Monday, 7 December 2015

The hairy affair of Victorian hair

Hair wherever on the body it might be have for a long time been a topic of interest for both women and men. There is evidence of removal or trimming of pubic hair on both genders as early as back as the ancient Egyptians and Roman Empire this for hygienic reasons among others, a tradition that still has a hold in Western culture to this day. Writers in the Victorian period were also fascinated by hair and used it as a tool to describe personality traits and give the reader a clue about the character from early on something that is true for Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

We know little to nothing about the pubic hairs of the characters in Jane Eyre so let’s look at pubic hair in general for women in the Victorian period. There are many reasons for why women remove their pubic hair especially in the Victorian period even though they wore clothes that covered every aspect of body hair except their heads. Statues and nude paintings from the Victorian period show women with no pubic hair although they are adult women, supporting the argument that hair removal most likely took place. According to Fleming there were three main methods when tending to one’s pubic hair. One was the safety-razors that first appeared in the late 1840s so it is possible the women in Jane Eyre would use this to remove unwanted hair, although there was a tremendous risk of dying of infection if one were to accidentally cut oneself. They also used candles to burn away hair as this was something most people had access to. Another option was to put a piece of leather with gum on the hairs then rip it off hopefully taking the roots out resulting in making the hair grow back at a slower pace. Some also tried different types of chemicals such as chloride of lemon (usually used for bleaching cotton) to get rid of the hair as Fleming mentions. Another option to removing pubic hair was trimming it, something mothers, sisters and friends would help each other with according to Fleming as well as to look for body and pubic lice to best keep them under control, not to mention bodily odours. Hygiene, fashion and parasite control might be the main reasons why Victorian women chose to remove as much as possible of both pubic and other body hair even though Victorian husbands rarely saw their wife naked as they had nightgowns and such for every situation. The men in the Victorian age could remove their hair if wanted but it was not the social norm like it was for women, so although Jane most likely removed her body hair Rochester didn’t necessarily do so.

Hair in the Victorian period and in Jane Eyre help establish class much like it still does as it is unthinkable that the Queen would for example get a Mohawk. Some lower class poor people in the Victorian period sold their hair to make money and also for hygienic reasons, and as they would cover their head with something most times they didn’t really need it. High or middle class Victorian women became desperate to achieve perfect hair and it became custom to buy extra hair to make ones hair look better, something that resulted in a high demand for hair to use which lead to even graves being dug up and corpses getting a last haircut. Ofek says that puritans tried to fight the new trend in hair fashion by making a ‘link between hair and dirt which was merely a puritan attempt to fight against feminine vanity, since not only artificial hair was associated with dirt. Rather, even woman’s natural hair was perceived as some kind of ‘dirty’ matter which had to be constantly cleaned and trimmed.’ (Ofek 10). To keep up with the latest trends and to follow the norm of having hair ‘suited to every time and occasion, and dressed up at least twice a day (…)’ (Ofek 35) Victorian women needed a father, husband or admirer willing to spend money on them, so by making women hair complex men in the Victorian period had successfully made hair a sign of both class and gender making it easier for them to sort out who was a suitable lady to marry and who was better to spend a night with.  

In Jane Eyre Miss Georgiana is described by Abbot as ‘Little darling! – with her long curls and her blue eyes, and such a sweet colour as she has; just as if she were painted! (...)’ (Brontë 32). In the Victorian period blond or golden hair, like Miss Georgiana has, was thought to be angelic. Curls were also special in that the curling iron was not patented before 1866 and Jane Eyre is published in 1847 a time when achieving naturally looking curled hair was very difficult and therefore natural curly hair was sought after. Many women tried to achieve golden hair such as the Miss Georgiana has by bleaching it unfortunately the chemicals used often burned the head of the user or poisoned them as they contained among others both lead and magnesium harmful for the human body as Fleming states. The fact that women in the Victorian period was hurting their bodies to achieve impossible beauty standards might be a reason why women was also thought of as weak considering they were constantly poisoned form an early age. Even though Miss Georgiana features and hair makes her angelic in the Victorian period it is evident through here actions she is far from an angel and through this conflict between looks and personality Brontë successfully questions the beauty ideals in the Victorian period by making the plain looking Jane the heroin with admirable traits.

