This was a class I originally taught in October of 2004.
Two Elizabethan Hairstyles
Mistress Isobel Bedingfield, OL, OP
Hair in "rats"
At the end of the 16th Century in England, the hairstyles of the middle and upper classes had become quite elaborate. Led by their fashion-conscious queen, the ladies of England padded, curled, dyed, and ornamented their hair. Though blonde was the fashionable colour for other countries (a trend that continues today - more hair dyes are in blond shades than any other), the English women of the era were loyal to Elizabeth, and flame-red hair was the most popular colour for women. The unreliability and harshness of hair dyes (most were extremely poisonous) also meant that there was a thriving business in wigs and hair pieces for women unsatisfied with their own hair1.
Elizabeth herself seems to have favoured curled hair, sometimes padded with "rats" - pads made of hair, shaped to help create the high styles that exemplified the time. They are called rats because they're roughly shaped like a rat - pointed on one end (the nose), high and rounded on the other (the haunches of the rat). Though she wore wigs in her later years, Elizabeth continued to wear the high curled style until her death2. The softer close to the head hairstyles of the Stuart Age can be seen as a direct reaction to the time-intensive and stylized hair of the 16th Century3.
To create the style, the hair from the ears back was pulled into a neat coiled bun (sometimes braided or padded to give it more bulk), and the hair from the ears forward was styled4. The bun may have been sewn into place with ribbons or thread. Certainly the tortoise-shell pins of the Victorian era and the bobby pins of the early 20th Century were not known. Securing the hair by sewing it into place is not as awkward as it sounds; in fact, the bun is more secure and comfortable when sewn in, as there are no pins to slip or dig into the scalp. My theory is that once sewn into place, the bun could be left in for several days. There would be no problem sleeping in the bun because most Elizabethans slept sitting propped up by pillows, as they feared "wet humors in the lungs"5.
Many women, even the ones with elaborate hairstyles, would have worn coifs to cover most of their head6. The women of the Elizabethan Court, and those attending evening parties and balls, could wear their hair uncovered, but it would always be secured into some sort of bun7. However, no woman, from noble to peasant, would have gone outside without some kind of headcovering, most often a coif.
The two styles we will cover in this class are the smooth padded style and the curly unpadded "frizzed" style. The padded style works best for women with shoulder length or longer hair and bangs, and the frizzed style works for women with shorter bangs.
The Padded style,or: "You say you have a Rat on your head?!"
To make rats of your very own, you will need:
1. 1 or 2 packs of fake hair (available at beauty-supply stores - get the loose hair, not the braided kind), depending on how large you want your rats - I use two packs
2. 2 fairly heavy-duty hair nets (the "invisible" kind that food service people wear; also at beauty stores)
3. Bobby pins and hairspray (I like Pantene Extra-Hold)
To make the rat: Divide the hair into two bundles and ball them up fairly tight. For each one, put the hair net around the balled hair and wrap it around several times until the ball of hair is firmly contained in the net and shaped like an oval. Shape one end into a point by wrapping the hair net around several times to tighten that end. Secure the hair net with a bobby pin or two.
Step 1: Divide your hair at the ear line, pulling the front half forward, and the rear half back. Style the rear half into a braided or twisted bun that lies fairly flat against the head.
Step 2: Take the loose hair in front and divide it at the center point of your forehead. Pin one half to the side to keep it out of the way while you style the other half.
Step 3: Comb/brush the first side until it is smooth; pin the first rat, point towards the center, to the ends of the loose hair (I find hairspray helps at this point if your hair is slippery). Roll the pinned rat up into the hair, making sure your hair covers it completely, until it is tight against your scalp.
Step 4: Twist the newly rolled hair extra tight around the narrow end of the rat to make it as tight as possible; pin into place with the bobby pins. If you have a small loose curl at the center part, just pin it down. If the rat is uneven, take it down and roll it again. The first time you do this, it will seem hard, but with a little practice, it becomes a lot easier.
Step 5: Do the same to the other side, making sure the narrow end of the rat is towards the center (this means you will be doing everything in a mirror image to the first rat). Make sure the hair is reasonably even on both sides; a small variation in size is not a disaster, but if one side is substantially larger than the other, try again.
The rat will compress as you roll your hair around it, so it is possible to vary the height of the roll quite a bit by wrapping tighter or looser. The main goal is for the sides to match, and for your hair to be smooth.
UPDATED NOTE: Several people have mentioned that they have difficulty getting the two sides to look the same. While this does take practice to perfect, if you're getting a significant difference in size and/or shape, try switching the sequence and do the other side first. Most people start on the side that is easier to do - if you switch and do the stronger side second, it will be easier to match to the first side. Keep practicing!
Step 6: Finish with hairspray, and smooth down any little loose hairs (wet the hair with the spray, then smooth with your fingertips).
(This is not a style that will brush out; once you are done with it, you'll need to wash your hair to make it look normal again.)
Frizzed Hair,or: "Did you stick your finger in a light socket?!"
The frizzed style is a little different from the padded style. Unless you have long hair, you cannot put rats under it (and if you want to do that, the curls must be pinned to the rats, rather than wrapped around them. It's tedious and time-consuming, and I don't recommend it for beginners). The style is created with careful combing and generous applications of hairspray.
***This style must be started the night before, as it will need to set overnight.***
Step 1: Wash or wet hair; divide hair at the line of your bangs. Put the longer back hair into a pony tail, or braids, or whatever you want to do to temporarily get it out of the way while you work on the other.
Step 2: Divide front hair at the center point of the forehead. Pin one side out of the way while you work on the other.
Step 3: Working from the center out, and flattening the hair slightly at the part so there's a definite dividing line, take small pinches of hair and curl them tightly so that they curl up like a spring and sit close against the scalp. Secure with two crossed bobby pins (this will prevent them from falling out while you are sleeping). You should be able to get two rows and about 7-10 curls on each side. If your bangs are thinner, do one row. If you only get 4-5 curls, you're making them too big, and they won't curl right (or you have very thin bangs).
Step 4: Do the same to the other side, working from the center part out. Once all the curls are pinned, finish with a generous spritz of hairspray (the aerosol kind works best; the pump kind can be a little too wet).
Step 5: Get a good night's sleep. You need your beauty rest!
Step 6: In the morning, style your longer hair into a braided or twisted bun.
Step 7: Unpin all the curls.
Step 8: Stare in bemused horror at what you've done to your hair. (This step is optional.) Don't panic.
Step 9: Using a wide-tooth comb, gently tease out the curls so that they are large and fluffy. The more you comb them, the fluffier they will be. Don't use a brush - the curls will lose all their definition. Stop when they're the size you like. Make sure to maintain the clear center part.
Step 10: Pat the curls into place so that they are neat and the same size on both sides, and set with another generous blast of your favourite hairspray.
1. Shakespeare's England: Life in Elizabethan and Jacobean Times, R.E. Pritchard, ed., Sutton Publishing, U.K., 1999.
2. The Tudor Image, Maurice Howard, Tate Publishing Ltd., London, 1995.
3. Jan Steen: Painter and Storyteller, H. Perry Chapman, Wouter Th. Kloek, and Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., Yale University Press, 1996.
5. Shakespeare's England: Life in Elizabethan and Jacobean Times, R.E. Pritchard, ed., Sutton Publishing, U.K., 1999.
6. The Elizabethans, Peter Brimacombe, Pitkin Guides, London, 1999.
7. What Life Was Like in the Realm of Elizabeth, Time-Life Books, 1998.
Text and images copyright L. Mellin, 2000-2008, except where noted. All rights reserved.