A Brush with History: Good Hair Advice Is Never Out of Style 

Looking at hairstyles from the ninteenth century with an eye (and a brush) on our current state of COVID hair 

A painting of Mrs. Charles Boynton Darling.

Unidentified, Mrs. Charles Boynton Darling, ca. 1828, watercolor on ivory, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Catherine Walden Myer Fund, 1937.6.2

Three years and many haircuts ago, we published this homage to nineteenth-century portrait sitters and their distinctive hairstyles. Taking another look at it the other day, albeit with my very own case of COVID hair, made me think I could tease out a new narrative and share it again. We're venturing back out into the world and maybe even into hair salons. Some of us our embracing our gray, others, like myself, are trying to make long hair work, at least for now. Clearly, how to tame one’s locks is nothing new. Take a look at these portraits and let us know your thoughts. At SAAM we're hair for you. And JVN if you're listening...help!

Inspired by the popularity of Netflix series Queer Eye, some of our portrait sitters from the nineteenth centuries are desperately hoping to get similarly sage advice on their own grooming and lifestyle choices. Who better to ask than Jonathan Van Ness, QE's coiffer-in-chief? 

"Oh, you're making my Blanche come out."

Dear Jonathan,

As you can see, my hair seems to have a mind of its own. In fact, you might imagine that it has a pair of hands as well. Brilliant, yes? With just a soupcon of risqué. Last time my husband ran his fingers through my hair, he lost his wedding band. We only found it a few weeks later when it kerplunked to the floor.

I'm seeking your advice on what to do next. I'm ready for a change; this do is so 1828! Something elegant, simple, with just a little whoosh. Surprise me! Perhaps you can help me let my hair down a bit, though heaven knows what else might fall out. By the way, my dear cousin Reginald had a queer eye, so I never knew quite where he was looking when we spoke.  Hopefully, you're not afflicted in a similar fashion. Looking forward to your reply.

I remain your faithful servant (and fingers crossed, client),

Mrs. Charles Boynton Darling...or just Darling for short.

A painting of Mr. Drury.

Thomas E. Barratt, Mr. Drury, ca. 1850, watercolor on ivory, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Catherine Walden Myer Fund, 1953.7.5

“Can you handle the CON-FI-DONCE?

My Good Man,

As you can see, Mr. Van Ness, I am pretty much what you'd call perfection. Dreamy eyes, check. Arching eyebrows, check. Cleft chin, oh yeah. And my hair, it's bouncy yet kempt. Indoorsy and outdoorsy. My style: tucked and untucked. (yes, that's a French tuck in case you're wondering) People often call me Mr. Darcy, rather than Mr. Drury, after a charming and handsome character in that novel by Miss Austen. I answer to both.

So, why am I writing to you? I have an idea that I would like to discuss that I'm calling "Queer Eye for the Victorian Guy." I think it has potential.

Yours, in style, Drury.


A painting of William Boswell Lamb

Unidentified, William Boswell Lamb, ca. 1795, watercolor on ivory, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase, 1980.126.4

 "Pomade! Pomade! Pomade!"

Hello, Jonathan,

It's me William Boswell Lamb, but you can call me Bill. My problem is a bit embarrassing in that my hair has been described as "Poodley" by my closest friends. The problem is that though it may resemble a French dog around my collar, the top is more...oh, I don't know..."Labradorish." And as you can see my name is Lamb, so that just makes it wrong on so many levels, as if I were a breed myself known as a "PooLaLa."

I do think the natural ear muffs keep me insulated on brisk days (and hide my big ears), but the whole look is not coming together. Is there some product I can put in my hair to make it stay down and behave (and not "roll over" to keep the dog thing going)? You're a clever chap; you must have something. Anyway, thank you for listening. I'm all ears (unfortunately). Best wishes from your new friend, Bill.


And so, Jonathan, you can see that your assistance is needed. Would you consider being our curator-of-hair and help us live our truth....one strand at a time?  Please say YAS.....


Darling, Drury, and Bill

P.S. Please reply c/o the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC



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