A Guide to Antique Hair Accessories

Both practical and decorative, hair accessories have been used for thousands of years by various civilizations and cultures worldwide. From barrettes and headbands to hair rings and combs, the expansive nature of hair accessories seems near endless; yet each year brings new hair trends and recycles previous ones! And while generally fragile objects, some have survived centuries and decades, providing us with a wonderfully niche realm of antiques to explore and collect. This article will explore some of the broad history that encompasses hair accessories and some of the favorite antique style designs that are in the market today.





A beautiful young woman exudes romantic charm in this captivating portrait by Polish artist Emile Eisman-Semenowsky. This blue-eyed beauty, with flowers tucked in her hair epitomizes the bourgeois elegance popular in France as well as the grace and importance of hair accessories.



Hair Ties and Hair Rings


Hair rings — circular devices used to confine hair in one place — have early roots as far back as ancient Egypt. Often made of alabaster, jade or pottery, these rings have been found in tombs and were used to secure hair in wigs for the wealthiest and highest in social class. Hair rings have been found from the late Bronze Age in modern day France, Belgium and Great Britain, too. Often made of gold or organic objects plated in gold, these accessories are an early cousin to the modern day “hair elastic.” They were used mainly to restrain hair back but were also a sign of fashion and nobility. Today, we know hair rings as elastic circles, “rubber bands” or “scrunchies” used to secure hair, but previously a heavy solid piece would have been used in the elastic’s place.


A beautiful piece of Japanese artistry, this kushi, or hair comb, is both an elegant hair ornament and an exquisite work of art. Crafted from luxurious tortoiseshell, the kushi features a delicate golden enamel scallop pattern interspersed with charming a grasshopper's motif. Japanese kushi such as this one have been used since the prehistoric Jomon period, and the ornaments became an important part of women’s fashion beginning in the 17th century.


Hair Combs


Decorative hair combs have a rich, long history as well. The earliest combs date to over 5,000 years ago; these were made of carved wood and were primarily used for detangling and keeping hair tidy. As time progressed, bones, horns and tortoiseshell were carved to create beautiful and useful combs for securing hair. Some of these date as far back as ancient Rome! As time progressed, however, these simple combs became more decorated and exceptionally detailed — often with decoration correlating with one's’ social status and wealth.


In Japan during the 17th century, women often used combs made of lacquer, wood or tortoiseshell that were decorated with gold embellishments and patterns. These combs are called kushi, and they signify a woman’s wealth, class and religion. These combs are still used today but are worn only with the kimono during traditional Japanese ceremonies.






This hair comb was worn by Martha Washington as part of an elaborate headdress. Infused with the personality and glamour that surrounded the first lady, the comb evokes a very personal and treasured part of Mrs. Washington's boudoir. Records indicate that Mrs. Washington ordered two hair combs and other personal items from Robert Cary and Co. in January of 1758. This lovely comb was obviously a special and cherished personal item for the first lady.



Hair combs were not always used just by themselves. In Colonial America and Western Europe during the mid to late 18th century, combs could be used to help secure larger, more ornate accessories to the head. At the time, tall hair was all the rage and combs aided the addition of hair extensions and beautiful decorations.


Decorative combs found favor as mass production came to fruition in the 20th century. Combs for updos with gemstones and precious metals were popularized in the 1930s and 1940s. Movie stars and royalty alike sported combs with diamonds and jewels in their hair. Later on in the 20th century, the use of animal parts like ivory and tortoiseshell were outlawed and plastic combs in faux tortoiseshell and solid colors made in factories were en vogue.






This drawing by Russian painter Alexei Harlamoff exhibits a lovely young woman with a romantic, yet easy up-do. The model, who almost certainly posed in the late 1800s, most likely used hair pins or barrettes to secure this look.





Barrettes are a more modern invention in the world of hair accessories. These bar-shaped pieces often use a beaded head and guard cap to secure the hair between the two sections of the device. They can be made of metal or plastic, but the lasting, highest quality ones mostly use precious metals and gemstones. The front, of course, is usually highly decorated and reflects the style of the time. Barrettes have adapted throughout history to accommodate popular designs, too. Edwardian, Victorian, Art Deco, Art Nouveau and Retro designs are found in many estate barrettes.







This exquisite Edwardian hair pin showcases a delicate design illuminated by extraordinary stones. Diamonds form palm leaf-life designs that are bordered by dramatic blue sapphires. Set in platinum and yellow gold, it is an extraordinary example of Edwardian-era style.








This beautiful barrette features intricately carved jade, black onyx and white diamonds all set in 18K gold. It is a wonderful example of how exceptional hair accessories can be.



Hair Pins


A cousin to barrettes, hair pins have been popular accessory throughout history as well. Sometimes called forks or hair spikes, these tools take long hair and hold them into place once twisted into an updo or topknot. Ancient Romans, Native Americans and Japanese women have utilized these pins; often, they are decorated or carved to create a unique and stylish look.






A rare and fascinating antiquity, this Roman-era hair pin is crafted of carved bone.



Other Hair Accessories


There is much room for creativity when using decorations in hair. Throughout history, feathers, shells, flowers and other plants have been widely used in crafting important and significant hair trends. Native American tribes use organic materials and fabric strips to decorate hair; Chinese women during the Ming Dynasty laced their hair with silver and gold strings to hang pearls and emeralds from, too.


Collecting antique hair accessories is an exciting hobby! At M.S. Rau, we are dedicated to finding the most exceptional treasures from all over the world. Stay up to date with us by joining our mailing list. We are always keeping an eye out for the next great hair accessory on the market!



Sign up below to be the first to know about new acquisitions, exhibits, blogs and more.

Back to Top
back to top

Shopping Bag

Your shopping bag is currently empty.