Renaissance faires and reenactment societies offer a chance to experience the past firsthand. While most people choose to dress as nobility or royalty, most people in the past were actually peasants or lower-class workers. A peasant portrayal can be a lot of fun, and much less costly than a royal persona. However, it’s important to pay attention to all the details. Adding the right hairstyle can make your peasant costuming much more convincing.
In late 15th- and early-16th-century Germany, most women covered their heads with large, complicated headdresses called wulsthauben, or “bulge hats.” The hair under these hats was often plaited into two very large braids worn on either side of the head. These braids could be worn just showing under the hat, especially by older women, or with no hat at all, which was more common among younger women and farm workers. Many women didn’t have enough natural hair for fashionable thick braids, and would pad their hair with braided cloth, leather or other material.
Bun and Coif
Working women throughout Renaissance Europe, including Flanders, Belgium, England and France, wore their hair in a simple bun. Since respectable women covered their hair, this bun was often covered with a small cap, called a coif. According to the Extreme Costuming website, women formed a flat bun at the back of their heads, placed the coif on top, then tied a cord around the base of the bun to prevent the coif from slipping off. In late-16th-century England, the coif might also be accompanied by a triangular headdress called a forehead cloth. This handkerchief-like piece of fabric also reduced slipping and kept oil from the hair off of the coif.
Taped braids were common on working-class Italian and Flemish women, especially younger, unmarried ones. It can be seen in artwork as early as the 1400s and as late as the end of the Renaissance. This technique involves wrapping one or two braids all the way around the head, then using a blunt needle and a decorative piece of ribbon or cord to sew the braid to the rest of the hair. Hair taping is a very secure hairstyle, and may have been used to anchor older women’s veils, caps and headdresses.
Cauls are small fabric or net hairpieces, similar to smaller versions of the 1940s snood that’s still popular at Renaissance faires. According to the Rosalie’s Medieval Woman website, archaeologists in London have found caul-like hairnets dating back to the 1300s. Hairstyles including cauls were worn by women of all classes, but peasant and working-class women tended to wear less delicate materials, such as linen or wool. This hairstyle requires the hair to be pulled back into a flat bun on the back of the head, then covered with the caul, which may be pinned into place. It’s a practical style that keeps flyaway hair under control.
References and ResourcesBettina's Pages: Wulsthaube or Steuchlein
Elizabethan Costuming Page; Working Women's Dress in 16th Century Flanders; Drea Leed
Genevieve de Valois; Proper Italian Ladies Did Not Leave the House with Naked Heads...; Valerie Renfro; 3rd Quarter 2004
Rosalie's Medieval Woman; Hairstyles; Rosalie Gilbert
Extreme Costuming; How to Wear an Elizabethan Coif; Laura Mellin; October 2004