Friday, July 16, 2010

Beyond the Chignon, Part 1: Civil War Hairstyles

"The next day, Scarlett was standing in front of the mirror with a comb in her hand and her mouth full of hairpins, attempting a new coiffure which Maybelle, fresh from a visit to her husband in Richmond, had said was the rage at the Capital.  It was called 'Cats, Rats and Mice' and presented many difficulties...However, she was determined to accomplish it, for Rhett was coming to supper and he always noticed and commented upon any innovation of dress or hair." 
--Gone with the Wind, Chapter XIII

It's a shame that my resourceful co-blogger Bugsie already christened our Marietta post "Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Marietta but Were Afraid to Ask." 

Because, if you swap out "Marietta" for "GWTW-era hairstyles," that nicely describes our two-part Beyond the Chignon feature, where I'll tackle period hairstyles in more depth than you ever wanted a concise overview. 

This week I'll be discussing Civil War hairstyles, and next week will be post-war hairstyles. To allow for some semblance of order (there's a good bit of information floating out there about Victorian hair- go figure), after the jump I've categorized several popular hairstyles from the Civil Era period... along with some critical beauty advice from the time about how to choose the hairstyle that's right for you.   

The Waterfall.  The Waterfall was an incredibly popular hairstyle between 1860-1870, and an aptly named one too, as it arranges the hair into a flowing, well, waterfall of hair that trails down the back of the head. Here's a nice description of the style from Historic Dress in America: 1800-1870 (published 1910): 

"A frame of horsehair was attached to the back of the head by an elastic, and the back hair brushed smoothly over it, the ends caught up underneath. A net was usually worn over this 'chignon' to keep the hair in place. Often the whole structure was made of false hair and fastened on with hairpins." 

One problem with the waterfall? This elegant style was not always easily held in place and was prone to flying away in strong gusts of wind. Just the price one had to pay for mid-Victorian era beauty, I suppose.  

Hairnets. Nowadays a sartorial choice mainly limited to cafeteria workers, hairnets were all the rage in early 1860s. Our own Scarlett wears one to the left in the bonnet scene. Hairnets fell into two main categories. Some were simple and made to blend in with the wearer's hair color (or even made  from the wearer's own hair). Other hairnets were expressly designed for decorative purposes and were constructed of chenille, braided silk, velvet ribbons and gold-thread mesh. After the evening styles description below, you can check out an example of a 'fancy' hairnet from an August 1864 fashion plate from Peterson's Magazine.  

Cats, Rats, and Mice. Scarlett wasn't the only one to be struck by this en-vogue hairstyle.  In her firsthand account of the Civil War, Eliza Frances Andrews, a real-life contemporary of our beloved heroine, describes seeing the style for the first time on (in no small irony for GWTW fans) a dashing young widow from Tennessee:
"She is quite handsome, and, having just come from beyond the lines, her beautiful dresses were a revelation to us dowdy Confederates, and made me feel like a plucked peacock. Her hair was arranged in three rolls over the top of the head, on each side of the part, in the style called 'cats, rats, and mice,' on account of the different size of the rolls, the top one being the largest. It was very stylish." 
 --excerpted from The War-Time Journal of a Georgia Girl, 1864-1865
When I first read this description, I was struck by how similar to Andrews' account (not to mention historically accurate) Margaret Mitchell's description of "Cats, Rats, and Mice" is:
"The hair was parted in the middle and arranged in three rolls of graduating size on each side of the head, the largest, nearest the part, being the 'cat.'"
--Gone with the Wind, Chapter XIII
While I am not certain if MM read The War-Time Journal of a Georgia Girl, the account was a well-known one, first published in 1908, and Eliza Frances Andrews was a prominent Southern writer in her day.  What we do know, though, is that MM herself said she read everything she could find on the Civil War era, so where and whence ever she learned of the "Cats, Rats, and Mice" hairstyle, it's not surprising that it marries up nicely with a period description of it.

