Costumers know that women in the Middle Ages had long hair, so in film, women are usually depicted with hair that brushes their shoulders or barely reaches the shoulder blades, perhaps with the top half pulled away from the face. This appeals to a modern definition of long hair and does not represent what women’s hairstyles looked like in the Middle Ages. Google “medieval hair” and you’ll find an assortment of beautiful hairstyles more suited to fantasy films than historical ones.
Medieval women tended to wear their hair at its natural, full length. They usually cut it only during illness (or when becoming nuns). Accounting for differences in biology, nutrition, and terminal length, the average woman’s hair would probably be around hip-length. Books on the history of costume rarely mention women wearing their hair loose. However, there are quite a number of manuscripts featuring respectable women wearing their hair loose in public. This was usually a style for younger women, though unlike in later periods, I have never found written guidelines of when a woman may or may not wear her hair loose. Since that style is depicted on all types of women, from flirtatious teenagers to the Virgin Mary, it must not have commonly had stigmas associated with it. This style is never depicted on women performing labor for obvious reasons—loose hair is not practical for such jobs.
One of the most popular hairstyles was simply two braids. These could be worn as-is, wrapped with ribbons, worn with gold thread, or encased in cloth tubes. Artwork also depicts many styles with braids arranged and decorated on the head, but what seldom appears is the modern “half up” hairstyle. Hair length is often difficult to judge from artwork, either because it is covered or the subject is not facing the right way.
There could be many reasons why films do not show women with hair of a historically accurate length. Such styles would require nearly all actresses to wear wigs or extensions, which would become a daunting task for the wardrobe department. Some viewers find hip-length hair unappealing or disgusting, even if it is clean and well-groomed. Some would find it shocking or distracting. The medieval braid also doesn’t appeal to a modern sensibility. Today, braids are often fastened an inch or two from the end, leaving a “tassel,” and seem to be considered most attractive when they are an even thickness all the way down. Judging from artwork, the medieval braid was fastened at the end, and the wearer didn’t seem to care if it was the same thickness all the way down.
A Knight’s Tale
The Lion in Winter
Game of Thrones (I’m not sure if Game of Thrones really counts because it’s not a historical piece, but people keep telling me it’s medieval.)
Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones
Don’t tell me that the purpose of head coverings was to oppress women and that women only had long hair because of misogyny. Just don’t.