Good men’s hair of filmic history

25 October 2011

The ayes have it: the winner for Best Men’s Hair of Filmic History goes to that romantic, Byronic period of history, the Regency era!

Now, I haven’t studied the actual hair history enough to confirm that this bears strong relations to reality, but there’s at least some evidence to confirm this claim. To wit: check out this portrait of the Prince Regent himself — the Prince of Wales, who served as King of England in place of his sick father, George III until 1820, when he ascended to the throne in his own right as George IV. Now there’s a man who kicks the shit out of artfully tousled hair, pushed forward just enough onto his face. Even Lord Byron was known to enhance his considerable beauty by wearing curling-papers in his hair at night. Let’s sing out a collective “thank you” to costume dramas for keeping those styles alive.

This style is so preferable to all those 21st-century incarnations of hair pushed onto the face — the Justin Bieber, the Korean hottie, the surfer dude — and it’s being used liberally in filmic reproductions and fictionalizations of Jane Austen’s novels (published during the Regency era). To wit: James McAvoy in Becoming Jane (2007), a film I would watch again only for his hair. I find McAvoy impossibly charming in virtually all his films — even when he improbably discusses those “groovy” mutations in X-Men: First Class — but I’d venture to say that he’s never looked better than with this hair. And that forest green velvet.

Ditto all the above for Colin Firth’s hair in the BBC series Pride and Prejudice (1995). I’m still sorry this version had such a contrast between the stellar acting of the two leads and the embarrassing over-acting of every single other character. (Still: I’ll take this version over the Keira Knightley/ Matthew Macfadyen version [2005] any day. Even when you factor in the fact that in the latter version the secondary characters were terrific.) The rest of you can chirp about that scene when Firth dives into the pond, but I prefer him wrapped up, gazing with sparkling eyes at Lizzie from across the parlor at Pemberley, showing off his curls and sideburns.

Let us not overlook Alan Rickman’s version of Colonel Brandon from Sense and Sensibility (1995), less because he’s got curls pushed forward onto his face than because, damn.

Or Dan Stevens’ version of Edward Ferrars in the BBC version of Sense and Sensibility (2008), which makes him much more attractive than when Stevens appeared in Downton Abbey (2010), if you ask me.

According to the movies’ version of history, heroes got darker as the century progressed, and their hair got less purely romantic. In the case of Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton in North and South (2004), the severe hair and those barbed sideburns accentuate his fiercely angular face. They also mirror his own proclivity for abrupt rage, which he always seems to regret. This delicious series shows us that we must measure his growing love for Margaret by those rare moments when he loosens his tie and unbuttons the top button of his white, white shirt rather than by the softness of his curls.

In Jane Eyre (2011), Michael Fassbender’s Mr. Rochester sports deeper and more dangerous sideburns and, I would argue, messy hair that signifies risky and complicated emotions bubbling underneath. If Armitage portrayed a self-made man worried about losing everything, Rochester’s lack of financial concerns was a thin cover for his other worries, making him as unpredictable and changeable as that hair. Oh Jane, beware your feelings!

And isn’t it striking how little we want to reproduce the women’s hairstyles in all of these films! The puritanical buns of the Brontës’ characters, the foolish curls Elizabeth Bennet found herself wearing, the elaborate braids and hats… it was the beginning of a long, long period of bad hair news for the ladies, till they started chopping it all off in the 1920s. Which makes me appreciate the 20s all the more.

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37 Responses to “Good men’s hair of filmic history”

  1. servetus Says:

    Rickman, damn — damn straight. But you know who I really love. 🙂

    • Didion Says:

      I know, I know…and you’ve got to admit, this is truly one of the most shallow topics I could possibly broach. But c’mon, I expect more from you: surely you can challenge whether the Regency period is the best for film hair history? (Don’t even try to tell me that some wig-wearing period is better, though. You’ve got to admit that men’s release from wigs in the early 19th century produced some of film history’s best ‘dos. Did you see that photo of McAvoy??)

