2 March 2024

Coiffure Legendaire: Colors, Hairpieces & Updos in Ancient Rome

Despite the furious blond trend in ancient Rome, many Romans were also supporters of dark hair and even completely black hair.

Pliny the Younger, the famous naturalist of the 1st century AD, gave recipes to darken hair, for example with shells of chestnuts, boiled with leeks. He also wrote about various recipes to hide the reeds, prepared with worms of various herbs, land, leeches marinated in red wine, etc., and applied in ointments to the hair, which is then exposed to the sun. Men, as we have seen, were not exempt from beauty care, and of course like women, lovers, and wives. In ‘Ars Amatoria’ Ovid, argued that a bad haircut could spoil a face, and that, therefore, hair and beard had to be entrusted to expert hands. And he wouldn’t mention either the detail and the importance of well cut and clean nails.

In the I and II centuries AD feminine sophistication had increased. Rich Roman women looked for more and more elaborate, Eastern and Hellenic influence hairstyles. They had a large group of slaves and servants who were engaged to make them the morning toilette. They had cinerariae that heated up the curling iron to curl, calamistri who waved their hair, psecades that perfumed, catoptristes holding mirrors, tonstrices and ornatrix that combed them, colored their hair, etc.

Following the fixed idea of wigs, celebrity hairstyles of the Flavian period incorporated hairpieces to gain height. They were manufactured with hair glued or sewn to stands of leather or fabric, since it was impossible to draw up such exotic hairstyles just with the own hair. They were so high that it referred to them as Tower hairstyles.

This degree of sophistication, ornatrix had to specialize, educated within the same domus, where the older ones taught the tricks of the trade, or sometimes as apprentices in the tonstrinae. They would get importance, such as the tonsors, since, for example, in the funeral stone of pattern one of these hairdressers, Ciparene, is sculpted a comb and a needle next to the name. And it is not an isolated case, because there is evidence of other hairdressers that yielded special recognition.

As we had seen in Greece, gathered hair and also structured hair it was for civilians, opposed to the barbaric peoples, tousled look. Hairdressers used combs of different types and measures –bone, silver, wood, carey–, irons heated curling curlers to curl hair, wigs and hairpieces, needles to pick up hair, gold and silver ornaments, ribbons, grids, pins, tiaras, etc. The needle was used to pick up the hair, was straight, long and ornate.

Many of these needles have a simple format, but others are very ornate. All clearly reveal that the form of this gadget has not changed in ten thousand years. In fact, one of the most curious pieces of the Museum of History of Hairdressing (see photo), is a Roman gold needle with a small amphora to be unscrewed, which leaves bare the empty needle inside. This allowed the women introduce poison and use the needle as a weapon of defense!

By Raffel Pages


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