Recreating a “Flemish” headdress starts with the hair. There seem to be very few formal portraits of upper class woman painted with their hair down, and even fewer in the act of hairdressing. Luckily, the Dutch have a rich tradition of market genre paintings, and a number of market girls are depicted bareheaded. The hair is put up into coils and then wrapped around the head with ribbons which are usually white, though occasionally red. This creates a style that is attractive on its own, but it also helps create the right shape for the under cap. So it is reasonable to assume that the this, or something very like it, is the way the hair is dressed under the caps and veils that I’m interested in recreating.
First, for full disclosure, I should show you what I’m working with. I have waist-length, fairly thick and curly hair. So this is what my methods have been field tested on. However, any hair long enough to braid is long enough to add to. There are a number of excellent tutorials for using Indian braid extensions, called paranda, on line, and they can be quickly made up from yarn.
Second, a note on braids: In the Aertsen pictures at the top of the article, the hair appears to be wrapped in rope-like coils with the ribbon rather than braided. This painting of Hilleke de Roy provides a rare glimpse of hairdressing in progress, and again the hair does not seem to be braided. However, it also shows that it takes at least two people to create this style. In the painting, one girl is maintaining the tension and twist on the section of hair already done on the right. The girl getting her hair done is keeping the opposite end of the ribbon taut as her mother combs out the remaining hair. My own attempts to recreate this look have been a bit comical. I can hold the ribbon in my mouth to maintain the tension while I wrap up one side, but I have yet to find a way to keep the first coil intact while I do up the second one. So, if you have help, this method does look the most like the paintings. Unfortunately, as a modern person, I am usually doing my hair on my own, so I prefer to use braids. There are Italian paintings which clearly show braids, so they weren’t completely unheard of.
When I first tried to recreate this style, I used hair pins. U-shaped hair pins date back to at least the 14th Century. My hair even behaved fairly well with pins, but it always seemed to end the same way. There was always that one rebel pin that would work its way out slightly. I would shove it back in, where it would poke my head for the rest of the day. Particularly annoying under a hat. So I was very excited to learn the method of hair taping taught by the Tudor Tailor ladies in their first book.
In this style, a long ribbon is braided into plaits on either side of the head. Then the braids are crossed in back and wrapped around the head. The remaining ribbon is wrapped several times around the head and then tied in a bow either at the nape or at the top of the head. The best thing about this method was that it eliminated the pins. (Up until this point I had assumed that the ribbon was decorative, rather than functional.). It was also fast, reasonably secure and pretty cute on its own. However, when I tried to wear hats over it, I ran into some difficulty.
It’s possible that I just have a really pointy skull, but when I wrap my braids around my head, they end up pretty far forward. (top) That does actually match some of the market girl paintings. But this isn’t just about putting your hair up in an attractive manner, it’s about giving the hat shape. The coif is made from a flat rectangle and tied on with strings which sit in front of the braids. So the coif’s profile is entirely dependent on where the braids are located. To get the look I prefer (bottom) I have to sew my braids into position on the back of my head.
Sewing your braids into place is still fairly fast, and something you can do on your own. You will need just a couple of tools: comb, hair elastics, hair clips, your choice of ribbon, and blunt yarn needles. A hand mirror to see the back of your head is helpful, but optional.
First, comb out your hair to make braiding easier. If your hair is anything like mine, this can be a bit of a process. So if I’m likely to be under any time pressure in the morning, I usually comb it out the night before and then braid it into a comfortable sleeping braid to keep it under control, overnight. Then part your hair down the middle, and section one half out of the way with a large hair clip.
Again, braid your hair into two plaits and secure with elastics. I like to add some extra oomph by using “Dutch” braids. I find it easiest to sew the braids on one at a time, so just bring one braid up over your head and use a small hair clip to secure it in the desired location. Then get a ribbon at least twice as long as you are tall. This might be overkill, but you definitely don’t want to run out. I have used everything from 1/8″ super cheap satin spool-o-ribbon to 1/2″ grosgrain with success. Thread the ribbon onto your yarn needle and find the center. Put the center of the ribbon at the back of your neck. Because the stitching takes both hands, I like to secure the free end between my teeth. Yes, it is very silly, but you only need to hold it until after the first few stitches are in.
I like to sew from the inside of the circle toward the outside. Use one hand to push the needle under the braid and as close along the scalp as possible. Catch the needle as it passes to the front with your other hand. It’s quite easy to lose the needle as you will be making long stitches. Using your other hand to catch the needle saves a lot of frustration. Once the needle is transferred, use your first hand to control the ribbon as you tighten the stitch up. That is what I am doing on the far left. That helps keep the ribbon from getting knotted. Continue sewing along until you reach the hair clip. Remove it, and continue around the circle. If you plan to go without a hat, it’s nice to take the time to keep your stitches evenly spaced. But even fairly sloppy sewing will still be secure. Do, however, be really careful not to put two stitches so close together that one goes behind the other. That makes a knot that is a real pain to get out.
If you do Dutch braids, you can just tuck the end of the braid in under the braids attached to your scalp. Continue sewing until you get back around to your nape, which should look something like the middle picture. Then rethread the needle onto the other end of the ribbon and clip the second braid into place. Change directions and sew the second braid down. When both braids are sewn on and both ends of the ribbon are dangling down your back, remove the needle. Then cross the ribbons and wrap the remaining length around your head in front of the braids. Tie in a bow either at your nape or at the top of your head.
When it’s time to take your hair down, it will be much easier to do it in front of a mirror. It’s very helpful to see which ribbon you are tugging on. (This may seem really obvious, but in the SCA you may be ending your evening in low light, camping conditions. So it’s a good idea to plan ahead for this.). The stitches should come out easily, but as you un-sew your braids they might want to fall down on their own. If that happens while you still have a number of stitches in, it can become a big snarl. Use your trusty hair clip to avoid that.
Finally, here are some super theoretical ideas about dealing with shorter hair. The main goal of this hair style is to create a stable circle of hair on the back of the head. The top half of the circle is crucial for providing shape to the hat. The bottom half is helpful for filling out the coif, and for keeping the ear iron (a wire frame that is worn tied around the braids) in place. As I said before, the easiest way to get that circle may be to simply add length to your braids. If that is not desired, then the braids could start at ear level, with one braid directed over the head and the other along the nape to create a full circle. Hair shorter than that could perhaps be French/Dutch braided into a circle against the scalp. People with very short hair may not be able to wear some styles and might find it easiest to keep their caps on with a chin strap. If you have shorter hair and try any of these ideas out, I hope you’ll let us know how well they work for you.
Looking for the rest of the series? You can find the articles here: