This article is an accompaniment to a lecture and demonstration class I taught at the SCA West Kingdom’s Collegium Occidentalis XLV in November 2010 and at Costume College in July 2011. It’s intended as a practical lesson in how to recreate the look of upper-class hair fashions of late 16th-century England.
The first half of the class was a slideshow of period images, and in the second part, I styled my own hair and a wig, plus discussed tools. My notes and resources are collected in this article. I hope that those interested in Elizabethan hairstyles will use this as a starting point to both learn more about period hair and to recreate it, with either historical or theatrical methods.
The essential tool to creating the large hairstyles of this period is a pair of hair rats. These are soft pads you roll the front sections of your hair around and pin securely into your hair.
In Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, there is the notation that the queen received “two payer of Rolles Delyverid to Bridgett Carre to our Use.” Janet Arnold explains this as: “The rolls delivered to Bridget Carr were probably of tightly packed hair held together inside nets, making foundations to support the natural hair beneath a French hood, or a caul” (page 204).
You can make hair rats from your own hair — simply collect hair from your brush or comb for a few months (OK, it took me about a year because my hair is so fine!). Wash it up, let it dry, then stuff it tightly into a fine hair net, the kind used in the food-service industry or to protect a hairdo. Dark colored nets are often sold at drugstores; blondes may need to look at a beauty supply shop.
My hair rats have lasted for several years and through lots of use. If you like this era, it’s well worth making your own rats of this type.
Some people have had luck using fake hair stuffed into hair nets. I find that synthetic hair can be more slippery and may fall out of nets, but it’s worth trying.
A down ‘n dirty option is to stuff a stocking with soft tulle. You can’t stick hair pins into this rat, so it’s not as easy to work with. But it’s very fast and easy to make and the materials are super-cheap.
For larger hairstyles, consider buying a set of rats. Search online for “hair rats” and you’ll find soft, sponge tubes like these. They’re very durable and can handle a lot of hair! They also work well in wigs since these rats don’t add much weight.
Tools You’ll Need to Recreate an Elizabethan Hairstyle:
- Hair rats, as noted above
- Fine-toothed comb
- Hair gel or cream
- Extra-strong aerosol hairspray (like Aqua Net)
- A billion bobby pins, both large and small
- A mirror
- A coif, cap, French hood, or other hat for the back of your head
How to Style Your Hair for a Late Elizabethan Look:
1. Do not start with squeaky-clean hair. Clean hair is usually stripped of oils and has less texture — you need a bit of “tooth” to help the style stick together. I don’t wash or rinse my hair for 24 hours before I plan to create a historical style.
Note: You can get extra “oomph” to your hairstyle if you curl or wave your hair before putting in the rolls. If, like me, you still have a crimping iron from the 1980s, use that tool to give the front sections of your hair texture before rolling. Just crimp the hair forward of your ears, not the hair on the back of your head. Even more old-school is to make pin curls in damp hair and sleep on it overnight (check out this video to learn how). If your hair is stick-straight and/or very fine, crimping or curling can help add thickness to the final style. As with all things hair, experiment and see what works!
2. Add styling product to your hair. Use about a quarter (coin) size dollop of styling gel or cream throughout your hair. Work it from roots to tips. Twirl or pile your hair on top of your head and clip it loosely in place. Now go about you business for 5 to 10 minutes while the product sets and dries.
3. Part your hair in the center.
4. Part your hair horizontally, from ear to ear. Take the back portion (behind your ears) and clip it back or put it in a ponytail. Ignore this hair for a while. If your center part has gotten messed up, re-part it.
5. Back-comb one side of the front part of your hair at the roots. Spray the whole length of this side with a bit of hairspray.
6. Now you’ll roll your hair around a rat: Take one rat, place it at the tip of the combed and sprayed side of hair, and carefully roll the rat from tip to roots. This takes practice, and you may need to un-roll and re-roll a few times. Don’t stress about it! Go slowly and smooth the hair around till it looks semi-OK. It won’t be perfect until the next few steps.
7. Take a big bobby pin and wedge it behind the roll, catching your hair close to your scalp. This should be as tight as possible. It may hurt! But it will loosen up later on, so start tight. Once the big pin is in and the roll feels secure, grab small bobby pins and stick them all along the back, especially at the top and bottom of the roll, to secure the hair loops and the roll. Try to cross the bobby pins over each other in an “X” shape for extra security. If you’re using rats made from your own hair or spongey rats, you can stick bobby pins straight into the hair rolled over these rats.
8. Spray with a metric fuckton of hairspray. While the spray is wet, smooth the hair with your fingers to take care of any errant hairs poking out.
9. Repeat steps 5 to 8 on the other side of your head.
10. Adjust both rolls so they look even (they may not look perfectly even; humans aren’t totally symmetrical).
11. Take the hair in the back that you clipped or ponytailed out of the way, and now twist it into a bun. Secure with bobby pins and hairspray the everlasting crap out of your whole head of hair.
