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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

Horrible History Costume: Hair

Updated: Feb 28

Introduction What follows was inspired by an @HistoryFilmClub tweet shown right. Like many who responded, naming just one historical inaccuracy in a film or TV show proved far too difficult. Sadly, and contrary to the claims of directors, producers, costume designers et al., far too many historically themed media productions are beset with inaccuracies. Not wishing to be unreasonably critical, we thought there was an opportunity to highlight some of the more common errors and then counter them with whatever historical evidence exists. In this way we hope to learn something, but there are some caveats to be born in mind:

  • We know films and TV dramas are fictional, whether they claim to be ‘based on true events’ or not. Yet that does not always excuse the liberties taken with characters, timelines, locations, costume, technology, props, action sequences (especially fight scenes), and a whole lot more.

  • That said, ‘errors’ are clearly excusable if a production is rooted in the fantasy genre, is not claiming 100% historical accuracy, or is not a factual documentary.

  • However, where inaccuracies appear, especially in historical documentaries, we think it only fair to point them out because they mislead the audience.

  • And finally. we are well aware from our experience advising filmmakers and from being on set that liberties are sometimes taken due to production constraints.

Hair So, with that in mind, what can we ‘learn from mistakes’ connected with hair in historically based creations. It should be noted from the outset that modern productions place far more emphasis on getting the look and feel of period piece correct. Efforts are made to ensure hairstyles, for example, reflect the historical period, the social status of the individual, or perhaps a particular religious doctrine. Just occasionally, however, styling decisions are taken that deviate from historical accuracy. The most common ones are actresses sporting loose, long flowing locks or the complete opposite, close-cropped hair, in periods where to do so would have broken the cultural conventions of the time or would have been wholly inappropriate given a character’s status or social position.

Haircuts Hair grows more or less at the same rate regardless of sex but, in much of western Europe, men have tended to wear their hair shorter and less styled than women. Surprisingly, it is not clear why that has been the case, although it could simply be down to what was considered acceptable at one point in time becoming a long-standing social convention. As far back as the Roman era, it was popular for women to wear their hair long with a distinct parting, but any man openly taking care of his lustrous locks was frowned upon. Roman soldiers noticeably followed this norm by keeping everything short and manageable. In fact, on campaign where washing facilities are limited, hygiene potentially compromised, and an increased risk of body lice, then short hair makes eminent sense. With a few exceptions over the centuries, men have largely adhered to this notion even if the fashion was for elaborate wigs as in the 18th-century. For most of this country’s history, middle- and upper-class women, in Britain (and across its empire), let their hair grow long into adulthood. In contrast, it was not uncommon for poverty-stricken women to cut off their tresses and sell their hair to wig makers as a much needed source of income. The fashion for letting hair grow long and for elaborate coiffures began to change in the post-Edwardian first quarter of the 20th-century. When women were first deployed as drivers and nurses nearer to the front-line trenches in the Great War of 1914-18, they too began to cut their shorter for the same, long-held reasons of hygiene and cleanliness.

Hairstyles also changed through necessity. During the Great War we begin to see a fashion for shorter hair becoming popular as more and more women went to work in factories. This trend continued in the ‘Roaring 20s’ and the age of the flapper, reflecting how social norms had altered quite radically. By the 1940s hairstyles such as the Victory Roll popularised by the actress Veronica Lake (pictured) were no longer all about glamour. It involved wearing hair up - very important during World War Two when so many women were once again operating factory machinery in support of the war effort.

Covering the head The wearing of hats or head coverings such as scarves by wartime female labourers, such as the ‘Muntionettes’ of World War One as shown, made eminent practical sense. It kept hair cleaner in dirtier environments and for safety’s sake ensured hair would not be snagged in machinery. For some head coverings continue to play a significant role in several different religions. While some commentators draw attention to Islam, often with negative connotations, Muslim women who wear the Hijab are far from alone as both Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism also have a long tradition of covering the head.

