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A Short History of Hairdressing

Oct 31, 2007
Hairdressers have always moved among commoners and kings, but they have achieved their greatest popularity at three points in history: shortly before the decline of Greece, just before the French Revolution - and today.

In Europe during the Middle Ages, the local barber and physician were one and the same man. With the eventual division of labor, the doctor assumed long robes, while the barber, who was usually also a wigmaker, wore short ones. Originally, all hairdressing on women was done in the home, usually by the wives and daughters of barbers. For special occasions, they moved into the homes of wealthy noblewomen, sometimes working for days to build an elaborate coiffure.

The first male hairdresser to serve as a ladies' stylist was Champagne, who flourished in the days of Louis XIV. An impulsive artist, he was in great demand for his monumental hairdos. But as he often lost his temper and stomped out leaving his patrons with half of their hair undressed, many women turned to Canillat and LeBrun, both of whom were wives of wigmakers.

There was no immediate successor to Champagne, but soon after 1640, at the height of his popularity, the wig and wigmakers came into their own.

Around 1740, women's hair again began to be dressed by men. Peruke makers were called upon to make long rolled curls like the ones on men's wigs. One of the first was Frison, who in 1763 established the first ladies' hairdressers guild.

Legros, who was originally a baker, opened an academy where ladies' maids and valets could practice the art of hairdressing on hired models. He was one of many crushed in the festivities attending Marie Antoinette's wedding to Louis. The Queen and her husband were so moved by Legros' death they donated a vast sum of money to his family.

Marie Antoinette's first hairdresser was Larseur. Eventually, she came to prefer the designs of Leonard. But to save Larseur's tender feelings, she let him do her hair first, then had it combed out and redone by Leonard.

Hoping somehow to escape the ultimate wrath of the Revolution, Marie Antoinette entrusted her jewels to Leonard. They were to be given to her sister in Brussels. Leonard, listed among those guillotined and buried in a common grave, turned up alive after a twenty-year stay in Russia. At the time of his death in 1820 he was superintendent of burials in Paris.

Shortly after the Revolution and the fall of monumental hairdos - followed by the Directory's short-cropped "coiffure a la victime" - there was an amusing legal action taken against hairdressers by the master barbers and wigmakers guild, who considered hairdressers dangerous rivals.

The hairdressers complained, in brief:

"What are the duties of barbers but to shave heads and purchase severed hair to give the needful plait by means of fire and iron on locks that are no longer living?"

The art of hairdressing, they continued, required at once the talents of poet, painter, and sculptor. "It is necessary," they insisted, "to understand shades of color, chiaroscuro and the proper distribution of shadow; the art of dressing prudes without making them obtrusive; the art of displaying the coquette, and of making the mother appear to be the elder sister of the daughter; the art of suiting the coiffure to the affections of the soul which someone is desired to comprehend, to the desire to please, to the languid bearing which wishes only to interest, to the vivacity which will brook no resistance - all this requires an intelligence which is not common and a tact which must be inborn. The art of the "coiffure des dames" is therefore an art bordering upon genius and consequently is a free and liberal art."

Today's hair stylist faces the same problems and must have the same skills as did those long-ago, militant hairdressers. He has, however, much more working for him than the eighteenth-century French coiffeurs who relied so heavily upon the whims of the very rich and very noble; namely, scientifically formulated beauty products and a widely varied clientele.
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