1st century Roman lady’s hair piece

I have this thing where I cut my hair off pretty much like clockwork every 5 years or so. I usually make that call right around the time when it’s 85*F, humid, and my hair’s tangling itself miraculously in the middle of the night. It grows really fast, so that means I usually have hair down to my hips by the time I am so sick of it I just need it all gone right now. That means, however, that I’m then stuck with anachronistically short hair for the next couple of years while it grows out. For my Elizabethan portrayal, that wasn’t an issue as I just wore forehead cloths under my coifs. No hair is supposed to be visible, ergo no problem if it’s buzzed short or dyed a funky color.

Three views of a Flavian lady.

Three views of a Flavian lady.

With Roman, though, I’ve got a problem. Roman women’s hair in the first century is elaborately coiffed and piled on top of the head, and only slightly covered by a veil. This style, called the orbis comarum by hair historian Janet Stephens, features a wreath of braids at the back of the head and a high fringe of curls at the front. The wreath could be a false hairpiece pinned over the wearer’s original hair. My hair is currently just below my ears in length. Fortunately, I’ve saved my long hair the last few times I’ve cut it short, so I’ve got several 12″+ long braids to work with. I followed Janet Stephens’ tutorial video on this hairstyle to make my false hairpiece.

Top: half of the hair from one haircut. Bottom: 6 smaller braids made from the other large one.

Top: half of the hair from one haircut. Bottom: 6 smaller braids made from the other large one.

My hair is very thick (a ponytail tends to be about the diameter of my wrist) and so when I cut it a few years ago I divided it into two braids. For this project, each braid was then divided into six smaller braids giving me a total of twelve braids to work with, each about a foot long. The ends are stitched together with a needle and thread. To minimize frizz, I ran a small amount of Bag Balm (a lanolin salve) through the hair while I braided it. Once the ends were firmly secured, I then cut off the extra inch or so that was left outside the stitching.

Ends all stitched together before shaping.

Ends all stitched together before shaping. Displayed on a classy, classy recycled cafeteria tray.

With 12 small braids completed, I layered them in 4 rows of 3 braids and staggered the ends to taper the finished product. Each braid was stitched to its neighbors. When all 12 were firmly attached to each other, I sewed the whole thing together repeatedly with anchoring stitches just to minimize the chances of it shifting around while being worn. I loosely twisted them into a circle shape and used the longest of the braids to wrap over the spot where the wreath joined. I put a handful of catch stitches throughout the wreath to keep the braids together once it’s being worn.

Finished wreath.

Finished wreath.

The finished wreath isn’t quite as tear-drop shaped as it appears in this picture. To finish off the look, the short real hair forward of my ears will be teased into rag curls. Hair behind the ears will be French braided and pulled together to be hidden under the wreath pinned in place on the back of my head. The final project to make this ready for wear is to get some hairpins done. I’ve seen a few really neat ones (such as these lovely poppy Roman hair ornaments). My goal is to have this hairstyle for Birka, a large SCA event in New Hampshire in January. I think I can do it. This has been a nifty challenge.

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One Response to 1st century Roman lady’s hair piece

  1. Pingback: Flavian Hair | Life as a Professional Time Traveller

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