What hairstyles did women wear in Tsarist Russia? (PICS)

Russia Beyond (Photo: Public domain; Pyotr Beletsky/Mikhail Zaykov Archive)
Noble women stopped wearing braids in the early 18th century – and began to imitate the hairstyles of French and English fashionistas. What did they look like?

Since ancient times, the hair of a Russian woman has been considered a sacred part of the body. For a married lady to accidentally show her hair or lose her headdress was a terrible disgrace. Only young girls had the opportunity to show off their long braids.

The braid era

Since ancient times in Russia, it was believed: the longer and thicker the maiden's braid, the more valuable this girl would be as a bride. The braid was braided in three strands and it had to lie strictly vertically along the line of the spine. Unmarried girls, meanwhile, were allowed to wear headdresses with an open top. Long, thick hair, arranged in a thick braid, was considered not only a sign of health, but also a symbol of female wisdom.

When a girl began to prepare for marriage, a brightly colored ribbon was woven into the braid. If there were two ribbons and they were woven into the braid from its middle, it meant that the girl was already engaged and preparations for the wedding were underway.

Before the wedding, there was a folk ceremony of "mourning the braid", which was part of the bachelorette party.Friends unbraided the bride's braid while singing ritual songs, wove it into two braids, arranged it on the head and put on a ‘volosnik’ (‘the one over the hair’ in Russian) – a headdress, which laid directly on the hair. This small cap was made of thin threads connected to a cloth band, which was tied at the back of the head. Different protective patterns were embroidered onto this band – usually plant ornaments, symbolizing the tree of life.

A ‘volosnik’ meant a lot to a woman: from the moment when the hair was tucked under it, she began to be considered married – even if, after that, the wedding fell apart. However, a woman could not walk around in a ‘volosnik’ – it had to be covered with a shawl or a special cloth called ‘ubrus’ (for noble and rich women) and the actual headdress was worn over it.

A volosnik that belonged to Tsarina Agafya Grushetskaya, first wife of Fedor Alekseevich

On the contrary, old maidens were not allowed to unbraid their braids and put on a ‘volosnik’. They covered their heads with shawls and were forbidden to wear the headdress of a married women – called ‘povoynik’. If a girl cut her braid, it meant her groom had died and was a sign of mourning and unwillingness to marry again.

After the wedding, a woman’s hair became forever hidden from prying eyes – even the husband's! He could only see his wife's hair in bed. The hair was now arranged in two braids – they symbolized the unity of husband and wife and not a single hair could show from under the ‘volosnik’, shawl and headdress. Even women’s temples were sometimes shaved to hide the hair completely.

Looking up to Paris

Duchesse de Fontanges

With the beginning of the 18th century, Russian society began to divide – among peasants and merchants, old habits remained relevant and, with them, traditional hairstyles for men and women. Noble society in the capitals and large cities, meanwhile, began to live according to European fashion – there forever forgot about braids, ‘volosniks’ and ‘povoyniks’.

The rules of Russian women's hairstyles, starting from Peter the Great’s times, were dictated by French fashionistas, for example, the favorite of King Louis XIV Marie Angélique de Scorailles, Duchess de Fontange. Legend has it that, after losing her cap while hunting with the King, the duchess tied her hair up using a strip of lace in a manner that pleased Loius XIV and this was imitated by the other ladies at court, subsequently spreading across Europe. The hairstyle was named ‘fontange’ after the duchess. Over time, the ‘fontanges’ became higher and fancier – both the hair itself and lace were fixed for stability with powder and starch. In Russia, ‘fontanges’ appeared in 1690s - they were worn by wives and daughters of foreigners. Lace for ‘fountange’ hairstyles was among the personal belongings of Natalia Alekseevna, Peter's sister, while such lace was also ordered from Paris by Empress Catherine I.

Already in the 1710s, the fashion for ‘fontanges’ in Europe suddenly ended. In 1713, English aristocrat Adelhida Talbot, Duchess of Shrewsbury, appeared before an elderly Louis XIV with the simplest hairstyle - smoothly styled hair on the top of her head with curls falling down the sides. From that moment on, simple hairstyles, sometimes with a bouquet or ribbon woven into the hair, became common for European aristocrats. In Russia, some elderly society ladies continued to wear ‘fontanges’ until the 1720s.

Back to complicated hairstyles

Russian Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, 1742, unknown artist. Elizabeth Petrovna is also wearing a simple hairstyle decorated with pearls and a feather.

The second half of the 18th century was dominated by high and elaborate hairstyles and wigs, introduced by Louis XV's favorite Jeanne Bécu, Comtesse du Barry, and Louis XVI's wife Marie Antoinette. In Russia, fortunately for Russian noble ladies, Catherine the Great ruled Russia in the 1760s, a woman about 160 centimeters tall, on whom tall hairstyles would have looked comical. So, under Catherine, noblewomen did not wear high wigs, big hairstyles or hairpieces. And, after the Great French Revolution, they also disappeared in Europe.

 Portrait of a young Woman (1807-10) by Gioacchino Giuseppe Serangeli. Hairstyle 'a la victime'

The echo of the revolution was heard in the popularity of the ‘a la victime’ hairstyle (imitation of those sentenced to execution by guillotine) – the hair at the back of the head was cut short, while curls were slicked forward. This hairstyle was worn by both women and men, as well as the ‘Titus’ hairstyle, named after the hero of Voltaire's play ‘Brutus’.

Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna, wife of Nicholas I, wearing an

Fashion became more complicated again in the 1830s, when hair was curled at the temples and gathered in bunches at the top of the head or at the back of the head. In the ‘Apollo knot’ hairstyle, hair was arranged in a high "basket", which was reinforced with a wire frame.

READ MORE: What haircuts did men wear in Tsarist Russia?

The State Portrait of Queen Victoria by George Hayter (detail)

In 1837, Queen Victoria, who had sleek black hair, was crowned. For the coronation, she chose the ‘à la Clotilde’ hairstyle – two circled braids wrapped around her ears and hair smoothly slicked back. This hairstyle became popular with Russian noblewomen in the 1830s - 1840s.

In the middle of the 19th century, lush curls on the temples, around the ears and buns on the back of the head were still in fashion, but only noble ladies who had time and money for hairdressers could afford such complicated hairstyles.

Maria Anna of Bavaria, Queen of Saxony, by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1842. Maria Anna is wearing a ferronnière

European women and, with them, Russian nobility, again were "helped" by Queen Victoria, who wore simple, smooth hairstyles. The Victorian era cultivated the ideal of a modest and wise woman, a guardian of the home, for whom a highly complex hairstyle would seem strange. It was allowed to adorn her hair with a string of pearls or a head ornament - a ‘ferronnière’.

A woman in a dress, 1870s. The hairstyle is again big, as in mid-1700s

Lush frizzes and hairstyles with false curls returned to fashion in the 1870s. Hair was combed high up in the front and above the temples to give volume, loops or braids were arranged on top of the head, while the long hair curls fell at the back. But, in general, by the beginning of the 20th century, women's hairstyles were already very diverse and inspired by the fashions of different eras.

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