I hail from a long line of redheads. Great-grands, grands, mom, brother. My own hair is auburn – that shade that looks the average brunette until I go outside and the sun suddenly finds all sorts of other colors to highlight.
Red haired. Synonyms ginger-hackled and ginger-pated. A term borrowed from the cockpit, where red cocks were called gingers.
Whenever I read stories set in the 17th-19th centuries, redheads are often portrayed as firebrands, hot heads, loud mouths, or even criminals. A look back through history reveals a mixed bag of opinions concerning those of the fiery locks. In ancient Greece, many women of the upper classes coveted the look, dyeing their hair red with henna, then dressing it with gold powder and fresh flowers. They wore their hair long and in corkscrew curls or pinned up in what we now call the “Greek knot” (a bun secured at the nape). Several generations later, their hairstyles became fussier, with hair curled tight and piled high on the head – sometimes even supported with wire frames.
But while Greek women favored the titian, the men seem more skeptical. Aristotle observed
The reddish are of bad character.
Those with tawny coloured hair are brave; witness the lions. [But those with] reddish [hair] are of bad character; witness the foxes.
Romans later viewed redheads with equal parts awe and fear, and equated the coloring with the dreaded invaders from the north: Gauls and Germans.
Their tall stature, their long red hair, their huge shields, their extraordinarily long swords; still more, their songs as they enter into battle, their war-whoops and dances, and the horrible clash of arms as they shake their shields in the way their fathers did before them – all these things are intended to terrify and appal.
– Livy, on the Gauls.
The fascination with red hair waned – at least in its value toward historical mention – until once again reigning supreme during the Tudor era. And once again, the image of the hair color begetting fiery and temperamental figures resurfaced. Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth I, were both alpha gingers.
So what brought about the cant term “carrotty-pated?” In addition to the obvious comparison to redheads and angry roosters, it can be partly explained by the revival of ancient Greece fashion during the Regency era. Women abandoned their wigs and began curling their hair, wrapping it ornately or piling it high, and decorating it with ornate combs, diadems, and sometimes outrageous bonnets. Costumes became decidedly spartan (pun intended) and more form-fitting with the switch from stomachers and panniers to muslins and empire waists.
If the drawings and portraits of the period are any indication, however, the Greek revival did not extend to an acceptance of red hair. Caricaturists like James Gillray and the Cruikshanks often drew the less desirable, decorous, and downright unattractive with orange noggins.
A few flattering portrayals of titian beauties can be found; it is interesting that these are the drawings of a woman rather than a man.