      • servetus Says:

        I love McAvoy, but — equally importantly — so does Armitage. When he was asked which actors he liked to watch he named McAvoy, with whom he worked in ShakespeaRE-told: Macbeth.


  2. […] Dear Friend manages to work Richard Armitage in today. Share this:DiggFacebookTwitter […]

  3. angieklong Says:

    I do love those Regency ‘dos on the gents–the softness of the hair combined with the masculinity of the sideburns. Begs to have your fingers run through it to ruffle it a tad more. Firth was simply gorgeous as Mr. Darcy. James M. is a cutie. But I tend to want to pat him on the head.

    Ah, Mr. A as Thornton, minus his cravat, looking so heart-breakingly handsome and sweetly attentive to his Margaret.

    Women’s hairstyles during the 19th century were for the most part pretty awful, weren’t they?

    • Didion Says:

      Doesn’t it make you wonder if Mr. Armitage will ever return to costume dramas? I mean, if a Regency ‘do can ramp up James McAvoy’s adorability factor this much, what could it do for Mr. A.? (But perhaps he feels costume dramas are a ghetto of the acting world. I wonder if they *are* seen that way.)

      It’s really too bad about the women’s hair of the 19th century — after all, women were (mostly) freed from wigs during that time, too. Yet the hair became such a rigamarole, and so depressingly severe by the 1840s or so. In fact, it makes you wonder whether they missed wigs, insofar as wigs took so much of the work out of it.

      • angieklong Says:

        Yes, I have wondered that, whether or not we would ever see Mr. A in another costume drama (outside of Tolkien fantasy land, of course). He inhabits period clothing and hair so very well. It would be interesting to know how these productions are viewed by actors. I know some Brit actors seem to act almost exclusively in costume dramas. Perhaps he feared being typecast after the tremendous impression he made as Mr. Thornton?

        Ah, “The Young Victoria” has just come on Starz and I find myself thinking of how these lovely actresses are not well served by the severe center parts with the girlish clusters of curls over either ear.

        I am watching Miranda Richardson’s elaborate ‘do being deconstructed. I guess they used false curls, too. It would have taken a great deal of time and effort pre electric devices and modern hair products–rags, curling tongs, sugar water solutions?-to create the styles. A rigamarole, indeed.

        Wigs would have definitely been much easier.

      • Didion Says:

        Ugh, sugar water — can you imagine the problem with flies and/or bees circling your head?

      • angieklong Says:

        I have a difficult enough time with bugs being attracted to me without the sugar water. Mosquitoes have been known to have a field day on my pale flesh. 😉 Actually, when I was a little girl with lots of very long, thick hair, my mother gave me Mary Pickford curls on Sundays for a while.But that was using foam rollers, a hood dryer, and a product known as “Dippity Do.” It was sparkly green goo in a jar. I think it’s still available in a tube these days.

        I also think of the elaborate hair constructions of the mid- to late-18th century (prior to the Revolution) with all that flour and bear grease pomade. I have read that their size and complexities have been somewhat exaggerated, however. Still, between the “big hair” and the enormous panniers and tight corsets, what discomfort ladies must have experienced! And how their scalps must have itched . . .

  4. Gratiana Says:

    What a delight it is to find your blog! Thanks to Serv for linking to it.

    I love your examples of Byronic male heroes–the wisp of manly curls or manly waves feathering their necks and/or faces almost seem like a delicate embrace.

    And the treatment of sideburns ranging from creating severe facial expressions to outlining severely handsome male features–both in the case of John Thornton as portrayed by Richard Armitage–are delicious.

    Finally, the cravat being emblematic of restrained emotions when tied–or illustrator of passionate undercurrents within when undone or completely removed–is one feature that I particularly like about these period costumes. It’s almost like a bull fight. Don’t mess with me when I’m wearing my cravat. Or, come here milady when the cravat is off. Sighhhhh!

