Downton Abbey
Critical Contexts

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"Curling Irons and the Role of the New Woman"

Dana Hilton (Spring 2014)

The television series Downton Abbey is a paradise for aesthetes; it is hard not to be enamored by the magnificently detailed costumes, the opulent furnishings, or the imposing façade of the estate. Along with these aesthetic pleasures the viewer is able to experience this lifestyle in its more intimate aspects, such as a footman brushing his lord’s dinner jacket or a maid curling her lady’s hair. We are first presented with the use of an electric curling iron in the third episode of season two of the series. At the beginning of the episode, we see Anna curling Lady Mary’s hair before bed. Later, we see Anna practicing on her own hair, this time in her bedroom that she shares with Ethel. In Downton Abbey, the curling iron serves as a symbol of transition and its use emphasizes the need to embrace the changing traditions of the roles that women play as a result of World War I.

Typically made of iron, a curling tong is a cylindrical metal appliance used to curl hair with heat. It was primarily warmed over a fire, but eventually was made electric and therefore safer to operate. The handles were often made out of different types of wood, but there were also expensive models that had nickel-plated handles and floral embellishments. The average length was about thirteen inches and the diameter could range from five-sixteenths of an inch to seven-sixteenths (“Advertisement: Bohn Electric Shop”). The inventor of the curling iron remains unknown, but the first known patent for the improvement of the design was given to Sir Hiram Maxim on August 21, 1866 (Mottelay).

While the curling iron was first patented in the 19th Century, the practice of hairstyling has been dated back to 2,000 BC (Stevenson 138). The first ladies’ hair salon was established in the 1600s, much to the chagrin of church leaders who believed that “male involvement in a female’s private toilette [was] highly immoral” (Stevenson 138). In 1872, the first successful salon for women was opened in Paris, France by a man named Marcel Grateau (Stevenson 138). His iconic style, christened the Marcel wave, was “a style and beauty distinctively at variance with all other forms of hair-dressing” (Woodbury 51). He designed his own curling iron in 1890, which was a deviation of the original curling iron patented just a few years before. Often these tongs “would become almost unbearably hot, often burning the hair, but the temperature could not be successfully regulated because if they were used when too cool the hair would not ‘set’” (Fellowes 77). Regardless, the popularity of the style has embedded itself in history and is easily recognizable as the hairstyle of the early 20th Century.  

Curling irons also appeared in print media like American fashion magazine Vogue. In the December 1915 issue, a curling iron was advertised by The Bohn Electric Shop for $3.50; adjusted for inflation, the price today would be $81.88. The device also appeared in an article published in the October 1918 edition entitled “On Her Dressing Table,” which goes into explicit detail concerning the proper way to care for a young woman’s hair. It is interesting to note that the article is actually against the use of curling irons, stating that it is a result of a “lack of grooming… concealed – very poorly – by the use of curling irons and an elaborate coiffure that is hardly suited to the daughter of a gentlewoman” ("Beauty: On Her Dressing-Table"). Despite this negative view, curling irons remained a popular staple on every woman’s dressing table.

Season 2 of Downton Abbey is set in 1918, a time of great change for the country and its women. The pressure of World War I affects the estate and its inhabitants when the manor turns into a temporary convalescent home for wounded soldiers. In Episode 3, the viewer is treated to a glimpse of the old Downton with a scene in which Anna is practicing curling Lady Mary’s hair with an electric curling iron before bed. Surrounded by soft, ambient lighting, Lady Mary sits in her delicate white nightgown while Anna, dressed in her nighttime housemaid uniform, separates and curls little sections of hair. Mary is aware that Anna is distracted and asks her if everything is okay, and the two have a short conversation about the whereabouts of Mr. Bates, Anna’s love interest. Mary tells Anna that she will have Sir Richard Carlisle look into it, as he is a powerful newspaper proprietor whose profession “is a world of spies, tip-offs, and private investigators.” As Anna finishes curling Lady Mary’s hair, Mary examines the results in the mirror, and the scene ends with her telling Anna: “Not bad. Try to fit in a bit of practice; we’ve plenty of time to get it right before there’s anyone to see me who matters.” Albeit a short scene – it only lasts fifty seconds – there are a lot of factors that imply change. The most obvious is the use of the curling iron, which is a newly popular style since Lady Mary is not ready to be seen with her hair curled by anyone who “matters.” Another suggestion of change is Lady Mar’s quip about Sir Richard’s profession, which displays her awareness of what his new-money lifestyle entails.

