Blonde, Brunette or Blazing Red: A Steampunk Perspective of Victorian-era Hair (Part One)

The Sutherland Sisters

The Sutherland Sisters

Give me a head with hair, long beautiful hair

Shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen

Give me down to there, hair, shoulder length or longer…

Lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni and music by Galt MacDermot

 Long hair

We tend to think the Hippie Era was all about hair, but they had nothing on the Victorians. They were very serious about their hair, as it was considered one of the great beauties for both men and women. There was a great deal of marketing of hair care products, and there were personalities famous for their amazing hair that were used to ‘brand’ these products.

The American Seven Sutherland Sisters were probably the best known of these celebrity spruikers. The sisters were a singing group, but they were much more famous for their incredible long and luxuriant hair, and the hair tonics and scalp cleansers marketed in their name. All seven women did have remarkable hair, with the second oldest sister, Victoria, had over two metres length of hair and the fifth sister, Naomi, had hair so thick she could ‘wear it like a garment’ (in the words of some of the advertising of the time). Make no mistake, such hair was considered very sexy. They toured the world with their singing act, with local newspapers falling over themselves to print images of the sisters’ hair.


Thanks to lots of different historical invasions, Britain has the whole range of hair colour from platinum blonde to inky black, with Scotland being the most likely place on this planet to find a natural redhead. Red hair occurs naturally in 1–2% of the population, while in Scotland, 10% of the population have red hair and approximately 35% carry the recessive redhead gene. Alas, I have the red-headed skin without the benefit of having beautiful red hair, thanks to my Scottish ancestry. It may be this Scottish connection that gave rise to the myth that redheads have a fiery temperament.

In the Victorian era, red hair was often associated with sexually licentious behaviour, as many soiled doves dyed their hair red. It wasn’t considered a fashionable shade for most of the era, and generally was considered ugly and unlucky, and associated with bad tempers. However, the Pre-Raphaelites favoured red-haired models, even though red hair was not in favour. The Pre-Raphaelite artists depicted glorious, luscious, and romantically-flowing red locks; who wouldn’t want hair that fabulous?

My youngest child and my brother had platinum or flaxen blonde as a babies. Blonde hair tends to turn brunette with age, so adults with natural blonde hair are rare and make up approximately 2% of the world’s population. In the Victorian era, particularly in literature, blonde hair was associated with beauty and goodness; it is only in recent times that blondes are considered dumb or that gentlemen prefer blondes. In fairy stories written in the 19th century, fairies tended to be blond and blonde, and fairies also stole way children and maidens with fair hair. In Britain, fair hair is usually linked to fair skin; this isn’t the case worldwide, where blonde hair crops up nearly everywhere.

    It seems that in olden days (those happy olden days!) there were many more blondes than there are now. Do you wish to know why, even in northern countries, the hair becomes darker century after century? “Heaven,” says a humourist, “sent a great many golden-haired women on the earth to charm the other half of humanity. Seeing this, the devil, who hates man, sent us cooks: they with their sauces and ragouts have disordered the human hair, and these disorders manifest themselves outwardly by the sombre colour of the hair.” Some grain of truth may perhaps lie hidden under this absurdity. – The Lady’s Dressing Room, by Baroness Staffe, translated by Lady Colin Campbell, 1893 – Part II

Brown and black hair dominates humanity, with black hair being the most common hair colour. However, in Victorian-era Britain, brown dominated, rather than black. The most common colour was ‘mouse’ brown – a light brown with no red or golden highlights, often greying. Luxuriant, glossy brown hair was considered one of a woman’s great beauties, and there were many hair products marketed to keep one’s hair healthy, and to improve its colour without the use of dyes. A rinse of water steeped in rosemary or chamomile would add shine and colour to hair, as well as adding a pleasant perfume.

Hair Keepers

Hair Keepers

The fashionable Victorian women did not have an equivalent of modern shampoo and conditioner, but they did want to keep their hair clean and fresh. Modern shampoo tends to strip away all the natural oils in hair, so Victorian women could get away with washing their hair once a week or longer. Then they used mild soap, or black tea, or apple cider vinegar. In one article, it was suggested that some women used rum to wash their hair … which I would have thought would be impractical as alcohol would be very harsh and expensive, unless it was used greatly diluted. And – of course – there were a multitude of hair tonics available. If you were too poor to afford tonics, a good brushing was recommended to keep your hair healthy.

An engraved silver hand mirror, engraved silver backed hair brushes,  and a comb, together with a pair of silver backed clothes brushes

Girl children wore their hair down, while an adult woman put her hair up. Because not every woman was blessed with thick hair, women often collected the hair on their brushes to make hair pieces; which isn’t cheating, when you think about it. When a woman claimed ‘it is all my own hair’, she was being completely truthful (if not actually honest). Hair keepers were part of the toiletry items used by fashionable women.

Teenage girl not yet 18. Shorter hems and her hair is neatly braided up not in an up-do.

Teenage girl not yet 18. Shorter hems and her hair is neatly braided up not in an up-do.

This young lady has the long skirts and the upturned hair that marks her as an adult woman.

This young lady has the long skirts and the upturned hair that marks her as an adult woman.

This is the first part of a two-part article


1 Comment

Filed under Fashion, Historical Personage, History, Steampunk

One response to “Blonde, Brunette or Blazing Red: A Steampunk Perspective of Victorian-era Hair (Part One)

  1. Pingback: Entries 7 & 8 – Debbie's ARTH 388 Image Log

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