    Cheers! Grati ;->

    • Didion Says:

      Gratiana, I’m glad you’re here too! And oh, those beautiful, beautiful cravats — makes me wish they’d come back in style. Every time I watch N&S now I pay so much attention to the state of Mr. A’s clothes — whether that top button is undone, whether his coat is off, whether he’s got the hat. (Actually, I need to ask Servetus whether she’s ever taken the temperature of his character’s emotions by his clothing. But surely she has.)

      I quite liked that style that George Clooney used to wear in the ER days — sort of a Julius Caesar look — that is a much more restrained version of the hair-pushed-forward look. One of my housemates in grad school immediately leapt onto that bandwagon and looked pretty awesome, I must say.

  5. @Rob Says:

    Is it called the Titus? Georgette Heyer took great pains to decribe it. At one point, I Googled it so I would see it! McAvoy does do it justice. Doesn’t he?
    I have to say I do enjoy the Knightley ver of P&P. I have litterally watched it 100xs maninly for Joe Wright’s direction. But honestly, to pick from the period movies is like asking a mother to pick her fav child. I like how Thornton’s hair is always a bit greasy. Thank God for modern day plumbing and hot water!

    I see you didn’t inlcude Rupert Penery Jones ver of Perusaion. Was there a reason for this ommit? 🙂

    • angieklong Says:

      I was taking a shower earlier and washing my hair and antimacassars popped into my head. I always wondered what those were when I read books referring to them. Of course, I later found out about macassar oil’s prolific use amongst the gents to keep their hair in place, and the problem of it staining upholstery. Thus you needed the anti-macassars to protect the furnishings. I suppose Mr. Thornton would have likely used macassar oil as a proper Victorian gentleman.
      Of course, I am old enough to remember men using Brylcreem–“A little dad’ll do ya.”

      I thought Rupert was too pretty for what should have been a weathered sea captain, I thought. And the whole chase scene at the end and the tonsil hockey in the street really bugged me. Not that I have a problem with changing endings–ah, the train station scene in N&S!–but this just seemed wrong.

      Re P&P 2005, I have to say I enjoy aspects of it but I don’t really think of it as Austen, if that makes sense. I like it much more than Billy Piper in Mansfield Park, that’s for dang sure. Talking about miscasting . . .

      • Didion Says:

        I liked Rupert PJ plenty, although let’s take a look at his hair: inadequate, I say! They should have waited 3 or 4 months to let that close clip grow out. When I watch a Regency melodrama, I want Regency hair on my men!
        rupert pj
        Angie, you’ve got me fixated now on the topic of Nasty Things People Used to Put in Their Hair — honestly, bear grease and flour and macassar oil. It’s enough for a quite vivid and gag-inducing post of its own.

        I could go on about the P&P of 2005 — but the short answer is that I just didn’t like Knightley in the role at all (Lizzie Bennet never would have sneered so much at people) and I didn’t like the way the film portrayed the Bennets as just shy of penury. I felt it read their social rank all wrong. When she says about Darcy that “he is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal,” the film should have realized that just because the estate was entailed and the Bennets needed advantageous marriages for their daughters didn’t mean they had chickens shitting in the living room. I like the idea of watching it as 1) a film by Joe Wright, whom I quite like (Hanna!!) and 2) not as an Austen story. The next time it’s on, I’ll give that a try.

      • angieklong Says:

        The 2005 P&P reminded me in some ways more of Bronte and Wuthering Heights in the overall look of the film and yeah, the chickens in the living room thing. The Bennets may have had modest means but certainly they were genteel, and you do tend to lose sense of that in the most recent adaptation.
        So–don’t think of it as Austen, and it’s not so bad! 😀

        Rupert definitely needed more hair to make him properly romantic hero material. (I still hate he got killed off Spooks in that first ep of S7. He and Richard made a very handsome pair of spies, I must say, the dark and the fair.)