Later in the episode, there is one more appearance of the electric curling iron during a scene that reflects changing cultural expectations. At Lady Mary’s request, Anna is practicing with the curling iron on her own hair, this time in her bedroom that she shares with fellow housemaid Ethel. Their room is decidedly plain, and they are dressed in similar cotton nightgowns. Again, there is a conversation about a possible love interest – this time, Ethel explains to Anna that one of the convalescing soldiers, Major Charles Bryant, wants to take her out to see a movie. Anna dashes Ethel’s hopes by asking how the soldier plans on carrying out his proposal, and the conversation changes to Ethel inquiring about what Anna is doing. Anna explains how she promised Lady Mary she would practice with the iron, and the scene ends. This scene is also important because it explores the idea of an inappropriate relationship between a housemaid and a major in the Army, which indicates that the First World War is affecting all classes, particularly a lower class woman’s expectations.

Just one example of changing traditions in Downton Abbey, the curling iron serves as a symbol of transition in a time where women’s roles were significantly evolving as a result of World War I. One of the most prominent examples of an evolving woman’s role was Lady Sybil Crawley’s decision to train as a nurse in an attempt to help the war effort. The youngest sister and the most politically active member of the family, Sybil often shocked her family members with her decisions; donning harem pants rather than a conventional post-Edwardian dress and attending aggressive political rallies are only two of many examples of her progressiveness. In the show, Sybil represents the effects of the changing world on upper-class families. After the soldiers leave Downton in Episode 7 of Season 2, she explains to Edith, “I know what it is to work now. To have a full day, to be tired in a good way. I don't want to start dress fittings or paying calls or standing behind the guns.” Her reluctance in returning to her old life shows that the war was a glimpse into a world where women had equal rights. When she proclaims her intent to marry Tom Branson, the socialist chauffeur, her family is outraged but eventually gives their blessing and the couple moves to Dublin, Ireland, where they marry. This mixing of classes is another example of the war’s effects on women’s roles. In conclusion, the character of Sybil encompassed many of the changes affecting women during the tumultuous time of the war.

Another instance of the changing roles of women and their places in society as a result of World War I is Ethel the housemaid. When she indulges in an inappropriate relationship with Major Bryant, a convalescing soldier, Mrs. Hughes dismisses her from her position and Ethel leaves the estate. She later returns because she is pregnant with Major Bryant’s child; the soldier, however, has died in battle after ignoring Ethel’s numerous attempts to contact him. When Ethel refuses to give her son to Major Bryant’s parents, who would not allow her any contact with him, Ethel resorts to prostitution. There were many women widowed in the war who received a widow’s pension, but there were also many illegitimate children whose mothers were left with nothing. This storyline offers a more undesirable view on the war’s effects on women, but is insightful nonetheless because Ethel is still able to have a respectable profession after being tainted by her time as a prostitute. Ethel’s ability to work her way back up (with the help of Isobel Crawley, of course) demonstrates that because of the war, the stigma of a single mother was slowly evolving to become more acceptable.

A final example of the war’s effects on women’s roles is Edith, the middle Crawley sister. Not only does Edith learn how to drive a car, but she is also employed to work on a neighboring farm to fill the vacant tractor driving position. When Edith is let go from the position, Sybil suggests that she works as a convalescent helper and Edith follows her advice. At this point in the series, Edith no longer has the spoiled disposition of a Crawley girl; she regularly brings the officers books and helps them write letters to their families. This role serves as a catalyst for Edith’s development in later seasons when she becomes a women’s rights advocate in a popular newspaper, even securing a formal job as a columnist who writes about issues that the modern woman deals with. The war functions as a distinctive line separating the “old” woman from the “modern” woman, and Edith’s transformation can be described in the same way.

In conclusion, Downton Abbey encourages the viewer to embrace the change in women’s roles that the First World War brings. Facilitators of this change vary from little things, such as curling irons, to larger instances like illicit relationships and women’s rights articles. Characters such as Sybil, Ethel, and Edith are only a few examples of the implications of the war, since it affected every single member of the estate. As the series progresses, the role of women will continue to develop into what we know the modern woman to be today.


Works Cited

"Advertisement: Bohn Electric Shop (Bohn Electric Shop)." Vogue Dec 01 1915: 168. ProQuest.
Web. 25 Apr. 2014.

"Beauty: On Her Dressing-Table." Vogue Oct 01 1918: 124,124, 126. ProQuest. Web. 25 Apr. 2014 .

Fellowes, Jessica, and Matthew Sturgis. The Chronicles of Downton Abbey: A New Era. New York: St. Martin's, 2012. Print.

Mottelay, Paul Fleury and Hiram. Sir Maxim. The Life and Work of Sir Hiram Maxim, Knight, Chevalier De La Légion D'honneur Etc. Etc. London, NY: Lane, 1920. HathiTrust. Web. 24 Apr. 2014.

Stevenson, Karen. "Hairy Business: Organising the Gendered Self." 2003. Contested Bodies. Ed.Ruth Holliday and John Hassard. London: Routledge, 2001. 138. Print.

Woodbury, William A. Hair Dressing and Tinting: A Text-book of the Fundamental Principles Showing the Ready Adaptability of the Ever Changing Mode of Wearing the Hair, for Professional and Private Use. New York: G.W. Dillingham, 1915. Web. 24 Apr. 2014.

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