 1800s, this short hair became something of a fad. This style was first worn by the former revolutionaries themselves calling it coiffure à la victim. There were even stories spread that the revolutionaries sporting these looks would hold grand parties to celebrate the fall of the old government, which garnered the name bals de victims (ball of the victims). Although in all likelihood, there’s little historical evidence to prove those ever took place. The choppy hairstyle worked its way up the social classes, finding itself popular with the new era of aristocrats. But when it reached the upper classes, it was no longer being referred to as coiffure à la victim instead being known as coiffure à la Titus, referring to the ancient Romans and Greeks. The turn of the 19th century saw a classical revival in everything from architecture, clothes, and even hair. The short cut was being worn by men and women alike, much to the dismay of many. Being referred to as “short and frizzed,” older women of France couldn’t imagine cutting their hair short, but the trend couldn’t be stopped as an 1802 edition of the Journal de Paris found that over half of wealthy women had adopted this look.

Short hair on women wasn’t a long-lasting trend, and it appears that outside of France it was still unusual*. Long hair once again became a wide standard on (western) women for the next century. Knowing all of that, I think it makes this eBay find all the better.

*What makes this fashion plate even more interesting is that it is from a British publication, but from the research I’ve done it seems this hairstyle was mostly popular in France. Maybe it was more popular throughout Europe? If you have any knowledge about Regency hair and might have an answer, do let us know in the comments!


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