When Brontë describes Bertha on the other hand she use hair as a means to dehumanize her making it more difficult for the reader to sympathize with her compared to Jane as for example when Jane first see Bertha after learning about her existence ‘What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.’ (Brontë 338). For women in the Victorian age it was expected that they started wearing their hair up when they came of age which was around the age of 15, to wear ones hair down after that age was considered sinful and promiscuous behaviour. Brontë use word like ‘mane’ instead of hair to establish Berthas animalistic features and according to Ofek ‘dark hair signifies fallen or dangerous female sexuality’ (Harrison 103) so by Brontës description Bertha is dangerous and fallen through her relationship with Rochester especially since women’s hair in the Victorian period was all about men’s desire to control women sexuality. Ofek also argues that due to the clothing fashions of the time covering most of the women for modesty’s sake turned ‘(…) hair, neck and shoulders into the ‘foucus of sexual interest’ (…)’ (Ofek 3) making hair of great importance for displaying class and ownership through. Men in the Victorian age sought to cover up the hair of a woman and dictate how it looked as much as possible to come to terms with his own desires and sexuality. Women was made to wear bonnets for church and shawl and bonnets even inside the house during visits preventing sexual desires due in the male guest towards their wife or daughters fabulous hair, leading women to cover their hair up for most of the nineteenth century. It was usual for women in the Victorian period to not cut their hair but rather trim it a bit each month or so to ensure good and strong hair. As women hair grew longer and longer men’s hair was going shorter and shorter, sociologist Rose Weitz explains it like this ‘the most widespread cultural rule about hair is that women’s hair must differ from men’s hair’ explaining why men’s hair grew shorter and to prove their manliness they let their beards grow longer like for example Charles Darwin or Charles Dickens. Hair for the Victorian women did not change until the women started being more active as they did during the First World War and through the industrial revolution.

How much class and sexuality mattered when it came to hair in the Victorian period really shows in Jane Eyre when Mr. Brocklehurst sees poor Julia Severn who has naturally curly red hair making her desirable and pretty only to have the misfortune of not being of high enough class to make it acceptable for Mr. Brocklehurst to admire her beautiful curls so he commands for her to have them cut off. As he says ‘Why (…) does she conform to the world so openly – here in an evangelical, charitable establishment – as to wear her hair one mass of curls?’ (Brontë 76) as to hide behind the argument that this is not suited for God, the very God that through his belief created the girl and her curls. It is clear that he does not care about that this is an evangelical establishment when just a short while after his outburst he welcomes and directs to the ‘seats of honour at the top of the room’ (Brontë 77) three ladies with ‘elaborately curled’ hair with ‘a false front of French curls’. Brontë uses hair in her writing to criticise and question female beauty standers but also as a tool to give the reader ideas of class and personality of the characters in question. Did Brontë change the way we look at hair today or is wild or short hair on women still taboo?


Arbuckle, Alex Q. Mashable. 25 August 2015. Web page. 16 November 2015. <>.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Penguin, 2006. Novel.
Fleming, R. S. Kate Tattersall. 10 February 2013. Web page. 14 November 2015. <>.
Harrison, Kimberly. Victorian Sensation Essay on a Scandalous Genre. Ohio: The Ohio State University Press, 2006. Novel.

Ofek, Galia. Representations of hair in Victorian Literature and Culture. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2009. Novel.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Christine,

    This is a great blog post! I have never thought about the significance of hair in Victorian literature before, but now I have read your post I will be looking out for it in the future!

    I am particularly interested by the idea of Victorian hair extensions and the different hairstyles the classes wore.

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post.


    P.S. The image of the Queen with a mohawk is brilliant!! :D