Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Ode to Over-the-Top Headdress

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We all have our own quirks. Tiny whims and hyper fixations which are insignificant not only at the universe’s scale (as are tragically all of our lives), but also at the human society’s one. Just things that often rubs us the wrong way when the “Other” (and here Other is Sartre’s other) doesn’t do them justice. Things we are a bit too intense about and it puzzles the world around us.

For my father, it is anachronistic cars (or more generally motor transports) or unreadable maps in movies. For my mother, it is non-properly folded bed sheets or differences between books and their movie adaptation. Me? Well with such family background behind me I have quite a few. So many unimportant hills to die on. But with the wonder of the internet, you might discover that there are other people ready to die there with you.

So here I am today tossing a bottle into the sea (an adequate mean of communication for this kind of hyper fixation) to unite my people… Because we need more bloody headdresses in period dramas!

Period dramas, my love, you are doing it wrong:

I love period dramas. I don’t know exactly why (maybe because I love history) but I do watch a lot of them. They are fun, they are pretty, and they are over-the-top (because history is over the top and ridiculous—frankly I don’t know how a specie which at some point decided that locking people together in a tower for months was a great form of government, which ended up winning the evolutionary game). You also learn stuff… Okay you might learn it very badly and you should never forget that this is a work of fictionbut be honest. Who hasn’t discovered a frankly fascinating period of history thanks to a period drama playing fast and loose with “details” such as people’s character or the unfolding of decisive battles? 

That being said we will all draw the line somewhere. And we will draw it for different reason. I will be able to sit through an installment of the Frost/Gregory cinematic universe for the pleasure of hate-watching, but I won’t get close to Knightfall with a ten-foot pole. 

Among the many things that can make watching a period drama with me absolutely insufferable is costuming. Which is a tad presumptuous on my part because historical costumes are immensely out of my historical field of study (I am much more comfortable in political history). But still, I like pretty things and I have an idea of what (rich people) of my area of study are supposed to look.

I, for example, know that not yet married Isabella of France should not look like a sexy 20 something having bought a cheap medieval dress for Halloween but rather like a proper, younger than 12 years old, Capetian princess. Congratulations Knightfall on doing poorly for every single one of your main female characters…

Thankfully websites with way better grasp on historical costumes than I do are here to satisfy my venting needs. But this doesn’t change the fact that a lot of period drama, too many, have close to zero respect to the era aesthetic (which is also evident in the general emptiness of castles). The reason behind this disrespect is unclear but can range from lack of interest/care, wanting to relatable™, or wanting to save money… If you are lucky you will dive deep in a clever mix of the three. (I guess this is how you get the football gown from the TWP.) 

And nowhere is it more evident than in the suspicious lack of headdress.


“Headdress” is a fantastic term because it covers nearly everything that is supposed to go on your head. It can be clothes, religious symbols, crowns, wigs, or even piece of armor etc. Headdresses are incredibly diverse and incredibly common cross-culturally wise. They are even available for men and women! When they are not considered a fundamental part of your daily clothing, people are often expected to tie their hair in specific fashions.

Long story short, long floaty hair left to live its happy free life is a relatively recent style which wasn’t common in all eras. Especially not in Europe. Hell! My great-great-grandmother, who died in the 60s would not have been caught dead going out “en cheveux”. And yet here we are:

That’s a lot of loose or barely styled hair… A LOT!

It is so bad that men even lose their helmets in the battle: 

Vikings attacking Paris and not a single helmet in sight. Do you want to get killed before everyone else? Because this how you get killed before everyone else!

Apparently if you want to keep your headdress or just your hairpins (beggars can’t be choosers) you have to be old, religious (on a zealot level or on a “I am literally part of the Church” level), or be an extra… And after that creators will pat themselves on the back saying that they created a show “as authentic and real as [they] can make it”. Maybe at some point in history we have lost the technical knowledge that allowed us to create headdresses. A bit like with Greek fire. 

Or someone (my anonymous arch-enemy) decided for everyone that headdresses were ugly and unpractical. And here I need to make my stand.

Long hair do care:

Hear me out, period drama producers. Here I am, a white 20-something European woman, your favorite type of person to cast. Even when it makes no bloody sense. Like this time you kept the 24 years old Saoirse Ronan to play the 44 years old Mary Stuart going to her execution without adding aging makeup. Or this other time you cast the 29 years old Sophie Marceau to play the 3 years old Isabella of France so she could have sexy time with William Wallace in Braveheart. (Isabella really does get the short end of the stick.) As it turns out I share something else with this historically inaccurate depictions of woman you like so much. I have long hair.

