In her novels, Isabella Alden often described a character’s hair style as an indicator of the character’s personality and lot in life.
For instance, Mrs. Carpenter, who took in laundry to support herself and her husband in Her Associate Members, dressed very plainly, “her hair stretched back as straight and as firmly as comb and hairpins will accomplish.”
By contrast, this is how Isabella described wealthy Elsie Chilton in John Remington, Martyr: “Elsie Chilton, dressed in brown, her gold hair in a knot below a jaunty little brown cap, escaping here and there in waves and rings about her forehead.”
There was quite a difference between the two women’s hairstyles. Elsie wore her hair in a fashion that proclaimed her to be a lady of leisure. As a general rule, the more elaborate the hairstyle, the higher the probability someone dressed the lady’s hair for her.
If you’ve watched the TV shows Downton Abbey, Selfridges, or The Paradise—all set in the early 1900s—you may have marveled over the elaborate hairstyles worn by the female characters.
Ladies of rank—like Downton’s fictional Countess of Grantham and her daughters, Mary, Edith and Sybil—employed maids to dress their hair for them every morning; but the heroines of Isabella Alden’s books lacked such privileges. They had to dress their hair themselves, and it was not an easy task to achieve the fashionable hair styles of the early 1900s.
Ladies’ magazines often published pictorials instructing women on how to create the latest hairstyles. Below are step-by-step instructions for assembling intricate coils and puffs, as featured in a 1911 edition of The Woman’s Home Companion magazine:
Not every woman had thick, lush hair like the model in the instructions. Ladies with hair of a finer texture often augmented their own hair with purchased hair pieces.
Hair on Approval
Ladies could purchase hair pieces in different lengths they could style along with their own hair. This ad, from the same 1911 magazine, offered to ship high class hair “on approval” to women.
And this ad proclaimed, “Send no money” to order human hair, either in different lengths or clusters of puffs: