What’s Up With the Up-Do?

A history of wedding hairstyles.

Sophie, Countess of Wessex and Princess Anne

At Friday’s royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton, the bride wore her hair down and pulled back, flouting the “up-do’ styling more traditional to weddings. Though Middleton is known for her natural “blowout” look, the fashion press wondered if the new Duchess of Cambridge would opt for a formal sculpture of braids and buns for the nuptials. This got the Explainer wondering, when did the up-do become the standard for bridal hair?

The 18th century. Ornamental hair has been a pursuit of humans since primitive times, but the idea of associating elaborate dos with special occasions really took off, at least among the upper classes in Europe, in the 1700s. Female royals and courtiers would have their stylists construct monumental hair sculptures for special events. These could be studded with feathers, fruit, and, according to some reports, models of fully rigged ships. Before the wedding of George III and Queen Charlotte in 1761, the bride had to sleep sitting up with the help of servants to ensure the survival of her massive up-do.

Not all women were able to afford this kind of indulgence, of course. Most lower-class brides wore their hair down while the royals were piling it up, and, in the 19th century, everyone’s hair became more modest. Young women typically maintained a virginal look with naturally flowing locks, while older ladies were more likely to employ tight buns and practical braids. In the 20th century, wedding hair followed general fashion trends, featuring clipped bobs in the 1920s and curled longer looks in the 1940s.

The modern up-do craze began in the 1980s. With the appearance of strapless gowns and puffy-skirted cocktail dresses on the haute couture runways of designers like Christian Lacroix, women wanted to put their hair up to show off their shoulders. As a wedding gown is traditionally the finale of a couturier’s collection, wedding styles simply mirror the more popular silhouettes of their time. Also, wedding veils—which traditionally cover the hair—decreased in size, which had the effect of pushing hairstyles upward.

There are some purely aesthetic arguments in favor of the updo. Gowns with high necks and puffed shoulders, as well as large necklace pieces, pair best with the style; combined with long hair, they have the potential to hide the bride’s face. On the other hand, low-cut dresses (such as those that resemble corsets and expose a fair amount of the unadorned collarbone area) can support up-dos as well as more free-flowing styles.

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Explainer thanks Joseph Roach of Yale University and Chris Davies of Chris Davies New York.