Saturday, May 19, 2012

Time for another hairstyle showcase...

Warmer weathers bring out the early period in many a Scadian, and having a Roman persona means I'm pushing heavily for chitons and tunicas.  Last year at An Tir/West War, I craftily managed to instigate a Roman day.  Since Idonia was going to be up in Court on our Roman Day, I pushed her to have a fancy hairstyle.  After all that meant her hair would be seen by probably a dozen sets of sitting royalty.

Portrait of Plautilla
 This is a hairstyle seen on Plautilla, unwanted wife of Emperor Caracalla, who married him in 202 AD.  I first came across this bust, which is housed in the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Janet Stephens paper, Ancient Roman hairdressing: on (hair)pins and needles.  She gives step by step instructions on how she recreates the style, and it's relatively simple.

Idonia's hair is about waist length, but this style can be done with hair that is slightly shorter, at least mid back length.

Stephens calls this style the 100-strand braid, due to the woven look of the finished style.  It begins by parting the hair vertically from brow to nape, then sectioning a small portion along the center, french braiding that narrow section and finishing the braid to the tips.  The portions of hair on either side of that narrow braid are parted into four vertical sections on either side of the narrow braid, for a total of eight sections.  It is easiest to part the sections as you'll be using them, instead of all at once.  Each section will be twisted instead of braided against the scalp, and once it reaches the nape, separate into a three strand braid.  For symmetry's sake, I twisted strands toward center, so sections on her left were twisted to the right, and sections on the right were twisted left.  Unfortunately, I don't have any photos of doing the scalp portions, maybe in the future.

After all the sections are braided, the nine braids are sewn together to form a flat panel.  I did this with a tapestry needle and cotton weaving thread, but historically it would be done with large bone needles and woolen thread.  Once all the braids are sewn together the panel is folded up, the tips are tucked in, and the top of the panel is sewn to the top of the french braided section.  The passes of the french braid prevent the panel from weighing down the hair on the scalp and sliding down, as they would have if the panel was sewn to a twisted section alone.

This style did impress the royals, and because it's sewn together instead of pinned, it's very comfortable to sleep on.  Idonia was in fact stuck in the style until I could get to her the Tuesday after to unsew her.

Hopefully this is helpful to those that are seeking an interesting and unique hairstyle to complete their Roman garb.

Friday, May 11, 2012

I know I promised this months ago...

But here it finally is,

Achieving Livia's Look:
Recreating an Ancient Roman Hairstyle

This Style in History:

Roman hairdressing has shown an amazing variety in styles.  Tall halos of curls, elaborate braided confections, and simple matronly buns, Roman women wore the hair in a vast array of personal styles.  One iconic style is that of Empress Livia.

This bust of Empress Livia resides in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (fig 1-5).  The museum has dated this particular piece of marble to 4 CE or later, and believes it to be a copy of an original made ca. 27-23 BCE.

Livia’s style is deceptively simple.  She wears her hair with a center section combed forward into a “nodus,” a feature she is known for, the rest pulled back from the face along the sides in loose rolls to meet in the back with a complex bun wrapped with braids.  The method for securing such a style is unknown, but there are theories.

I believe this bust to be a representation of a casual hairstyle Livia wore.  This style is shown on many other busts, in a variety of materials, most depict Livia, but some show other women have copied her style.

Being an empress, Livia was the model for a lot of sculpture.  Though Romans tended toward an eternally young depiction of people (statues made of Livia when she was 60 look much the same as when she was 20) there is certain realism to them (Bartman 19).  There are examples of Livia shown as an allegory, most frequently as the goddess Ceres, with a floral crown and holding a cornucopia, (fig. 6) or in the style of Pudicitia, where she is covered modestly by a veil (fig. 7).  In some of these styles she wears a similar hairstyle to the featured one, and sometimes her hair is simply parted down the center and flows to either side in waves.  In every allegorical image, she wears something on her hair, a veil, a diadem or a wreath of flowers.  This leads me to believe that her uncovered style is not allegorical.

Potential Historical Methods:

While no one knows for certain how these hairstyles were created, experimental archeology gives us some clues as to the methods necessary for securing them.  There are three methods for fastening styles that are possible with Roman hairstyling, “gluing,” pinning, or sewing.  Along with the arguments for and against each of these methods, this section will include descriptions of other tools a period hairstylist would use, and a brief discussion of who these historical hairstylists would be.

