Hair, and what went on it, was an important part of eighteenth-century dress. Whether you wore your own hair or someone else’s you could not hope to impress unless your hairstyle was as remarkable as it was impeccable. It is little wonder that hair or wig-dressers came to prominence in this century with the French being widely acknowledged as the best practitioners in the art.

By the mid-1740s men of all classes were wearing wigs. As the long and curling, full-bottomed wig grew to be synonymous with “old-fashionedness”, the more compact bag-wig replaced it as one of the most popular styles, with side hair worn in rows of stiff curls, the tighter the better. At the forefront of male hairstyling experimentation were the Macaronis, whose foppish, somewhat effeminate style was characterised by a towering wig of epic proportions and extravagance, eagerly satirised in cartoons.

Even the most of sober men, like Lord Fairfax, did not skimp when it came to keeping their headwear in peak order. With one new wig costing one pound, sixteen shillings, this was a considerable investment. The Viscount’s account bills also hint at the ongoing expense involved in maintaining his collection of wigs. One receipt recorded that over a few short months, he had six wigs dressed no fewer than two-hundred and sixty-two times in rotation, equating to at least one newly-dressed wig for each day of wear.

Though women were more likely to wear their own hair, they still employed artificial aids to gain effect and height. Hair was often “frizzed” to rise up in rolls of stiff curls, the ideal shape resembling a cone or “sugar-loaf”. Pads, cushions and wires were used to achieve his height and not surprisingly caused some discomfort and headaches. As one gentleman also recounted, a

…lady complained much of a pain in her shoulders, at which my surprise was removed when I was told that she rode from Oxford Street to Pall Mall, with her chin resting the whole time upon her knees, occasioned by the lowness of her coach, or to speak more properly, by the altitude of her head-dress.  

Worse still, such extravagant hairstyles had to be plastered into place with “pomatum”, a type of oil, and were often expected to stay in place for several weeks. Some ladies reported rustling in the night. Hygienic!

Ornamentation was crucial. Hair was also powdered throughout the eighteenth-century. Grey and white was the fashion for men on formal occasions, but women’s could be a lot more varied with shades ranging from pink and blue to black. The French King’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour also popularised the “pompom” which found its way over to England in the late 1740s. It was a collection of flowers, feathers or jewels either worn centrally on top of the head or to the side, with or without a small cap.

As hair grew in height and extravagance during the course of the century, how to accommodate what surmounted it (for example, a hat) became more difficult. One solution was the Calash. This was a folding hood made of silk stretched over arches of cane and was large enough to cover even the most fashionable of hairstyles. While believed to offer some practical protection against the elements, caricaturists were still quick to poke fun at their growing extremes.

In stark contrast to the towering, ornate hairstyles finished with model ships or imitation birds of the 1780s (associated with figures such as Marie Antoinette and the duchess of Devonshire), simple hairstyles echoed the classically-inspired aesthetic of contemporary fashions were increasingly favoured by the women of the 1790s. The ancient Greek and Roman influence showed itself in elegant, graceful hairstyles finished with accessories such as jewelled or tortoiseshell combs.

Despite the new spirit of simplicity in the style of the hair itself, the decoration of hair accessories became increasingly intricate. This was in part due to Napoleon Bonaparte’s patronage of French goldsmiths, who produced exquisitely detailed hair combs, diadems and tiaras. By the 1820s elaboration had returned to hair styling with the most fashionable arrangement – the ‘Apollo Knot’ – involving a classically-inspired style of such height that a wire support was required. These elaborate arrangements were finished with decorations of precious materials such as pearls, diamonds or coral.