In fact, women covering their heads and their hair has much longer antecedents than either Catholicism or Islam. In many ancient societies, for example the Greeks and Romans, a woman out in public without her head covered, or with loose, long flowing hair, was a sign of impropriety - loose hair, loose woman. An example quoted by Sebesta & Bonfante (2001) serves to illustrate the point. Sulpicius Gallus, a Roman consul in 166 BC, ‘divorced his wife because she had left the house unveiled, thus allowing all to see, as he said, what only he should see’ (Sebesta & Bonfante, 2001, 49). This should hardly seem an alien notion because as previously mentioned it is still considered appropriate in certain social groups today, especially as part of religious doctrine.

More than that, taking the Romans as our touchstone, much like today a woman’s hair was an expression of personal identity. Hairstyles were determined by a number of factors, namely gender, age, social status, wealth and profession, but how one dressed one's hair was an indication of a woman’s status and role in ancient Roman society. What is more, the Romans were not alone in thinking hair was a very erotic area of the female body and thus a marker of a woman’s attractiveness. Consequently, it was deemed appropriate for a Roman woman to spend time on her hair to create a flattering appearance. Hairdressing and its necessary accompaniment, mirror gazing, were seen as distinctly feminine activities, although it should be remembered that hairstyling was clearly the leisure pursuit of the cultured, elegant woman. Simply having the time to style her hair in fashionably complex and unnatural hairstyles indicated wealth and social status. Not for the Romans were modern-day hairstyles reflecting comfort and naturalism. Indeed, a 'natural' style was associated with uncultured barbarians, who the Romans believed had neither the money nor the sophistication to create 'elegant' hairstyles. The association with barbarians was also a reason why Roman men kept their hair cut short.

Ooh, Matron Despite the desire for elaborate hairstyles emphasising her attractiveness, women in ancient Rome, such as Sulpicius Gallus’ wife, were still restricted by their society’s values. As mentioned, it was deemed scandalous for ancient Greek or Roman women to be seen in public without their heads, and hair, covered. So, in the screenshots shown below we are presented with three actresses portraying Roman ‘matrons’, more of which later.

The top left image of Polly Walker [1] from the HBO series ‘Rome’ (2005 - 2007) is a good representation of how one would expect a high-born, cultured Roman woman to dress in public. Moving clockwise, the second image is from the Sky Atlantic series ‘Domina’ and has actress Kasia Smutniak wearing a veil presumably pinned to her hairdo [2]. There are a few noticeable problems with this look, however. Firstly, this style of veil has more in common with representations of women in ancient Greek art but not in Roman. Secondly, as described above Roman women of noble birth would have paid a great deal more attention to dressing their hair than the loose style depicted. Admittedly ‘Domina’ is set in the Roman Republican era, so the myriad of elaborate coiffured hairstyles of the later Imperial period that are typically returned on internet searches would not be appropriate either. Thirdly, the production’s stylists might argue, from any research they may have done, that this type of headdress reflects the flammeum, the veil worn by Roman brides on their wedding day. But that does not really stand up to historical scrutiny. For starters Roman ritual dictated that the flammeum was always a yellow-red (or 'luteum') colour which was thought to protect the bride as she passed from the protection of her family’s lares [3] to her husband’s (Sebesta & Bonfante, 2001, 48). More significantly, the flammeum totally covered the bride’s hair and face, and indeed much of her body; the veil depicted in 'Domina' clearly does not. Curiously wearing a veil in this manner is not represented in contemporary Roman art or sculpture yet they frequently appear in the arsenal of many studio wardrobe departments. Much like the ‘Hollywood’ toga, more about which can be read here, it seems most likely that this type of veil is an active choice by costume designers to simplify an actress’ outfit. The benefits are that simple cloth veils are easier to wear and avoid the more complex, time-consuming drapery of the Roman woman's palla, which is essentially the female version of the male toga. The final image from director Ridley Scott’s film ‘Gladiator’ (2000) shows Connie Neilson playing Lucilla [4], the sister of Emperor Commodus, in the arena of the Flavian Amphitheatre (‘Colosseum’). Bearing in mind all that has been discussed so far, and ignoring the historically incorrect off-the-shoulder dress, why would a woman of the royal family appear in public without her hair and head covered? It is wholly inappropriate - but it’s just the movies, right?