A method for securing hairstyles that involves coating the hair, either part or all of the strand, with a substance that sticks the strands together.  Beeswax and resins are capable of being documented to the first century CE; gel made from soaking or boiling flaxseed is theoretically possible, and water soluble gum arabic would have been available, though perhaps expensive since it would need to be imported.

It is possible that the entirety of the style was held together with “glue,” but I find it extremely unlikely.  This style, even carved in heavy marble, shows a lightness to the hair that wouldn’t have been possible if all the hair was coated in product.  Also, seen easier in the plaster cast of the bust of Livia, (Fig. 8) fine, wispy hairs along the hairline are present.  That a sculptor found them necessary to carve into the busts instead of eliminating them for ease of sculpting, seems to prove their existence.  These wispy hairs wouldn’t be present if all the hair were slicked back with styling product.

Romans who could afford it bathed daily, including women and children.  Baths were deep enough to be fully immersed, suggesting that the hair was soaked along with the body.  If so, a bath would destroy a hairstyle created entirely by water soluble adhesives.  The frequency of bathing would suggest the need for a more easily removable fastener.

Believed by some to be the most common way of securing a Roman hairstyle, this method uses pins to hold the hair at specific points.  These pins would be straight, single pronged pins, like sewing pins or hair sticks, as U-pins were not created before the 18th century (Stephens 120).  A profusion of decorative hair sticks exist in archeological record.  Made of ivory, bone, wood, jet, gold and other materials, they often feature carved heads or elaborate miniature sculptures at the top (Stephens 112).  They would be easy to insert into hairstyles, and be easy enough to remove prior to a daily bath.

However, the lack of their presence in art makes it more unlikely that these hair “pins” were used to create these styles.  Extremely few portrait busts show large hair sticks, and most of those only show one, insufficient to be the sole means of support (Stephens 117, 119) (Bartman 12).  If the styles were constructed using smaller pins, it would require numerous smaller straight pins to secure the style.  These small pins could possibly be hidden from sight, but I’ve found no report of a large number of small pins in grave finds.

Sewing hair as a method of securing a style requires a large needle, and sufficient length of thread to stitch through elements of the style, to prevent portions of the style from coming loose.  Thread was most likely wool, as it is the most common fiber in Roman clothing, and Juvenal mentions a slave working wool while the mistress’s hair was being styled (Stephens 124).  By using a thread of similar color to a lady’s hair, the thread becomes almost invisible, and more closely resembles period artwork.

The use of the Latin word acus causes some confusion amongst translators.  It appears to most often be translated as pin when describing hair arranging, but when used in conjunction with sewing terms, it means sewing needle.  Janet Stephens would argue that this word should be used for needle in both cases, specifically citing Sextus Pompeius Festus, whose Glossaria Latina has an entry on hairdressing and needles that states: “ACUS dicitur, qua sarcinatrix vel etiam ornatrix utitur” (that which the cloth-mender as well as the hairdresser uses is called a needle.)  That the same type of tool was used for both sewing of cloth and sewing of hair explains the difference in needle sizes in Ancient finds.  The size of needles believed to be used for hair sewing are larger than would be used for sewing cloth, commonly ranging from 10-15 cm, and being 0.5-1 cm in diameter, and have blunted ends.  Roman needles this large are usually made from bone or ivory, though there have been finds of gold and glass (Stephens 113).

In addition to finds of large needles, there is a frieze on a tomb that depicts objects connected women’s work, and a needle is depicted with a cosmetic spatula on the right side.  The spindle for creating thread is placed at the far left, with a variety of other elements between them; a clear separation of the two subjects.  There is also the “beauty case of Cumae” that contains jewelry, a mirror, several cosmetics related items, and a complete set of hairdressing tools, a comb, bodkin, spindle and needle (Stephens 122-123).

Roman hairstyles can be complex, and often require at least one other person to arrange the hair, if not several.  Taking down a style is also complicated; if sewn, one must separate the wool thread from the lady’s hair, cutting only that thread.  This requires the presence of an ornatrix. 

Many Roman ladies of wealth had a slave, or several, just for arranging their hair.  This hairdressing slave is known as an ornatrix.  Images of hairdressing performed by a servant are seen in tomb carvings (Bartman 4).  There are several instances in Roman literature of orantrices, and they are frequently mentioned as the recipient of abuse from their mistresses for pulling hair or making a mistake while styling it.  Juvenal’s Satire 6 features two slaves actively working on their mistress’s hair, while a third who has retired from work due to age sits and spins thread while giving advice.  Her skill is respected and she was once an expert of styling (Stephens 124).

