History’s Wealthiest Women Used Gold Dust, Leeches, and Sulfuric Acid to Style Their Hair
Splitting Hairs is our monthlong exploration of hair based on a survey of women across America. It’s like you brought a photo to the salon — we’re giving you exactly what you want.
We live in an age of excess, and hair treatments are no exception. But before electricity could power the $400 Dyson Supersonic, or Oribe went all out with the triple-digit ticket price tags, rich and otherwise powerful women colored, cut, and otherwise adorned their hair with all sorts of fascinating stuff. Here are a few of the (not sorry) highlights.
Throughout history, henna and plant extracts have played a huge role in coloring hair (which more often than not has been a luxury few could afford) — but so have many more extravagant, dangerous and straight up stomach-turning ingredients.
For instance, as too many brunettes learn the hard way, going blonde can be kind of an ordeal.
“The journey to whiter, brighter, lighter hair has incorporated no end of imaginative ingredients,” says Rachael Gibson of The Hair Historian. “Real gold dust was used by wealthy Romans and Assyrians to achieve a goddess-like glow.”
Gold lacquer made an appearance in Renaissance times, as did white wine and ambergris. Unfortunately, many historical lightening methods (in times when blondes almost certainly had far less fun) employed toxic and caustic ingredients like lye or sulfuric acid, as well as cool stuff like urine and bird poop.
But as I always say, let’s get back to the wine. Fermented grapes were also used to darken hair; 16th century luminary Giovanni Della Porta recommended in his famous work Magia Naturalis that women cover their grays by using leeches soaked for 60 days in “the blackest wine.”
More pleasant to imagine are the cumin, saffron, and other expensive spices that Queen Elizabeth I’s contemporaries used to get the queen’s signature ginger glow — particularly interesting since, before her ascension to the throne, red hair was considered “barbarous.” More modern/less monarchical influencers may be responsible for the recent popularity of light pinks, purples, and blues, but they weren’t the first to embrace pastel locks; the spun-sugar shades first came into vogue around the reign of Marie Antoinette via powder applied during toilette, the daily ritual of nobility getting dressed and groomed to an audience of their inner circle. Think of it as an early predecessor to the viral beauty tutorial.
“As well as keeping your wig (relatively) fresh and fragrant, hair powder was used in the 17th and 18th centuries to add a flash of color, not dissimilar to today's hair chalks,” Gibson tells InStyle. “Shades of pink, blue, yellow and violet were fashionable and came with the added benefit of smelling nice thanks to extracts of lavender, orange flower, and iris.”
Powder’s popularity began to wane around the time of Antoinette’s execution; British Parliament passed the Duty on Hair Powder Act in 1795, which taxed the majority of its citizens on purchases of the French import. In the 20th century, however, pastels saw a resurgence in powerful English circles by way of the iconic blue rinse.
Today, a set of highlights at NYC’s Frederic Fekkai salon will set you back nearly $300.
Shaping and Styling
Long before the Beachwaver, nobility was using heat tools to create and manipulate texture. Cleopatra is said to have regularly worn at least three elaborately curled hairdos, which were signifiers of her wealth, power, and leisurely lifestyle.
“Curling irons, heated on an open fire, date to Ancient times – with early tongs found in Egyptian tombs,” says Gibson. “The Greeks used a hollow metal stick called a calamistrum, while Assyrians used a similar device to create fetchingly curly beards. The practice, which continued well into the 1900s, was torturous, unsafe, and caused no end of singed, damaged, and lost hair.” On the bright side, Cleo and co never had to worry whether their heating tools were still plugged in.
Perhaps more surprising than a desire for defined curls is the Elizabethan-era practice of “frizzing” hair, which in conjunction with padding and wire, created an on-trend heart shape around its wearer’s dome. And since that obviously wasn’t dramatic enough, women also completely plucked or shaved their eyebrows and hairlines to expose a nobly high forehead. Everything old is truly new again.
Scented animal fat has been an enduring base for all matter of historical hair’s slicking and sticking needs. Gibson notes such styling products from ancient Africa — where said fat was mixed with ochre for color, or else with honey for braid-friendly tavo, and Middle Ages Europe — where lizard fat and swallow droppings met for an unappetizing but apparently effective one-two punch.
Lower classes’ lack of resources have always been key to the coiffures of the rich. Poor women have a long history of growing and chopping their locks for the benefit of the wealthy, be it in the form of extension-esque pieces or full-on wigs (at times, wigs have also been made of horsehair and silk).
