Ask #MyrtleMondays: Is Myrtle’s Hair Historically Accurate?

Dear Reader: I thought it would be fun to use this space to answer some reader questions. If you have anything you want to know about Myrtle’s world or the Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries, just send me a note! Maybe your question will become a #MyrtleMondays post! (Send me a note anyway; I’d love to hear from you!) This week, we’re going to look at the historical roots of one big feature of the amazing book covers!

Surprisingly, one of the most common questions I’ve gotten is, “Is Myrtle’s hairstyle historically accurate?” That is, would a girl of 1890s England have worn her hair cropped short like that? And the answer is a bit more complicated than you might expect.

I first saw this late 19th century photograph soon after finishing the first draft of Premeditated Myrtle, and it was like seeing my heroine staring back at me through the ages! This girl, with her straight-cut fringe (bangs) and her bold expression exactly matched my image of Myrtle.

When cover artist Brett Helquist began work on Premeditated Myrtle, he asked for reference images, and I sent him the above photograph. You can see he took strong inspiration from it—but the stiff updos we typically associate with Victorian hair don’t add much drama to a dust jacket meant to entice readers to pick a book up and open its cover.

An early draft of the Premeditated Myrtle cover

But as you can see, Myrtle’s shorter, flyaway hair brings a lot of energy and movement to the covers–perfectly capturing her spirited determination!

We associate long hair with the Victorian era for good reason: it was common, among both girls and women.

This studious girl, who reminds me of Myrtle’s friend Caroline Munjal, sports a very typical girl’s hairstyle of the ages: worn long and styled half up/half down, with a hint of curly fringe.

But common doesn’t mean universal. In Europe and the US throughout the 19th century, we see girls and women wearing their hair much shorter, and they did so for a variety of reasons—including fashion.

(Read more about Victorian shopping trends and the power of 19th century advertising.)

I am enchanted by this 1887 French fashion plate, showing a girl Myrtle’s age with quite short hair. Photographs of real girls with short hair are one thing (they might have cut off their hair after an illness or injury, as long, heavy hair is hot and uncomfortable in a sickbed), but this robust girl is selling high style to the Parisian market. Tres chic!

Short hair enjoyed a few brief periods of popularity throughout the 1800s. At the turn of the 19th century, French fashion embraced neoclassical styles (influenced by ancient Greece and Rome), including a hairstyle called the “Titus—” for men and women.

Guillaume Lethiere: Girl with Portfolio, c. 1800

Only those of means would have their portraits painted, so again consider this a style of the very fashionable, those young women embracing the cutting edge of new and trendy looks. (Like girls today!) But fashion isn’t just for the young, as this lady of a certain age with her very dramatic Titus proves:

These hairstyles were also influenced by the postwar era following the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, and are often believed to have been worn in solidarity for victims of the Guillotine. Author Shannon Selin has a fascinating article about the origins of the Coiffure a la Titus here.  Note the comments from contemporary naysayers “concerned” about girls’ and women’s health.

Interestingly, war also inspired another era of short hairstyles for girls and women. In the 1860s, the “shingle” cut became a popular style in America.

American abolitionist (and mountaineer!) Anna Elizabeth Dickinson sported short hair for most of her life, as evidenced by her many photographs.

The style is sometimes believed to be just a Confederate one, adopted by white girls in solidarity with their brothers at the front lines. But contemporary sources prove that wasn’t the case. The shingle was popular all across America. In 1868, Louisa May Alcott capitalized on the trend when she had Little Women’s Jo March cut off her hair. In the book, Jo’s motivation is financial—she sells her shorn locks—but she swiftly comes to appreciate the way her newly short hair feels:

“I will confess, though, I felt queer when I saw the dear old hair laid out on the table, and felt only the short, rough ends on my head. It almost seemed as if I’d an arm or a leg off. …(but) a crop is so comfortable I don’t think I shall ever have a mane again.” —Little Women

Frank T. Merrill’s 1896 illustrations for Little Women reflect 1890s fashions in hair.

 

This younger girl looks less convinced about her shorter ‘do. (I recognize the expression from the first time I had my own curly hair chopped off at age 6!)

By Myrtle’s day, however, long hair was once again in vogue—and would remain so until the (postwar!) “bob” craze of the late 1910s and ’20s. But that doesn’t mean every girl or woman wore her hair long.

Florida, c. 1890

date unknown, probably 1880-1890

Hungary, 1880s

If anything, this variety of hairstyles reminds us that as the 19th century marched on, girls and young women were increasingly aware of current events and influenced by marketing, as well as making more and more decisions for themselves about how they looked and dressed… and, by extension, how they wanted their own lives to look. Myrtle’s hair might not come up as a topic on the page, but it’s a terrific reflection of her independent and modern spirit.

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