Sunday, February 19, 2017
Common Expressions and Their Origins, No. 9: Let Your Hair Down
LICE, HUNGER, AND HAIR
During the second half of the eighteenth century much of European and American fashion followed the styles of Paris, France. In France the nobles of the court gathered at Versailles, the palace of the French king. There, they had little to do except gossip and design more and more excessive fashions. Men began to wear tall wigs, made of human hair, horsehair, or goat's hair, that were dressed into complex masses of curls. Women placed a horsehair cushion or a wire frame on their heads, then wrapped their own hair over it and piled it high in enormous decorative hairdos, which sometimes rose several feet above the head. Proud hairdressers gave their creations dramatic names, like coiffeurà l'espoir (hairstyle of hope) or coiffeur de la Liberté (hairstyle of liberty) and often topped them off with huge ornaments, like sailing ships, windmills, and whole gardens of flowers. Both men and women held their styles in place with large amounts of hair pomade made from beef fat and covered the whole thing with powder, usually made from wheat or rice flour, sometimes scented and dyed blue, pink, or violet.
Because most Western cultures of the time considered bathing to be dangerous, thorough cleaning of the body was usually only attempted twice a year, in the spring and in the fall. Therefore, perfumes and pouches of fragrant flower petals were used daily to improve the smell of unwashed bodies. These did not, however, prevent parasites like lice from taking up residence in the scalps of both rich and poor. Lice are small insects that live in the hair of humans and other animals. While the poor most often simply cut off lice-infested hair, the wealthy had to consider their image. Wealthy men could at least remove their wigs and clean them, often by baking them in the oven. They could also shave the head the wig would conceal, and get rid of lice that way. Women however, often preserved their elaborately designed hairdos for months, and lice and other pests were frequently attracted to the fat and flour used to style the hair. Long-handled silver claws were designed to reach in and scratch the itches caused by the lice living inside the coiffure, or hairstyle, and it was not uncommon to see these scratchers laid out with the silverware for guests to use at fancy dinner parties.
One of the most important effects of the lavishly styled hair of the French court was caused by the powder itself. At a time when French peasants could barely afford the cost of a loaf of bread, French noblemen and noble-women stood in powder rooms covered with protective cloths, while servants dusted their hair with great quantities of flour. Poor people who were already angry about the extravagant lifestyle of the wealthy grew even more resentful over this waste of perfectly good food on simple vanity. In 1789 this anger exploded in the French Revolution (1789–99). The poor turned furiously on the rich, determined to get revenge for all the wrongs that had been done. Elaborate hairstyles were replaced by shorter, more natural styles, no doubt much easier to keep lice-free, and flour was once again only used to make bread..