Boys' Hair Styles: The French Revolution (1789)

Figure 1.--

The French Revolution and its aftermath in many ways hearlded the rise oc modern hair styles. Wigs disappeared, as did many heads who wore them. Men and boys began wearing their own hair short. Women wore longer hair than men, although at times quite short. The elaborate hairdos of Madame Pompedor disappeared for ever. Styles after the Revolution would come and go, but they all look modern to us in comparison to the styles before the Revolution. As with many modern fashions, boys led men in wearing their own hair cut at short lengths.

Mens' Styles

The wig had become to decline in popularity after the mid-18th century. The French Revolution hastened the decline of the wig for both men and women. The end occurred quite suddenly un France, butvtook a few more years across the Channel in England. After the turn of the 19th century, wigs became increasingly rare.


The Revolution brought about simplicity in hair dressing for both men and women. The people of Paris stormed the hated Bastille Fortress in July 1789 which had been used as a prison. This launched one of the most findamental social changes in European history. The French people had been heavily taxed to support the wars (including the American Revolution) a profligate life style of the French monarchy and nobility. The economy has suffered and many Frenchmen lived in abject poverty. The Revolution became invreasingly radical as it progressed. Ostentaous life styles including clothes and hair styles associated with the despised airistiocracy were attacked. The powdered wig a queue were considered by France's new Revolutionary leaders to be a symbol of the aristocracy. The guillotine fell on many a head that had once worn powdered wigs. Aristocrats for their part dispensed with their wigs, considering that prudent in an effort to retain their heads. One's own natural hair became as much a symbol of the Revolution as the Liberty Cap. Revolutionaries took a different approach to hair styling. Some wore it long, but deliberately dishevelved in an effort to show their contempt for bewigged aristocrts. Young Frenchmen looked to aincient Rome as the inspiration for clipping their hair in back and brushing it in all directions from the ceown so that it descended in a natural tangle from the forehead. Often they wore it combered forward over their forehead as did Ceaser and Augustus. Others wore their hair short and when Napoleon shifted from disheveled long hair to short hair, the future tend in European mens' hair styles was set.


The political hair divide was also seen in Britain. Youthful librals sympathizing with the French Revolutionaries adopted short hair. Most Britons for a time, however, remained bewigged and powdered. Supporters of the King called Torries in some cases decided not to send their sons to schools where masters did not wear wigs, charging that the short-haired teachers were "dangerously radical". It was not political commitment, however, that finally ended wig wearing in Britain. The War with Napoleon and his Continental Plan to break the British severely damaged the British economy. Flourcprices rose in Britain. The poor were faced with famine. Civic leaders pleaded with the more affluent to forego using flour to powder their wigs. The mayor of Great Yarmouth counseled that "appearances are at all times to be sacrified to thepublic weal". It was William Pitt who finally, unintenionally, ended wig wearing in Britain. Pitts hard pressed Government succeded in passing a law through Parliament in 1795 taxing men and women who continued using hair powder one guinea. The Governent earned L200,000 from the tax during the first year. Opposition to the tax was widespread. The Duke of Bedford led the opopistion. He held a meeting at Woburn Abbey for "a general cropping and combing out of hair powder." [London Times] Liberally minded young nobels and gentlemen by the 1790s and stopped wearing wigs, but mamy still powdered their hair and wore braided queues. In protest to Pitt's tax, many snipped off their queues. One group signed a pact "to forfeit a sum of money if any wore hair tied or powdered again." Throughout England Crop Clubs appeared. At a typical Crop Club such as one in Lambeth "evey member ... is obliged to have his head docked as close as the Duke of Bridgewater's old bay coach horses". [The Times] Men began discarding their wigs in droves. Those who insisted on wearing their wigs and paid the guinea tax for the right of powdering it were derisevely called "guinea pigs". So many men discarded their wigs that revenues from the powder tax declined to negligible levels. [Bill Severn, Hair: The Long and Short of It (David McKay: New York, 1971), pp. 66-67.]


Hair styles in America after the French Revolution actually became a political issue. Jefferson's emerging Democratic Republican party were more sumpathetic to the French than Adam's Federalists. Many Democrats would wear their hair short in the new French fashion. They would be mocked by the Federalists with taunts of "Frenchy!". Jefferson's and his supporters' short hair was described by Federalists as looking like "frightened owls" or "fightening a hurricane backwards". The guardians of America's morals warned that the wave of French ideas was invading America and leading to "anarch, radicalism, and immorality." The short hair of the Democrats was seen as an expression of the "alien political concepts" that they harbored in their mind.

Womens' Styles

Women like men quickly adjusted their hair styles after the Revolution began to more potilically acceptable modest styles. Actually hair styles had begun to decline in size even before the beginning of the Revolution. When Marie-Antoinette realized that she was losing her hair she began wearing more modest styles and the ladies of the court followed suit. Once the Revolution began women began wearing very modest, plain hair. Some French in protest to the Terror cut their hair to the nape of the neck as the condemned had their hair cut so the blade would cut cleanly. They also wore red scarves. During the Napoleonic Era, short hair for women became very popular.

Childrens' Styles

As with many modern fashions, boys led men in wearing their own hair cut at short lengths. Boys in the late 18th century had begun to wear some of the first dedicated, especially designed for active children. The first decdicated boys' outfit was the skeleton duit. Boys would not normally wear wigs except for very formal occassions. By the 1780s boys rarely wore wigs at all. While boys did not commonly wear shoulder-length hair, they commonly did wear long haor held back in pigtails by ribbin bows. Even this declined in popularity by the 1790s and boys were increasingly seen in relatively short, but not close cropped hair without pigtails. HBC has few historical sources chronicling these developments, but is deducing the trend from available images, mostly portraits.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: March 9, 2000
Last updated: March 10, 2000