It’s hell.

The only reason I mainly wear it loose is because I am bad at this hair thing. It would take me two hours to prepare every morning if I tried to do anything more complicated than a ponytail. I like to sleep too much to inflict this upon myself. But having pretty long floaty hair is incompatible with a very long list of things. Let’s just list some them: wind, rain, heat, any sort of physical activity, technical difficulties to wash them, any sort of dirtying activity etc. Trust me, I lived in Singapore and did not let my hair loose one day there otherwise I would have cut it all.

So there is no way in heaven that someone living in a time where hair care was more complicated than today would still have been expected to expose their hair to the elements by wearing it long and/or uncovered. Especially since life might have been a tad more dirtying than today. And yes, even princesses with an army of attendants did not have a hair touch-up every 30-45 min like actresses do in-between takes if necessary.

The real Agrippina the Younger sporting a sensible hair-style – her Roman Empire counterpart with extra dagger of badassness.

Besides let’s be perfectly honest here. Who would wear their hair long if they had an army of attendants at their disposal? Or a a hennin so fancy the Catholic Church had to disapprove?

Headdresses of practicality:

I won’t repeat what was already stated in the previous part. Headdresses were incredibly practical to keep hair protected from the great dirty outside world. For the hygiene part, I will just add that wearing your own headdress is a better protection against lice than just “simply” tying hair back. You know those lice, which are now highly suspected of having transmitted THE Black Death. So put on your veils and horned headdress and you might survive the 14th century.

Headdress are also an indispensable part of armor. No truly, apparently this isn’t common knowledge, but your head is a fragile and important part of your body. Better put something on there to make sure that you won’t know a tragic and early demise. Yet period drama protagonists suffer from a special case anime hair! They can’t seems to find their helmet and their opponents’ axes can’t seem to find their head.

Gladiators wore helmets! I know that Kit Harrington’s pretty face is the only things with is abs that made people come watch this movie but they still wore helmets!

Headdresses also had social uses. What does a king wear? What is his most iconic symbol of power? “A crown” I hear from the tired student in the back row? You are absolutely correct! Different people from different social class and different background wore different clothes. Headdresses were and sometimes still are among the highly visible way of showing your social standing. There were even sometimes laws enforcing these differences. So yes, as the attentive reader might have already hypothesized (what you don’t hypothesize while reading article? We couldn’t be friends), headdresses are a fantastic way to visually world-build. At least in the hands of a competent director. I have heard some of them are still roaming free in the woods somewhere. 

Headdresses as high fashion statement:

Now that we all agree on the great practical benefits of headdresses and their inherent superiority to long floaty hair, let’s go to the core of the issue. HEADDRESSES ARE GORGEOUS AND IF YOU THINK OTHERWISE YOU ARE WRONG! Yes all in caps. It is what headdresses deserve. 

I see you period dramas which only put headdress on older characters! I see you and I curse you because I know what you are trying to do. You paint headdresses as rigid and unfashionable. Yet you are not coherent with yourself because if all your older people are wearing headdresses it means they must have been in fashion at some point.

 Thankfully some people are still fighting the good fight. And viewers are not fooled. I am sure of it! Take Rome’s Cleopatra, sure she isn’t as Greek-looking as she should be, but haven’t you squealed with delight when she appeared wearing what must be a 1 or 2 kg wig?

Look at my baby out-shining every Roman in the room with her fancy wig!

Who is the fanciest Louis XIV: 1996 L’Allée du Roi or Lord Flathair-Nohat on the right?

Real absolute monarchs have twenty birds killed to create their hat.

Who would you rather be: Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter (1968) or Isabella of France in the second season of Knightfall season 2? (And why can’t these knight stop falling?)

After losing the technical knowledge to produce headdress we lost the one allowing us to properly lit movie-set.

Don’t Wu Zetian and Chabi Khatun look positively imperial with their extremely flamboyant headdresses?

Because yes headdress were fashionable. Yes they were beautiful and yes they deserve to be portrayed in period drama! Perfectly accurately? No of course not, mainly because perfect historical accuracy is not attainable in period drama nor is it the point. But having a vague respect for the general esthetic of the era your portraying should be mandatory. And respect is found in headdresses.


Headdresses are cool. Put them in your period dramas, they belong there. Put them in your period dramas and I will pay to see them. Actually put them everywhere. To compensate for all those headdressless years.

Thank you Taika Waititi; I knew I could count on you.

Images courtesy of  HBO, Marvel, Netflix, History Channel, Haworth Productions, Canal+, France 2, Starz, Twentieth Century Fox, and Universal Pictures

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