The Chignon Horror: Dis-tressing News about False Hair (part 1)

Victorian chignon hair do

A large Victorian chignon.

The chignon was a popular hair-style of the 1860s and 1870s. It quickly outgrew its origins as the classical Greek knot of hair at the back of the head, to become a bulky, padded, and netted monstrosity. A similar style, the waterfall, also incorporated a frame worn on the back of the head, with the hair combed over it to fall in curls or waves down the back. Both chignon and waterfall were denounced by critics of female vanity and satirists alike. Anthony Trollope, for example, called chignons “the bandbox behind the noddle.” This article gives some of the objections to the chignon.

The Chignon

There is a lady in Washington who wears her own fair hair without a chignon, which fact deserves mention in honor of the one sensible woman of the age who does not disfigure herself with the current vile wad. No one is deceived by these monstrous tumors into believing any other thing than by their assumption is indicated a woeful lack of that long hair which is the glory of woman in the person wearing them. They defile collars, they exhale graveyard savors, and do away with the pleasantest part of a woman’s head, next to her face—the round, shapely noddle, to wit, of beauty unadorned. Even the close-shorn “poll” of a bruiser is preferable, in a judicious eye, to the back brain of a pretty woman fouled up with a mass of horse-hair, sea moss, and dead folks’ tresses. Away with it, then, good lades. The summer is nigh and its heat may reveal those taints of the chignon which the cold of the winter has kept under check. Decatur [IL] Eagle 20 May 1870: p. 1

The “taints of the chignon,” (which would make a good title for a Victorian thriller) were spelled out in more detail by this item in The Lancet:


We should be sorry to say anything that would unnecessarily disturb the peace of ladies in their compliance with the present remarkable fashion of wearing chignons. This custom may seem very irrational to the male half of mankind, but this objection would apply to many of the fashions by which ladies consider that they adorn themselves, and so must not count for much. A more serious objection, and one more calculated to have weight with English ladies, has been started, according to a correspondent of our own, by a Russian professor, M. Lindemann. According to this authority, 75 per cent, of the false hair used for chignons and similar purposes in Russia is infested with a parasite to which he has given the name of Gregarine. The gregarinous hair, it is said, is very like other hair in appearance, but on close inspection little dark-brown knots are seen at the free end of the hair, and may even be distinguished by the naked eye. These are gregarines. These parasites have a most ignoble ancestry and habitation, being found in the interior of the pediculus capitis [head lice]. It is only due to them, however, that these statements should be verified by other observers before we give all the particulars of their natural history. They are not easily destroyed. They resist the effects of drying, and even of boiling. Acids, alkalies, ether, and other agents, would kill them; but these would be injurious to the hair, and so cannot be used. According to the authority quoted, in the conditions of a ball-room the gregarines “revive, grow, and multiply by dividing into many parts—so-called germ-globules; these fly about the ball-room in millions, get inhaled, drop on the refreshments—in fact, enter the interior of people by hundreds of ways, and thus reach their specific gregarian development.” We do not answer for the truth of all this natural history; but when the natural history of chignons themselves is considered, it may well be all true. In Russia, the hair of them is supplied by the poorer people, especially peasant women of the Mordwines and the Burlakes, near the Volga, who do a large trade in it. “When the Burlake goes out to work in the spring, he perhaps puts a clean shirt on, but he decidedly never takes it off until he returns home in autumn.” Verily, as the professor argues, here is a fine chance for parasites. We must leave the subject with ladies and naturalists. Half the awful possibilities of the fashion—which it does not require a microscopist to suggest–would deter men. We cannot so certainly reckon upon affecting ladies in a matter of fashion. But of all false things, one of the most objectionable is false hair. The Lancet London: A Journal of British and Foreign Medicine Vol. 1 1867 p. 218.

The suggestion of gregarines, which infest the intestines of lice, was unsavory, but also controversial. Others said that the offending objects were not animal, but vegetable: the chignon fungus. This article is too long to post here, but you can get an idea of the scientific issues involved here.

In 1867 Punch, with its usual subtlety, printed a little dialogue on The Chignon Horror (another good thriller title).