“Egyptians were routinely buried with their best wigs carefully stashed alongside them for use in the afterlife,” says Gibson. “Queen Elizabeth I had more than eighty red wigs that she used as she aged and her natural hair thinned – as did Mary Queen of Scots, whose wig fell off during her beheading, as a final humiliation.”
Later, as syphilis continued to proliferate across the European continent, wigs became as much about concealment as they were about ornamentation. Among other symptoms, the ailing affluent commonly suffered lesions they sought to cover in any way possible -- including through absolutely huge head coverings. Enter: the very extra though somewhat counterproductive periwig.
“Wigs reached their height, in every sense, during the late 1700s,” says Gibson. “They were completely impractical – doors had to be raised to accommodate them, they often set on fire, they smelled bad, and they caused sores from their weight – but none of this mattered as much as the fact that they made you look really, really rich and fancy.”
A century later, privileged women of the Victorian era were expressing their class standing by growing their hair long — like, really long — and then hiding it.
“For the Victorians, long hair was the epitome of femininity and the longer, the better,” says Gibson. “Despite this, 'respectable' women wore their hair up in public, with their magical long hair reserved only for their husbands in the boudoir.”
This rule was broken by the Seven Sutherland Sisters, who Gibson likens to the Kardashians -- “at least in terms of their press and notoriety.”
“The combination of seven sisters, the 37' of hair they supposedly had collectively, and it all being on display to the world made the Sutherlands a sensation,” says Gibson, “and they made appearances across their country for women admirers who envied them and pervy old men alike.”
If only they’d known about lip kits.
For work, sexual expression, and liberation-related reasons, women’s hairstyles have become significantly shorter since. Over the course of the 20th century, regular haircuts became something of a wealth signifier (though prices can vary widely) — and today, women of means drop hundreds or thousands of dollars on a cut every four to six weeks. Gibson says despite the relatively new invention of salons, a certain echelon of stylists have long commanded the big bucks.
“In England, Raymond Bessone is widely regarded as the first 'celebrity' hairdresser,” says Gibson. “In 1965, he made headlines when actress Diana Dors flew him to America for a shampoo and set at a cost of £2,500 (which at the time, was the price of a small house). Raymond wasn't the first hairdresser to charge thousands, though; the fabulously named Monsieur Champagne was coiffeur to French high society in the 1600s, and Antoine de Paris charged in the realm of £1,000 to style the hair of early 1900s French glitterati -- even decamping to summer resorts so they’d look fabulous all holiday season.”
Though their exact structures and the materials used to make them have varied widely across space and time, crown-like hair accessories have been a favorite of the noble and/or rich since Ancient Egyptian times. Cleopatra famously wore a triple uraeus headband (which her perhaps archnemesis perhaps tried to emulate through a slightly less cool ‘do); Romans constructed their outfit-toppers with floral and fauna; more recently, western aristocracy has preferred elements of filigree and plenty of sparkle.
In the 1920s, ahead-of-the-curve flappers made not as obscenely valuable but equally as shiny headbands happen, and Audrey Hepburn brought tiara combs to the upper middle class masses with Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Costly tiaras and combs, of course, remain a standby for highly privileged if not literally royal women across the world.
What else have wealthy women put in their hair over the centuries? Gibson notes bones like the hollowed-out, poison-filled one with which Cleopatra is at times rumored to have killed herself, as well as bodkin pins -- elaborately carved ornamental (not just functional) pieces tracing back to the Bronze Age. Ivory has long been a coveted resource, and was the base for the kanzashi and carved/inlaid kushi combs sported by certain Geishas in 18th and 19th century Japan.
In the middle of all that, Marie Antoinette and her posse were piling all sorts of stuff into their periwigs -- including toys, dollhouse furniture, and even live birds in cages, Gibson explains.
“You might have heard of the language of the fan, but the language of fancy-ass hair is an equally important moment in history,” says Gibson. “When women didn't have much of a voice, hair provided a way for them to make a statement.”
And of course, there was La Belle-Poule -- the term for making notable nautical additions to one’s already cumbersome hair pile (Gibson calls it “The famous-for-five-minutes French trend for topping giant hairdos with model ships”).
“When the French ship of the same name went to war in 1778, high society ladies found no better way to show their support than wearing boats in their barnets,” says Gibson. “Practical, no; conversation starter, absolutely.”
Today, business casual nobility continues the tradition of wacky, strangely scaled, and sculptural headwear with a predilection for fascinators. Since the 1990s, milliner Philip Treacy’s whimsical fascinators have adorned the heads of such eccentric heiresses as Daphne Guinness and Isabella Blow.
So there you have it: The most extravagant (of their time, at least) hair trends and treatments throughout history. Proving once and for all that with the right marketing, rich people can be convinced to put anything on their heads.