Other Tools:
Aside from the needle and thread, arranging the hair of a Roman lady would require a few other tools.  A comb was necessary to detangle and smooth the hair, a hair bodkin for parting sections, a curling iron for later styles, and a mirror for the lady to view all angles of the style (Stephens 123).

How I Did It:

Start with clean(ish), combed hair.  This style works best with hair of near waist length or more.  Begin the style by creating the center section, parting the hair from the back of the scalp to approximately the center of each eye.  Comb this section forward, and secure the remaining side hair for the time being.  This is easily done with a hair bodkin. 

As seen in the images of the Lady from Cerveteri, in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, the center section is parted in a downward point near the front of the hair. (Fig 9)  I believe this part indicates a place where the hair is bound together, creating a secure spot to anchor later steps of the style to.  Bind off the section of hair, either with a needle and thread, or, if using modern elements, with a small hair elastic.  Pull the bound section and the rest of the center section forward and bind them together at nose length.  Braid this section below the binding down to the tips.  The tips can be bound with thread, dipped in water to temporarily stick them together (Stephens 123), or modernly, wipe gel on them to bind them together.  Sew the two bindings together to create a loop at the center forehead (called a nodus), and stitch the braid down the center section.  Then release the rest of the hair.

Part the rest of the hair down the center below the wedge.  Use large sections to create French twists down both sides of the head.  Some busts show twists all the way to the bun in the back; some only use part of the hair on the side, as clearly seen on the Bust of Livia in the British Museum. (Fig. 10)  Once these twists rolled to the nape of the neck, bind them into a pony tail.  Separate out about a third of the hair from each twist, and create a braid on either side of the head.  These two braids will wrap around the finished bun.

Take the remaining unbraided section of hair and pull the tail through the gap made by the center section of the hair, leaving a loop of hair.  Stick a hair bodkin through this loop to prevent it from being pulled through the gap.  Smooth out the tail below the loop.  Pull that tail back through the gap, creating a second loop below the first, inserting another bodkin to keep the loop from pulling through.  The two braids should emerge from either side of this loop.  What hair remains of the unbraided tail can be wet with water and wrapped around the bun.  Secure this bun with large stitches through it.  Wrap the braids around the bun, securing the braids with stitches.  The style is complete.

A few notes on constructing this style.

When creating the central section, start from further back on the head than you expect.  Most of the images show that the point of the central section is covered by the bun.  While the most frequent location for this large bun is the nape of the neck, the Late Republican Woman in the NY Met shows a very high bun, perched at the back of her head. (Fig. 11)  Her bun is also smaller than most of the examples, and rounder rather than the flatter versions that are more common.

There are a few other alternatives within the style that are exhibited by various busts.  The bust of Livia in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek doesn’t feature a central braid, but smooth hair. (Fig. 1)  Either all the hair is rolled into the nodus, or the tail of hair is some how smoothed down the central section of hair.  Also there is an interesting example of the nodus itself being braided in a herringbone style. (Fig. 12)  Most of busts of Livia herself feature a nodus that is full and circular, though when her nodus is paired with a central braid, it is often more horizontal, as can be seen in the bust of Livia Drusilla that resides in The Archaeological Museum in Selçuk, (Fig. 13) or in the bust of Livia from the Crypta Balbi section of the National Museum of Rome, (Fig. 14) where the nodus has broken off, but the shape can be determined by the remaining outline.

The less rounded nodus is also a common feature for women copying the Empress’ look.  Images of the Late Republican Woman, (Fig. 11) present a fairly flat nodus, with the top layer clearly shown.  The Roman Lady from Cerveteri, (Fig. 9), displays a nodus with barely any height, all the hair is drawn together on the top with smooth curves.

A third variation can be found with the side rolls.  In a few examples the side rolls are smooth, but still have volume, instead of sectioned, as in the Late Republican Woman’s hairstyle. (Fig 11)  Visible on the bust of Livia carved from basalt, in the Louvre, (Fig. 15) are large waves that undulate down the hairline on either side of the head.  The carving indicates that the hair isn’t rolled, but loose pulled toward the back to maintain the waves.

