History of Women’s Hairstyles

And how they reveal the age of a painting


In this blog, I share a quick guide on women’s hairstyle trends and their evolution in Western culture.

It will be interesting both for those who are curious to see how the fashion trends for hairstyles evolved through the centuries, as well as for art lovers and collectors willing to expand their knowledge and learn how to use it to properly attribute the artwork in question (we will get down to this after the history part).

Did it ever occur to you, that the sitter’s fashion in terms of his or her dress or hairstyle is a rather accurate indication of the century down to a decade, if not a precise year, this portrait was created?

How is it all possible? Well, if you paid an artist to make your likeness immortal, you’d probably make sure that you dress to impress in line with the latest trends of your epoch.

So, let’s now run through the history timeline of major trends in Western women’s hairstyles from the Renaissance to the beginning of the 20th century.

You may always learn more about fashion history and its reflection in art in the Smart Art — Art History Escape app: download it for free on your iPhone or iPad and discover its collection of 1000+ original short stories about paintings and artists behind them, curious art history quizzes, and over 80,000 artworks carefully categorised by the principles you’ll learn today.


In the Renaissance epoch women did usually grow their hair naturally long. They used to tie it up close to the head and cover it with various snoods or veils.

Loose hair was often associated with women of easy virtue. However, female characters with long tresses in the paintings of this epoch are usually nymphs or other mythical beings.

Elizabethan era

Queen Elizabeth I of England did not only rule the Empire but was the main fashion icon of her epoch.

Combed back red curly hair, pale skin and red cheeks and lips were imitated by her contemporaries. Moreover, this style would make them look very English, as the main enemy of England at that time was Spain. Spanish had dark hair and tanned skin.

Ruff, a circular collar made from a pleated frill of starched linen cambric or lace, became one of the status symbols of this epoch. Starting from smaller versions in the 1550-s they were becoming bigger and more flamboyant by the end of the century.

Henrietta Maria of France

The 17th-century hairstyle was inspired by fashion trends born in France and then spread across all of Europe.

Henrietta Maria of France, or Queen Mary of England, wife of King Charles I, was the main trendsetter for the epoch. She wore her hair part in the middle and curly locks on the sides with the rest of the hair gathered into a bun at the back of the head.

This hairdo was usually complemented by ringlets trimming the forehead. In general, the length of curls grew longer to the shoulders throughout the century.


The Duchess of Fontanges was a young beautiful mistress of King Louis XIV of France. She died at the age of only 20 and the remarkably popular hairstyle seems to be the only thing she had left for history. Well, not that bad at the end of the day?

The legend says that once hunting with the King she lost her cap and then fixed her piled-up hair with a ribbon on the top of the head.

The King was fascinated by that style and that hairdo trend spread quickly across Europe and appeared in portraits by famous painters until the early 18th century.

Tête de Mouton

Tête de Mouton («sheep’s head») hairstyle was an eventual continuation of the hair fashion from the previous epoch though significantly reduced in size.

Following the general trend of the reign of Louis XV hairstyles have become smaller and simpler — curls or waves closely attached to the head with almost no height at the beginning of the period rising up closer to its end.

This style was widely popularised by Madame de Pompadour, the official mistress of the King.

Marie Antoinette

This short period in history is marked by the arguably most famous and notable women’s hairstyle introduced by Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France.

Hairdos of up to 2 feet (60 cm) high, expensive to make and involving a lot of skill, technique and material offered room for design and imagination.

This hairstyle was also called «a la Frégate» as it sometimes resembled a ship sailing on waves of hair. Believe it or not, they say that as these massive hair constructions were fixed with lard one could even spot some creatures like rats inside.


French Revolution changed everything not only in terms of politics but widely affected the everyday style of people.

Ideals of the democratic republic of Ancient Greece and recent excavations of Pompei and Herculaneum brought the style of those epochs back into fashion.

Huge artificial combs, corsets — all that gave place to natural, loose and even short hair and high-waisted plain white dresses. That was the look that symbolised equality and celebrated individual expression of one’s true self instead of an indication of privileged social status.


This fashion of the third decade of the 19th century was somewhat of a shift back in past rather than a continuation of the Empire style of previous decades.

Dress waists went down, corsets were back in use, and sleeves grew in size. Hairdos became more elaborate — one needs to have her hair long (or use false hair yet again) to comb it in massive curls and ringlets on both sides and make a looped bun on top.

This so-called Apollo Knot hairstyle was also a nod towards the revived interest in Chinese culture (chinoiserie style) common for the 17th & mid-18th century Rococo period.

Victorian age

The second half of the 19th century was reproducing an image of high morality, modesty and prudence. These were the main traits of Queen Victoria of England, who set an example in style and living for the Western world.

The advancement of hair soap and the further usage of oils also contributed to the popularity of sleek and demure hairstyles. The later invention of a «curling iron» put wavy long hair back into fashion.

Traditional feminine dresses with corsets and crinolines reached their fashion peak in the 1850s. Then, the volume and width of dress skirts started to decrease towards the end of the century.

Gibson Girls

This hairstyle was called after the name of an American graphic artist Charles Dana Gibson who has widely popularised this image of a beautiful and independent woman in his illustrations.

This was a very natural look where the mass of long and wavy hair was gathered in a loose bun at the top of the head.

Large broad-brimmed hats became another fashion mark of the period, being worn even with evening dresses.

This was just a bird’s eye view of the evolution of women’s hairstyles. Inside every epoch, there were several sub-trends and movements recognising which you may learn more about the life and identity of a sitter and the circumstances of the painting creation.

Using fashion history to tell how old a portrait painting is

Curiously for amateur and seasoned art collectors, these fashion details might be used as another instrument to deduce the date of an artwork, which you could use in your visual analysis of a portrait.

Obviously, there are numerous other bits of information one should take into account (like the regional differences, trend diffusion lags, sitter’s age and supposed habits, and so on), yet even a brief look at the sitter may often give you a pretty good idea of the epoch the painting belongs to.

In my practice, I often use this method in defining the rough epoch of a picture in question.

For example, you are collecting Rococo paintings and graphics. One day you see an interesting work at an auction house website that is attributed as “French School, 18th-century”. Yet the hairstyle of a sitter and her attire did not come into fashion until the late Victorian era in the second half of the 19th century. This would be an immediate red flag that would let you make a quick decision and not waste time on additional research.

Of course, there are tons of other ‘first choice’ ways how to identify or double-check the date of an old master painting in question. Say, you may sometimes find an indication of a particular year inscribed on a painting surface or its backside by the artist, rely on the expert suggestion of an art historian or dealer, analyse the style, media and pigments yourself — all of that, hoping, that the piece had not been forged and somehow altered by the malevolent third party.

Moreover, a good imitator and follower of a painter would copy the fashion, and this way it might get harder to define the dating and if a picture is a potential fake. So, please, use this guide as another instrument in your research about a picture.

For the rest — read my other articles from Art Collecting Guide.

And yes, a blog on men’s fashion is already published.

My name is Marina Viatkina and I am an art history writer and collecting advisor. You may read my other art-related articles, watch videos or reach out to discuss this blog and address your art enquiries here or on my website marinaviatkina.com.



Marina Viatkina
Hidden Gem: Art Treasures through the lens of History

Art | History Writer & Collecting Advisor → marinaviatkina.com | Founder of Smart Art — Art History Escape app → getsmartart.com