Thursday, April 7, 2011

Hair Peace: Learning to Love False Hair

When people ask me at reenactments, "Is that all your hair?" I usually answer, "Yes, I bought and paid for it fair and square." Because the truth is, especially when I do 1860s events, very rarely is all the hair on my head actually growing from my head. This may seem a little like cheating, but fortunately, it's period cheating! Even if it weren't, though, I would still say that you can pry my hairpieces out of my cold, dead fingers. Realistically, it's the only way I'll be able to approximate a good, full 1860s hairstyle, regardless of how women in that decade acheived their coiffures. Certainly, some of them had luxuriously long hair to style, but some of them didn't. And they, like I, used hairpieces.

Hairpieces in ladies' magazines, c. 1862-3

For the greater part of my youth, I wore my hair long. At its longest, it was down below the small of my back...and it was a big giant pain. Literally--I couldn't wear it up because it would give me pounding headaches from the weight. I cut it during my first year of college and it hasn't been quite that long since. When it comes to hair in the Victorian era, though, my long locks would have been considered quite short by some. Laura Ingalls Wilder quotes her mother as saying "I had lovely long hair when your Pa and I were married...I could sit on the braids." Charles Ingalls married Caroline Quiner on February 1, 1860, which places the date just before the start of the Civil War. As long as my hair was in high school, I came nowhere near being able to sit on my braids. I could wrap them around my head, but sitting was out of the question.

For me, shorter (and thinned!) hair is a health and sanity-related life choice. I like having long hair, but I my lifestyle (and attention span) doesn't lend itself to the care and work that truly long hair requires in order to keep it happy and healthy. It's also a personal statement. As a self-empowered woman, I reserve the right to choose my haircut, and I consider it to be my prerogative regardless of anyone else's opinion. So for everyday wear, I have longish hair with layers. As such, I'm a huge advocate of hairpieces when it comes to Civil War reenacting! When I first started doing Civil War events, my hair was this long. Check out that wee little stub of a ponytail! I had shorn it all off that winter, and it was getting just barely long enough to put the back into a ponytail. Not exactly 1860s chic. But, I figured, if I could style the front and disguise the back, I should be all set! That's exactly what I did, and you can get an idea of the end result below.

Impromptu sewing circle
Greenfield Village, 2009
Photo by Gwendolyn Basala

My 'fancy' hairpiece was purchased at Abraham's Lady in Gettysburg, but it's not hard to make your own from inexpensive lengths of fake hair. Pictured above is the first one I made, back in 2008. It's a simple round braided chignon, mounted on buckram that I shaped over a cereal bowl and anchored with a medium-sized plastic comb (and a dozen or so bobby pins).

The fancy hairpiece in use...note the color match.

I'm fortunate in that my natural hair color is a dead match for fake hair color number 4 (aka brown-just-shy-of-black). I buy bags of fake hair at Sally Beauty Supply for about $2.99/bag. If your hair is a less perfect match, or you want a better color variety, I recommend finding an ethnic hair shop near you. There are a couple in Grand Rapids that I've been to, and both of them had walls just plastered with bags of fake hair in all types, textures, and colors. If your budget is a little bigger, you can go with human hair. The advantage there is that it can be dyed more easily if you're unable to buy a good match off the rack. Me, I stick to my cheap plastic hair, since it's near enough in color and texture to my own.

If you're a glutton for punishment, here are instructions for wefting your own hair (or, I suppose, someone else's) to make your own hairpieces. Rest assured that this is not something I ever hope to do. I do, however, know someone crazy enough to do something similar. My dear Julie, my first-ever roommate, saved the clippings one summer when she got her hair cut. She then proceeded to section it into small bits and seal one end of each section with glue. I then curled and sprayed each section into a little ringlet for her, since in our relationship, I am the wielder of the curling iron, and she fashioned the resulting curls into a hairpiece by sewing them to buckram that she painted to match her hair color.

Can you guess which hairpiece is Julie's? Hint: it's curly.
Photo courtesy of Jenny Esch

If you guessed the one that looks like this, you would be correct!
That's all her's just not attached to a follicle anymore.

I started this post with the idea that I might do a hairpiece tutorial, or something like. I still will, if there's interest. Hopefully, though, this has piqued your interest in the use of hairpieces in general. If you haven't tried, or haven't thought of trying hairpieces to supplement your historical hairdos, I'd have to say you're missing out. Sure, you can spend a lot of money on fancy pieces, but you can easily put together a lovely, versatile hairpiece yourself, for a fraction of the cost. All told, it's a great way to get a truly impressive look with minimal muss and fuss!


  1. In "On the Way Home" Laura Ingalls Wilder's daughter Rose remember how her mothers hair reacher her ankles. It was so heavy that she usually just wore it in a single braid, but for going to town she put it up and had to endure the headache. :)

    I think a tutorial would be very interesting!

  2. Good job with the whole post. I am glad that I came across it.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this amazing post. I am pretty sure that a lot of people will benefit from it.

  4. Great info! Your hair looks great. I can only hope that mine will look as good after I get my fake bun from Paula Young company. I didn't see any fake hair pieces offered at Abraham's Lady any more.

    I can only see the first picture and I'd really like to see the others. Will you check to see if they're still uploaded? Thank you very much!

  5. I actually meant, I can see the period picture and the picture of your hair when you're sitting on the ground. Thx.

  6. Available in human hair or synthetic hair fibers, which is generally less expensive. A Top Hair Piece or wigs can be the ideal cost effective option for women or young ladies with thinning hair or hair loss to have a full volume natural looking head of hair.