Uncle:  Now, my dear Fanny, it is your birthday. Let me see, how old are you? Not yet arrived at years of discretion, eh? Well, my dear, here is a little present for you—a little scientific instrument. Science is fashionable now, you know. Here is a microscope, to study minute botany with—and entomology.

Fanny: Oh, thank you, Uncle!

Uncle: Entomology; science of insects, you know. Minute entomology; of insects not visible to the naked eye. Mites in cheese, for instance.

Fanny: Nasty, horrid things!

Uncle: Well, if you like better, diminutive water-insects; the waterflea and the cyclops—and such. But I suppose you would wish to eschew mites. I mean not eat them?

Fanny: Oh, yes, Uncle!

Uncle: Then you should examine your cheese. With this you can. Other things also, besides cheese. There is cheese—and there are chignons.

Fanny: “Chignons” and ” cheese” sounds funny.

Uncle: Yes, my dear. Alliteration. But cheese and chignons have more in common than Ch. However, you think chignons are “the cheese,” eh?

Fanny: They are the fashion, Uncle, dear.

Uncle: Yes; they are the fashion. So were “fronts” in my young days. Both false hair. Wise ladies then wore it before; now they wear it behind. The dandies of the day used, as they said, to quiz it.

Fanny: Quiz?

Uncle: Yes. It was one of their slang words—derived from looking through an eye-glass, called a quizzing-glass. Meant to inspect, as it were, and ridicule. Now, their successors, the swells, quiz chignons. But you can quiz your chignon yourself—with your microscope.

Fanny: Why should I, Uncle?

Uncle: To see if it contains any gregarines.

Fanny: Gregarines! Law, I should think they were pretty.

Uncle: No, my dear, they are parasites. Parasites of parasites.

Fanny: Now, nonsense, Uncle. I know what a parasite is: “One who frequents rich tables, and earns his welcome by flattery.”—Dr. Johnson.

Uncle: “The little fleas have other fleas, and smaller fleas to bite ’em. Those smaller fleas have lesser fleas; and so ad infinitum.” Fleas are parasites. But gregarines are not fleas.

Fanny: I should hope not. But what are they, then?

Uncle: “Little dark brown knots.” my love, which are seen at the free end of the hair, and may even be distinguished by the naked eye. These are gregarines.” They are the discovery of a M. Lindemann, a Russian professor, whose country has doubtless afforded him a fine field for observation in this branch of zoology.

Fanny: Zoology, Uncle?

Uncle: Yes, my dear. These little dark-brown knots are not inanimate objects.

Fanny: Ugh!

Uncle: They “have a most ignoble ancestry and habitation, being found in the interior of “——

Fanny: What?

Uncle: Never mind. They are, as I said, parasites of parasites. “They are not easily destroyed. They resist the effects of drying and even of boiling.” Nothing, in short, but corrosive things that injure the hair will kill them.

Fanny: Oh, the horrid things! Oh, the abominable, dreadful, disgusting, nasty creatures!

Uncle: According to M. Lindemann, seventy-six per cent, of the false hair used for chignons in Russia is infested with them.

Fanny: That’s enough, Uncle!

Uncle: In the conditions of a ball-room, he says, they grow and multiply; fly about in millions, get inhaled, drop on the refreshments—in fact–

Fanny: Oh, Uncle, don’t say any more, please. Stand out of the way from the grate, do. I won’t wear the thing another moment. {Tears off her Chignon.)

Uncle: Stay; wouldn’t you like to examine it?

Fanny: No! There! {Flings it into the fire.) There’s an end of it!

Uncle: And its inhabitants. Well done, Fanny! Let it blaze—with them. And now, by way of substitute for a chignon at your poll, to wear a chaplet, circlet or whatever you call it, on your crown, here, take this bank-note. Now you will show that you have a taste of your own, and leave gregarious young ladies to wear chignons with gregarines. {Scene closes.)  Punch Volume 52 1867 p. 86

Chignon horror indeed, infesting the refreshments and being inhaled by innocent persons at a ball! Enough to make a sweet thing cut off her hair and retire from society.  But, as we shall see in part 2,  chignons, waterfalls, and their attendant gregarines (or fungi) also provided a wealth of costume humor.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.