        I give thanks I only had to put a bit of curl creme and dash of sea salt spray in the old hair earlier. Nothing gag-inducing. 😉 I did papers for my history classes years ago on clothing and hair over the centuries with hand-drawn illustrations and I will always remember the jeweled tools that looked like backscratchers, used to dislodge the varmints in one’s elaborate hairdo. *shudder*

      • Didion Says:

        Let me also say that Rupert PJ has the best mouth. Yum. Truly great mouths on men are just not that easy to find — but this one makes me want to plant my own on it for quite an extended session of exploration.

        Persuasion is such a dark tale in contrast to some of Austen’s other work, and Wentworth is such an unknowable character in this production — maybe if the producers had given themselves a reasonable amount of time/ space to lay out the tale (as in, at least 3 or 4 hours, if you ask me), we might have seen more Wentworth’s internal struggles. That said, I don’t know that novel as well as P&P, S&S and Emma, so perhaps we don’t see as much of him there either.

      • Didion Says:

        Ahhh, a woman who uses the expression, “That’s for dang sure.” Beautiful!

      • angieklong Says:

        😀 Thank you. I am just a good ol’ southern girl at heart.

  6. @Rob Says:

    Did you see Rupert in 39 steps? He does something to my lady parts! Rupert and Richard I keep thinking of an oreo cookie!

    • angieklong Says:

      I saw it. He is very yummy in it. And I really don’t generally care for blondes, but I do make certain exceptions. Ummmmm, Oreo cookies. Richard and Rupert. I can see Lucas offering Adam a chip. Adorable. *sigh*

  7. Didion Says:

    How did I miss The 39 Steps?? It’s on my Netflix queue as of 1 minute ago.

  8. JE Says:

    I must add that I’m fascinated and delighted that this paean to lovely locks quickly shot to the top of the Top Posts list. Who would have guessed?

    But then how can anyone resist James McAvoy in full costume-drama glory?

    • Didion Says:

      I know, right? It really couldn’t have been much more lite. But I have an answer for you: Servetus sent piles of readers from her amazing and wildly popular Richard Armitage site over here. These are smart, serious people who know their costume drama. Did you see all the great stuff about bear grease, flour, macassar, sugar-water, and other nasty dippity-dos to maintain one’s hairdos? This is riveting stuff!

      • angieklong Says:

        History and fashion and period drama: a potent mix. Throw in some attractive males, et voila! A good time had by all. 😀 Still glad my tresses don’t have to suffer through all that

  9. @Rob Says:

    Just wondered how everyone is enjoying Downtown Abby???

    • Didion Says:

      I watched the PBS (i.e., condensed) version last spring and was highly entertained; I see the 2nd season will be out in Jan. I wish I’d seen the unabridged version (which popped up on Netflix shortly thereafter), because it felt really, really choppy in the later episodes — such that I was left ambivalent about whether I’d continue watching. But who am I kidding? Of course I’ll be watching. Still, it doesn’t rank in my top 10 of costume dramas.

      How about you? I feel that you’re probably more knowledgeable about costume dramas than I am.

  10. @Rob Says:

    I have been downloading it, so I am watching the unbridged ver. That era is not my speciality, (see your post above) but I am enjoying it. That Jullian Fellows is quite the period drama master. Hubs the other day was like,”you realize that this is just a dressed up soap opera?” True. But it is entertaining,

    I see what you are saying about Rupert’s hair. Persaussion is my all time fav Austen novel,so again, I don’t see these things clearly. Then add Rupert’s overall male charm and looks .. honestly he could’ve been wearing a sack and I would’ve enjoyed it! Plus, I like when contemp writers do “their” take on classics. I like seeing them turned up on their heads ie Jane Eyre. Altho, I watched the delelted scenes and strongly believe that it would’ve been a stronger film with them. Hope you can follow my train of thought it is all over the place.