To Wrap it Up:

This elegant style is hardly simple, but with the help of a handmaid, friend or servant, who is a capable hairdresser, and a few simple tools, the nodus style of Empress Livia can be achieved.  There are a variety of small changes that can be made to personalize the style, and it is a beautiful way to finish an early Roman outfit.
Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Fig. 3

Fig. 5
Fig. 4

Fig. 7
Fig. 6

Fig. 8
Fig. 10
Fig. 9

Fig. 11
Fig. 12

Fig. 13
Fig. 14

Fig. 15


Bartman, Elizabeth. "Hair and the Artifice of Roman Female Adornment." American Journal of Archaeology. 105.1 (2001): 1-25. Print.

Basalt Livia, (fig. 15) Louvre, Photo by Joe Geranio.  Jun 12, 2011.  Dec 28, 2011

Bust of Livia, Copenhagen 1444 (fig. 1-5). Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek.  Photos by Roger Ulrich.  Jan 30, 2011.  Dec 28, 2011.

Bust of Livia, (fig. 10). British Museum, Photo by Roger Ulrich.  Oct 15, 2010.  Dec 28, 2011.

Late Republican Woman, (fig. 11) NY Met, Photo by Roger Ulrich.  Feb 11, 2010.  Dec 28, 2011

Livia, (fig. 14), Museo Crypta Balbi, Rome.  Photo by Rien Bongers.  Nov 2, 2009.  Dec 28, 2011.

Livia as Ceres, (fig. 6) Louvre, Photo by Joe Geranio.  Oct 28, 2006.  Jan 11, 2012.

Livia Drusilla, (fig. 13) Selçuk Museum, Ephesus , Photo by Christoph Houbrects.  Sep 20, 2009.  Dec 28, 2011

Liva from the Villa of the Mysteries, (fig. 7)  Photo by Joe Geranio.  May 15, 2009.  Jan 11, 2012.

Livia Tunisia, (fig. 12). museum unknown, Photo by Joe Geranio.  Apr 18, 2008

Plaster Cast of Bust of Livia, Copenhagen 1444 (fig. 8) Photo by William Storage.  Oct 25, 2009.  Dec 28, 2011

Roman Lady from Cerveteri, (fig. 9) Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Photo by Roger Ulrich.  Oct 21, 2010

Stephens, Janet. "Ancient Roman hairdressing: on (hair)pins and needles." Journal of Roman Archeology. 21. (2008): 111-126. Print.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The one and only image I've found that might indicate French Braiding is Period...

So I haven't found much proof  that augmentation braids are appropriate for medieval hairstyles.  A vast majority of hairdressing is covered for the final image, usually with a variety of veils, but sometimes with hats; however, I have come across a singular image that appears to be a French braided style.  The trouble is, I only have the one image, and the website I found it on doesn't give much information on the source.  The webpage belongs to The Medieval Combat Society, a reenactor group in the UK that specializes in 13th and 14th century.  They have a huge collection of images for Female Civilian Clothing, composed of tomb effigies and grave brasses.

French Braids? 
The specific brass that appears to be French Braiding dates to 1335, depicts Elizabeth de Northwood, and should reside in Minster Abbey.  There is one extremely confusing word in the extremely brief description, the word copy.  This word causes me to question the actual date of the brass, but unfortunately it has gotten very late, and I've had a long day, so my Google-fu isn't what I would wish it to be.

Elizabeth's hair has some natural wave to it and is braided from the temples like many other hairstyles for this period, but the exciting part is the way the braids start off tiny at the top of her head and grow larger as they braid towards her ears.  This seems to indicate that more hair is added to the strands as they pass over each other.  The V-point within the braid is a bit of a conundrum, because it would normally indicate a french braid.  (Duth or cornrows have an upward point instead of a downward.)  However, gathering the hair in a normal French Braid doesn't result in the sharply defined edge of braid as in the image.  See the smooth sections in the below image, stolen from, as they join with the previous strand, no clearly defined edge of the braid.

There are some techniques for braiding that will cause the braid to flip over and give a clearly defined edge; it  is created by only augmenting the braid from one side of the head.
French Braids Hairstyle

It is a baffling image for me, and the source is just as confusing.  What does it mean copy?  Every time I come across the image online it is the same one, but there is no description of the image past what the Medieval Combat Society has. How are these braids accomplished?  The loose hair between the braids and the face on either side creates a challenge to recreating the style if it is an augmentation braid, as the hair is left loose enough to maintain its wave, not impossible to do, but not the sturdiest of styles.

There is also a simpler explanation, that the braids are actually being drawn from the back of the head down by her ears and are tapering out at the top.  A plain braid follows more accurately the myriad of other examples from the time period, but I'm still looking for the elusive proof of French Braiding in the Medieval Period.