12. Put on a coif, cap, French hood, or other hat that will cover the back of your head. Optional: Add decorative jewels to the front of your hair. If you’re using rats made from your own hair or spongey rats, you can stick jeweled bobby pins straight into the hair rolled over these rats. Hairspray wherever those pins are.
*Ta-da!* You have awesomely big Elizabethan hair.
Using a Wig for Elizabethan Hairstyles:
If you have a short, modern haircut or you want a hairstyle you can easily take on and off, a wig is a great alternative. Style it once, wear it again and again! Wigs are also good for larger, more elaborate styles.
Wigs are historically accurate too. According to Janet Arnold in Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, page 28-29:
The Queen did not wear wigs to conceal baldness, as some writers have suggested. They were simply a fashionable accessory and covered graying locks. Elizabeth was certainly wearing a variety of wigs in the 1590s. Roger Mountague, her silkman, delivered ‘vij heads of haire to make attires, flowers, and other devices for Attiers, Two periwigs of haire’ in 1592 and in 1595 he supplied ‘iiij lardge fyre hddes of heaire iiij perewigges of haire.’
And also on page 110, Arnold notes that, “In the Queen’s case from the late 1570s a wig would have been ready dressed to put on over her hair.” Elizabeth liked convenience too.
I recommend starting with a cheap wig, something that costs about $20. Look for a shoulder-length curly wig in your hair color.
Tools for Wig Styling:
- Styrofoam wig head
- 1 or 2 T-pins or very large straight pins
- Fine-toothed comb
- Thick hair styling cream
- Extra-strong aerosol hairspray (like Aqua Net)
- A billion bobby pins, both large and small
- 2 wig clips (like these)
- Sewing needle
- Sewing thread that matches your hair color
How to Style a Wig for These Elizabethan Fashions:
1. Sew wig clips into the front of the wig. You want the “claw” to catch your own hair as you put on the wig, so orient the clips accordingly. Set the clips about a half-inch back from the wig’s hairline and about an inch or two on each side of the center part.
2. Put the wig on the Styrofoam head and stick a T-pin through the front of the wig to secure it to the head. You can work with the wigged head in your lap, but if you’re making elaborate decorations or you plan to do this a lot, you may want to buy a wig clamp so the head can sit on the edge of a table — do whatever works.
4. Work a dollop of styling cream into the wig hair, concentrating the cream from about mid-strand to the tips. Ignore the roots. Synthetic hair doesn’t get extra lift from product — what the cream does is hold the style and curls in place. Let the wig air-dry for a few minutes.
4. Part the wig’s hair down the middle. If the hair is very curly, you may want to do this with your fingers instead of a comb.
5. Scrunch the hair into a thick roll from the forehead to ear, starting at the center front. Secure with a ton of bobby pins along the back of the roll, crossing the pins.
6. Repeat on the other side of the face.
7. Gather up the back side of the wig into a bun and pin.
8. Hairspray the everlasting crap out of the wig.
Now you can decorate the wig with jewels and even a hat, which you can secure firmly to the hair, and you’ll never have to take them off, if you wish. Very handy!
How to Wear a Wig:
1. Pin your hair up. If you have a lot of hair, you will need to experiment to find the best way to separated and flatten your hair underneath a wig. Also, if you get headaches or have stress points on your head, you may need to anchor your hair in a specific patten. But if you have short hair, all your really need to do is keep the hair from poking out.
2. Make a very thin, ear-to-ear part as you’re pinning up your hair, so you get an extremely wispy fringe of hair over your eyes. Leave this out of the wig! You’ll use this later.
3. Open the wig clips inside the wig’s hairline.
4. Place wig on your head, pulling from front to back, tucking your hair under.
5. Situate the wig clips so they “grab” your hair at the hairline (but leave a little bit of that wispy fringe outside of the wig).
6. Look in a mirror and straighten the wig.
7. Take the wispy hair hanging over your eyes, and blend it into the front of the wig. Smooth it over and around the styled parts of the wig, using bobby pins as necessary to secure your hair into the wig. The point is to disguise the fake hairline of the wig and give the illusion of a natural hairline. Lightly hairspray anywhere your own hair meets the wig.
- Tudor & Elizabethan Portraits — Excellent resource for images of upper-class women, including many English and lots of Queen Elizabeth herself.
- Tudor Effigies Database — Searchable database with photos of funeral effigies from English monuments in the 16th century. Has a few images from the later part of the century that are especially useful because the figures are 3D.
- Two Elizabethan Hairstyles — A tutorial by Mistress Isobel Bedingfield, OL, OP, that clearly illustrates how to recreate the late 16th-century English styles. I am deeply indebted to Mistress Isobel for her online instruction and encouragement!
- A 1909 Edwardian Coiffure — Not the same era, but a similar technique and the shape is surprisingly close to that used in some of the Elizabethan hairstyles. This page also talks about making rats from your own hair.