Like many of you, as the year has progressed, I have started to feel a little cooped up. Since I can’t currently travel, I have spent a good chunk of time this month fantasying about traveling, especially after I read about an organization called Regency Encounters. If you haven’t heard of this organization, they put on a Pride and Prejudice ball each year and are currently planning to host the next one in Victoria, B.C. Canada. Victoria is simply beautiful, and the event sounds like so much fun. Attendees are expected to try to dress in something reminiscent of the Regency era, so I have been reading about historical patterns, hairstyles, and all sorts of other beauty regiments used during the Georgian Era. I have also been watching the tutorials on the various dances that were popular during the period.
It’s quite interesting how much fashion changed during this period. It is easy with all the film adaptations, to imagine the Bennet sisters attending a ball, but I started to think about Elizabeth’s parents attending such an event in their youth. In her younger years, Mrs. Bennet, being very vain and interested in fashion, might have dressed more like Marie Antoinette who was 20 years older than Jane Austen herself.
In my opinion, this ornate over the top style is nearly the opposite fashion of the fashion that followed. It is the hairstyles, however, that are of particular interest to me. Some of those designs took a team of stylists hours to construct. Wire, batting, and various other materials provided the scaffolding under the hair while horse hair extensions were used to help hide some of this infrastructure. These mountainous designs also required countless pins. After the style was achieved, color would be added by powdering the hair. But how did they get the powder to stick? First they would coat it in pomatum. Here is a recipe from 1840 for how to make this stuff:
Combine beef marrow, hog’s lard, spermaceti, and oil of ben. Melt together, along with bergamot, rose oil, and nutmeg oil.
You might be wondering what spermaceti is. It is a waxy substance found inside the head of sperm whales. As a bonus, you will find another recipe* below that uses this ingredient—you know, so you can create a lovely gift basket of authentic Regency beauty products for gifting your friends and relations.
Once the pomatum was applied, they would use a bellow to create a cloud of powder. The powder would then stick to the pomatum, providing a nice coat of color. This was a messy process, so they created small spaces called “powder rooms” where people would go to complete this process, hence the origin of the term. There are a few recipes for these hair powders. People could use something as simple as flour or corn starch, but there were also more complex combinations—some of which included lead.
Because of all the effort it took to achieve these updos, women would keep their styles in place for up to three weeks. To deal with the lice, long sticks were invented that could slip through the hairstyles and be used to scratch the scalp. To cover up the stench, the hair was perfumed regularly. But some problems were not as easily solved. Because of the heights, many women couldn’t really tell where their hair ended. It was not uncommon for women to catch on fire because their hair came in contact with the candle flames used for lighting. There is even an account of a woman who was caught in a storm. Her tall hair which was held in place by a metal pin, resulted in her becoming a living lighting rod. All said and done, remind me not to sign up for any early Georgian recreation balls. I think the simpler styles worn during the regency period suit me better.
*Bonus skin cream recipe. Apply before bed and wear overnight to help with sunburns or addressing acne. Leave over heat until combined: Honey, almond oil, and spermaceti. Once cooled apply or store.