But enough about that piddling MM and her obscure little GWTW book. I know you're dying to know more about Civil War hairstyles, so now we're moving on to...

Evening Styles. While everyday hairstyles primarily remained staid with hair drawn back in the ever-present chignon or similar arrangements, evening hairstyles for balls and dances got much more elaborate. Ladies' hair was frequently fashioned into ornate hairstyles incorporating ringlets, wide curls and braids.  And that's before we even mention velvet bows, jeweled hair combs, pearl robes, lace, artificial flowers and silk ribbons. An excellent look at evening hairstyles of the period can be found here, complete with several lovely images from Godey's Lady's Book, the Vogue of its era. Below is the promised fashion plate from Peterson's Magazine (maybe more the Elle of its era?) that along with the aforementioned hairnet, shows two intricate hairstyles. It's scanned from Civil War Ladies: Fashions and Needle-Arts of the Early 1860's.

Hairstyle Tips
We end our discussion of Civil War hairstyles with some fashion advice bestowed on young ladies during the era:
"In the arrangement of the hair, regard ought to be paid to the style of the features as well as to the general appearance of the wearer. When the features are large or strongly marked, the hair should be arranged in masses, in large curls or well defined bows, so as to harmonize with the general cast of the countenance.

"If, on the contrary, the features are small and delicate, the greatest care should be taken not to render too striking the contrast between them and the magnitude of the head-dress. Small and delicately formed curls or ringlets, braids, or light and airy bows are the most pleasing varieties for this style.

"The features of the greater number of young ladies, however, cannot be classed under either of these extremes. When such is the case, the fancy of the individual is of course allowed greater latitude, but ought to be no less subject to the dictates of taste."
--Historic Dress in America: 1800-1870  
TL, DR? The advice boils down to:

Strong features = style hair in masses, big curls or large bows
Fine features = style hair in small curls, ringlets and "light and airy" bows
Something in between strong and fine features = style according to your pleasure, but do be tasteful about it

And thus ends installment one of Beyond the Chignon. For more adventures in GWTW era hairstyling, check out our post about Reconstruction era hairstyles.


  1. Fun! Did you happen to find any pictures of the cats, rats, & mice hairstyle? Ever since I first read the book, I've wanted to see what it would have looked like because I have a hard time picturing it in my mind.

    Besides the dresses, one of my favorite things about the movie is seeing Vivien Leigh's hairstyles. I especially love the dress and hairstyle from the scene you pictured above, when she's seeing Ashley off after his Christmas furlough.

    Keep up the excellent research and fun topics, ladies! I do believe you're right that we'll never run out of things to talk about. Guess we're lucky MM wrote a 1000+ page book, LOL.

  2. Bluesneak- Oh how I wish I could have found a picture of the "Cats, Rats, and Mice" hairstyle. I've always been intrigued about it must have looked like too. But I couldn't discover a pic that was readily available--that is, without me buying obscure books on Civil War hairstyles and crossing my fingers that it would in fact show a picture of the elusive style. :)

  3. Hair sounds like it was a pain in the ass back in the day. Gorgeous, though! Thanks for the interesting info...very curious as well about what the Cats, Rats and Mice hairstyle looks like. I have a hard time imagining it as well.

  4. Me, too. Whenever I picture the "Cats, Rats and Mice" hairstyle, I get an image of a Gibson Girl hairstyle in my head and I know that has to be way off, but perhaps a early 1900's variation on the CRM style.

    As to Vivien Leigh's hairstyles, I love them all. One thing I don't like in MM's description of Scarlett is her "stick straight hair." I love Vivien's thick, wavy hair and I think it is never more gorgeous than in the portrait that hangs in Rhett's room and in the No More Babies sequence. In the latter, I enjoy seeing how the jeweled hair combs that are used in her hair.

  5. Through my own research for histoical galas, the hairnets, are formally called snoods.


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