    • Didion Says:

      My partner said the same thing about The Forsyte Saga. My riposte is that football commentary utilizes more clichés than my period dramas (which is true).

      • servetus Says:

        The difference is that lots of people watch sports with the sound turned off — which would be a distinct disadvantage with period drama 🙂

  11. fitzg Says:

    Most grateful to servetus for linking to Feminema! Another added to the Favourites list.

    The Regency styles in men’s hair was rather nice, if a little artful. The era of wigs was awful – but some freer spirited men eschewed wig and powder and tied the hair back in a “queue”, which was rather nice. Men’s pomade – the Brylcreem of earlier day – antimacassers 😀 And then, those awful mutton chop whiskers! Men have been martryed for vanity as much as women! And, oh dear, womens’ hair did suffer through most of the century, didn’t it? Until the “Gibson Girl” silhouette came into fashion – that was so flattering!
    Cheers, Didion!

    • Didion Says:

      I’m sort of partial to mutton chops — I think it’s certain daydreams I have about Wolverine from X-Men. But I agree it takes a special man to pull off that look.

      I love the Gibson Girl look, but their backs always look so uncomfortably hyper-extended at the base. I know it was mostly the corset/bustle that helped them look that way, but every time I think, “ouch.”

      • angieklong Says:

        There was a period in the 19th century when the wasp-waisted look was also de rigeur for the gents–which meant corsets for them. As Fitzg said, men have been martyred for vanity, too.

        I am reading a bio of Beau Brummel amongst several books currently and of course, it is full of details about Regency fashions and Brummel’s influence on men’s wear (he is basically considered the father of the modern suit).

        He never had any full-length portraits done–only a handful of miniatures and sketches–but from the descriptions by his contemporaries, he must have been one fine figure of a man. Very tall for his day, between 6 ‘ and 6’2″ with a lean, athletic build and extra long and shapely legs that looked particularly fetching in the tight, buff-coloured breeches he favored.

        Actually, the descriptions of him remind me a bit of a certain bloke with the initials RA . . . suddenly overcome with the desire to see Mr. A in Regency dress.

        Re the Gibson Girl look, we have a photo of my teenaged grandmother sitting in a swing circa 1906-07 . . . she is wearing this wonderful white lace dress and her long, long, dark hair is swept up into a very flattering Gibson Girl do. It is the only photo we have of her in her younger days so it highly prized.

  12. fitzg Says:

    Imagine wearing a corset!! Daniela D-A had some off-screen (NOT off-colour) remarks about that. Angie, I have a few old photos of my gran in those lovely ca. 1913/16 floaty dresses, with mini-Gibson hairstyle. Just re-reading Ralph Martin’s 2-vol. bio of Jennie Jerome,Lady Randoph Churchill. What charismatic young American women they were, who re-shaped British social history!

    @Didion, many thanks for these posts. Lovely.

    • angieklong Says:

      Those American beauties of wealth and privilege not only provided fresh infusions of cash into the British aristocracy, they also brought some welcome new blood . . . just wearing a bustier a few times was quite enough for me, Fitzg, never mind a full-fledged whale-boned corset. I was watching a movie, a western with Cate Blanchett the other day, and there she was, running around the hills of New Mexico with a rifle, wearing a corset. Of course, she looked extra trim and slim doing it . . . like Scarlett, I ain’t never gonna have no 17-inch waist again (actually, I think 24 inches was as small as it got as an adult). 😉

      • Didion Says:

        Not to mention all the internal damage done by corsets — because girls started wearing them so young, they sometimes had pretty serious health problems as a result. No wonder there was so much fainting.

  13. @Rob Says:

    I am working on a perid documentary and I met with the head costumer at the historical society. He was telling me about all the undergarmet contraption women wore — one was like a girdle type of thing to help them keep their uterus inside! The corset actually squeezed out your uterus!

    Plus they weighted down sliks with littel pieces of lead.
    Lord have mercy we are lucky to be women in 2011!


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