So, what is appropriate? What all these actresses have in common is that they are all depicting Roman ‘matrons’ (Latin: sing. matrona; ‘mother’), a title that exemplified certain ideals and status in ancient Roman society. From contemporary sources a matron was freeborn and either married or a widow, but beyond that the concept of a ‘matron’ is rather hard to define. Every Roman implicitly understood what being one signified. Yet, we are aware that matrons dressed in a certain distinctive style according to the ideals of the time. The clothing worn ‘signified her modesty and chastity, her pudicitia (Sebesta & Bonfante, 2001, 48). During the late Republic and throughout the life of the Empire the archetypal Roman matron wore an ankle length tunic covered by a long woollen dress known as a stola. Significantly for the current discussion, her hair would be bound with woollen bands (Latin: vittae, sing. vitta) to protect her from impurity and as an indication of her modesty. When she went out, she would add a palla (as pictured) a mantle draped over the shoulders and often over the head as well very much in the ‘Middle Eastern custom of veiling women’ (Sebesta & Bonfante, 2001, 48). In ancient Roman society this was ‘a symbol of their honour and of the sanctity and privacy of family life’ (Sebesta & Bonfante, 2001, 48). Young girls, prostitutes, and women deemed to have forfeited the title of matron, usually through being caught in adultery, were not permitted to wear either the stola or palla. Young girls instead wore tunics (Latin: tunicae, sing. tunica), while prostitutes and women convicted of adultery were required to wear togae (Latin: sing. toga) (Kittell-Queller, 2014); further information on this iconic Roman garment is available here.

And finally… This has either been a rant on some pet peeves with media representations of historical themes or, hopefully, some food for thought. Regardless, thank you for reading this far. Until next time, Bon appétit!



1. Polly Walker portrayed a fictionalised version of Atia the daughter of Julia Minor, sister of Gaius Julius Caesar. Her father was the praetor Marcus Atius Balbus. She had at least one younger sister, and possibly an older one. Due to this, she is sometimes called Atia Secunda or Atia Balba Secunda. She was an influential high-born Roman woman. Not only was she the niece of Caesar, she was also the mother of Gaius Octavius, Caesar’s adopted son and heir, who became the Emperor Augustus. Furthermore, through her daughter Octavia, she was also the great-grandmother of Germanicus and his brother, Emperor Claudius.

2. The series ‘Domina’ (Latin: ‘lady’ or ‘mistress of the house’) charts the rise to power of Livia Drusilla (30th January 59 BC - AD 29), the daughter of Roman senator Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus and his wife Alfidia. In 38 BC, having divorced her first husband, she married Gaius Octavius (also known as Octavian). When the Senate granted Octavian the title Augustus in 27 BC, effectively making him emperor. Livia became the Roman empress. In this role, she served as an influential confidant of her husband, although also rumoured to have been responsible for the deaths of a number of Augustus' relatives.

3. Lares were guardian deities in ancient Roman religion. Their origin is uncertain; they may have been hero-ancestors, guardians of the hearth, fields, boundaries, or fruitfulness, or an amalgamation of these. Lares were believed to observe, protect, and influence all that happened within the boundaries of their location or function. The statues of domestic Lares were placed at the table during family meals; their presence, cult, and blessing seem to have been required at all important family events.

4. Annia Aurelia Galeria Lucilla or Lucilla (March 7th, AD 148 or 150 – AD 182) was the second daughter of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Roman Empress Faustina the Younger. She was the wife of her father's co-ruler and adoptive brother Lucius Verus and an elder sister to later Emperor Commodus. Commodus ordered Lucilla's execution after a failed assassination and coup attempt when she was about 33 years old.

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