Medieval Anachronisms, Part 4: Shoulder-Length Hair

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.

Angers Cathedral sculpture: woman with hair in 2 knee-length braids

manuscript image of a wedding: one woman has hair in 2 hip-length braids

manuscript image: two women have loose waist-length hair

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.

Accurate Depictions

First Knight

Inaccurate Depictions

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.


Medieval Anachronisms, Part 4: Shoulder-Length Hair — 9 Comments

  1. Wonderful article! Ha, I totally expected Game of Thrones to be on here. It’s very firmly fantasy: The hairstyles are gorgeous and uncovered, and the majority of the main female cast does require an army of (really expensive) wigs, except for Sophie Turner who plays Sansa Stark (they just dyed her hair red and let it grow out). I’m amused since she’s at least 5’8 by now, and you can almost track her hair growth during the show’s run. Ironically enough, it sparked a legion of girls who decided to grow their hair out so they could copy the styles, so long hair is making at least a partial comeback.

    I have hip-length hair myself, and I love the medieval aesthetic of what many people at deem “fairytale” or “natural” ends–where the locks of hair taper down into wisps and the hair forms a u/v-shape. I like even-thickness braids on other people, but for my own really thick hair? I get horrible memories of a stubby, paintbrush-like braid that keeps falling apart. Plus my hair’s wavy, so the modern blunt and straight-across hairstyle reeeeeeally doesn’t work.

    My mother says my braids look like rat tails, and that my hair looks messy/scraggly when it’s wavy, despite the fact that I trim my split ends, keep it shaped every month, and tend to get obsessive about my hair in general. Everyone else says my hair looks really nice, but I do notice people stick their noses in others’ business when their hair is significantly past waist/hip length, regardless of hair quality.

    In general, the shoulder-length modern hair idea is because hairdressers need money and they hold to outdated or half-informed ideas like “trim your hair to make it grow faster.” I’ve saved a crapton of money by keeping my hair long and trimming it myself.

  2. Hm? While going to my work in Poznań, POland, I daily pass by at least few young women who wear hair waist-long. My wife supposedly had hip-long hair when young, but they were too cumbersome, so she cut it when in high school.

    But who could possibly consider such hair “disgusting?” I, for one, find such hair extremely appealing.

    • I appreciate hearing that some people really like long hair. :) Whenever I look at instructional videos on Youtube for styling hip-length hair, there’s usually at least 1 comment saying, “Hair that long is disgusting!” I usually encounter people who think it’s bizarre. Some even find it offensive (they think nobody should wear her hair that long when she could donate all of it to Locks of Love).

  3. This post qualifies as a public service announcement :) Good for you!

    I have hip-length hair myself, and I would suggest that where the artwork depicts a braid fastened at the very end, it is not quite accurate. It’s almost impossible to get a long braid to come out “even” over that much distance, so you have to fasten it off an inch or two early because one strand has run out or the ends have gotten too scruffy to braid. The picture with the lady in the pink dress does show braids with tassels, as does the picture immediately underneath. The sculpture is less clear, but some of the double-braid hairstyles involved a sort of “cap” over the end of the braid which would cover the last little bit and look like it fastened at the very end.

    Ooh, and have a link:

    • Great link! I’m sure many SCA people will find it useful. I’ve wanted to do some instructional posts on medieval hairstyles, but I can never see them well enough in artwork to confidently reproduce them.

      I also have hip-length hair, and mine does come out even if I braid it all the way down. I’ve found a significant amount of artwork depicting braids that way (or at least, fastened far lower than would be appealing to modern fashion), but I can’t legally post any of them. Of course, whether or not braids come out even depends on an individual’s biology, end-trimming habits, and whether or not she’s using extensions. (You know that already; this comment is for short-haired readers.) I’ve never been able to find any scholarship about whether or not medieval women would trim split ends.

      We long-haired gals can always recognize one another, can’t we? :)

  4. *looks at last picture*

    So, even in the Middle Ages, women loved a man in uniform?