I’ve long been fascinated with the braided hair styles seen on women in Western European figural art of the mid-to-late 14th century—particularly in French works. To my modern eyes, women did charming and oddball things with their hair. The undeniable outlandishness of these braids make them fun to recreate. I am especially enamored of the styles seen in the images below.
With this in mind, I invited a friend over recently to photograph the process of styling hanging braids that frame the face and wrap to the back of the head. Drea has thick, lustrous, long hair, and had expressed an interest in learning the process herself.
It was a perfect opportunity to both teach her and further my own learning. I’ve been braiding my hair in the style described for about sixteen years, but as I have thin hair that is rarely grown long enough to capture the proper appearance, I usually resort to wearing faux braids attached to a tablet-woven band. Originally, when all I had was my own hair to work with, it was my friend Charlotte Johnson who showed me how to do a simple face-framing braid arrangement.
I started making the faux hair pieces in 2003, after seeing my dear friend Greta Nappa make one based on an extant fragment published in the Museum of London’s Dress Accessories book. I disguise my own hair by pinning it back into a low, flat bun worn under a veil. Even though I’ve long known how to arrange hair in this fashion, I’ve been lacking in the finer points of securing the braids with no use of modern bobby pins or hair ties, which I’ll go into further below.
For this style, hair should be parted down the middle, all the way from the center of the forehead to the nape. There are a number of different methods for arranging a set of 14th-century face-framing braids. For this day’s experiment, we aimed for a style that pulls all the hair on each side of the head to the temples and creates two long braids that then fold in half, get pinned to create the stiff, vertical shape, and then wrap around the back of the head.
We decided to try two versions of the same style—one with plain, clean hair, and one with hair product in it. As I began to braid her freshly-washed hair, we quickly noticed how unruly and slippery it was. Drea has typical hair for a woman of European descent. If we were having this problem now, it most certainly would have also been a problem with freshly-washed hair 630 or so years ago.
We had completed the first half of our experiment: braiding and arranging hair without any product in it. I experienced the challenges untreated hair brought to the process. As you can see in the photos above, it’s passably okay, but doesn’t really look as sleek and contained as imagery from the 14th century portrays it to be. I couldn’t imagine Drea going about an active day without the braids slipping free and falling apart.
I had given this some thought leading up to Drea’s visit, in fact. I pulled out The Compleat Anachronist issues #144 and 145, “Unveiling the Truth: Medieval Women’s Hairstyles” by Barbara Segal and read with interest her hypothesis that flax seed gel could have been used to optimize long hair’s texture when braiding during the 14th century.
Flax seed gel is incredibly easy and fast to make, and YouTube has a number of instructional videos. While the author did not provide evidence from before the 16th century to support the concept, it is certainly a rather common-sense and reasonable one, and I was willing to experiment. Before Drea arrived, I made some gel, enhancing it with essential lemon and lavender oils for scent. I have affectionately taken to calling it “vegan snot”.
Now it was time to try the hairstyle with flax seed gel. Getting it into her hair took a while. Patience and a wide-toothed comb did the trick. When the hair felt slightly tacky to the touch and there were no more slippery or fly-away sections, I deemed it ready for braiding.
When you have all the hair gathered into your hand to begin the braid, I find it easiest to twist the hair so that the braid will be angled to face outward in the same plane as the face. We see this in the art of the time as well.
I braided the hair as tightly as I could manage, which was considerably more tight than I could achieve with plain, untreated hair.
The hair gel was a complete success. Thanks to it, I did not need any hair bands or ties to hold her braids in place while fiddling with other things.
Next, I folded a braid in half, so that the bottom portion of the braid was bent toward the back of the head. I used a sturdy brass pin to hold the folded pieces together, no gaps showing between them. The bent portion of the braid only proceeded about halfway up the length before veering off to the back of the head. Using more straight pins, I tucked the gelled ends under and secured the end of the braid on the far side of Drea’s head.
I repeated these steps on the other side. I loved how manageable the hair became, once it contained gel. The slipperiness and fly-away concerns were solved. It was a dream to work with. I’m convinced that most women either hardly ever washed their hair in order to let the natural oils in the scalp develop and spread throughout the hair, or they used a hair gel, like the flax seed-based one I used. Perhaps they did a combination of both things.
I only had a few brass pins up to the task on the day of this experiment. Through the years I’d accumulated (and lost) lots of brass pins, but for the most part, they weren’t sturdy enough for holding thick braids in place.
Later, I found a maker on Etsy who made me a bunch of custom-sized pins. I asked them to make the points a bit dull since this is for hair (which sits close to tender scalps), not fabric. I ordered them in 2-inch and 3-inch sizes.
If you want custom-made hair pins, please do get in touch with them. Let’s support the small businesses out there. If I order again, I will likely ask that they make the loops at the heads of the pins smaller to reduce their visual profile and come more in line with extant examples.
While my own hair may never make as full an appearance as Drea’s can, I am now armed with good brass pins and a bag of flax seeds, and can produce a solid 14th-century hairstyle upon command without using anything modern. This was a fun learning and teaching experience for both of us. I look forward to getting my hands on more heads of long, full hair for further experimentation.