Brief Cuts: material that’s been cut from a dissertation chapter!
We can see how the interplay between post-Revolutionary politics, madness, and gender coalesced in day-to-day life by examining the semiotics of Romantic-era women’s hair.
English hairstyles after the Revolution had multiple meanings: loose, unpowdered hair meant democratic reform, while wigs carried conservative, aristocratic associations, and quickly went out of vogue. A short haircut, “in sympathetic imitation of victims’ hair before they were guillotined,” signified an informed protest against the Revolution.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s two portraits by John Opie illustrate this stylistic trajectory. Opie’s first portrait of the writer, painted in 1790-91, shows Wollstonecraft, then about 31, as a masculinized Enlightenment intellectual: she is wearing a curly white wig, a blue silk jacket and a cravat, and is shown turning the page of a book.
In contrast, Opie’s 1797 portrait, painted during Wollstonecraft’s pregnancy with Mary Godwin, shows the writer in a naturalistic style, with short, unpowdered hair, a casual posture, and the high-waisted plain white dress characteristic of the period.
At the same time, short hair was associated with illness and even madness, since a haircut was one preferred and very straightforward treatment for ungoverned female sexuality in the Romantic madhouse. In the THE FIRST ANNUAL REPORT ON MADHOUSES (1816), William Ricketts maintained that abundant hair, a traditional symbol of fertility, was harmful to women’s mental health: “I conceive in all cases of excessive mania, there is too great a determination of blood to the head, and that the hair ought to be kept as cool as possible, the head being loaded with hair, that must increase the heat.”
Stylized headwear also had associations with madness and politics: from the two-foot-high Montgolfier bonnets that followed the “Balloon mania” of the 1780s and the subsequent fear that the French would cross the Channel by air, to the popular “Crazy Jane millinery” inspired by the main character of Monk Lewis’s 1812 poem, “female insanity reached its nadir, becoming a fashion accessory: madness quite literally à la mode.”