Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Another Hairy Marie Antoinette Rumor

Marie Antoinette is not alone in this hairy rumor. It supposedly happened to Henry IV of France, Thomas More, Annie Oakley and Jerry Garcia. I swear it happened to Bill Clinton. If you ask around it seems everyone has a friend of a friend who had a grandmother that it happened to. It might be happening to me right now as I sit here writing this blog entry...procrastinating working on edits for my next book.

I am talking about hair going white literally over night or at the very least in less than a week. In my research on Marie Antoinette, I read two different accounts of her hair going white overnight before her final execution. When Madame Campan saw the queen two days after her arrest at Varennes she reported, “In a single night it (her hair) had turned as white as that of a woman of seventy.1” Legend also has it that Marie’s hair turned white the night before her execution.

I will admit that I am a little obsessed with Marie Antoinette’s hair. So the image of her going to bed with mounds of shinny, bouncy blond curls and waking up with a head of ghastly white hair has always stuck in my mind. We all know that stress is a killer. And surely, knowing that your head is going to be sliced off like a tomato in a Ginsu commercial can leave you a bit stressed. But could Marie’s stress have caused her hair to turn white overnight?

Let’s Break for the Science Bit
A hair strand resides in a hair follicle. The cells in the hair’s follicle, called melanocytes, make the prized melanin which gives our hair color. When we age, the melanocytes get a little sluggish and stop producing melanin resulting in the dreaded white hairs. Once that strand of hair turns white, it’s not going back to your lustrous color without some help from Miss Clairol.

Going Gray Gracefully
Hair is dead matter so when you are frightened or stressed whiteness cannot shoot down the strand. Instead, as hair grows from the root the whiteness starts there and gets longer and longer. As more and more hair is cut off at the ends by routine haircuts, we are left with white hair. This means that hair can only turn white as fast as it can grow.

There is a rare medical condition called diffuse alopecia areata that causes only your pigmented hair to fall out. This hair loss causes someone to appear like they have suddenly gone white when really they have just lost most of their colored hair. Alopecia Areata is often triggered by stress and can happen as rapidly as a couple of weeks.

Did Marie Antoinette really go Bald Overnight?
It is possible that the stress after Marie’s arrest caused her to loose so much hair that she was left with only white hair. Accounts do report that she was sick enough to be bleeding internally.

The last sketch of Marie immortalized by Jacque-Louis David may hold the clue to busting this rumor. The sketch portrays a weathered and grim faced Marie being taken to the scaffold in an open cart with her hands bound behind her back. Her hair had been cut off leaving what appears from the sketch only about two inches. Marie’s hair may have still had some color left, but the colored ends would have been lopped off to prepare her for the guillotine.

How Time Flies When You're Having Fun
Look at that…an hour has passed and I still have not done any work. If time flies when you are writing a silly blog entry then it must really seem to speed up when you are busy trampling and mutilating anyone who is wearing the wrong pants. To the revolutionary onlookers, it may have seemed like Marie’s hair turned white overnight, but she was hidden away from the public for months while in prison—plenty of time for the last two inches of Marie’s famed locks to turn white.

1. Farr, Evelyn. The Untold Love Story: Marie Antoinette & Count Fersen (1995)
Jeanne Louise Henriette Campan: Memoirs Of Marie Antoinette at Gutenberg
Wanjek, Christopher. Bad Medicine: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Distnace Healing to Vitamin O. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003
Lever, Evelyne. Marie Antoinette, The Last queen of France. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000


Anonymous said...

Madame Campan is a great memoirist, but she LOVED melodrama, and I believe this is an example of it. No, Marie-Antoinette did not turn white overnight. She was fair-haired (we know that she was a sort of dark blonde, because many people kept locks of her hair) which is a great way to mask greying hair.

It is true that she was experiencing heavy bleeding at the time of her execution. Some speculate that she might have had a fibroma or even uterine cancer. It might well have turned grey by the time of her death.

Bearded Lady said...

Hi Catherine,
I was going to mention what a drama queen Campan was but so many historians quote her that it is hard to discredit her.

That's a good point about Marie's hair color. Blond hair can mask greying...plus all the powder probably hid her greys well too. Having dark hair myself, I know how those grey hairs are impossbile to hide.

Thanks for the insight!

Heather Carroll said...

Great topic! What a fun investigation

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Interesting topic. It would make sense, particularly if Marie was wearing wigs, that her hair underneath would have been slowly turning white. I remember reading a romance novel where one of the heroines lovers, Akbar, his hair turned white overnight too. Could never quite wrap my mind around that, because what would be the sense of my coloring it every month if stress could do that?

SMHart said...

As for Bill Clinton - it was stress most likely, from various sources, but it surely didn't turn white overnight, just more quickly than most - our current president has much more gray than when he first started too

Unknown said...

um, i thought she was a redhead...look it up yourself.

Bearded Lady said...

Lauren, where did you read that her hair was red? Locks of hair from Marie Antoinette have survived and they look pretty blond to me.

April said...


It looks to be strawberry blonde to me.

Bearded Lady said...

Hi April,
thanks for sharing the photo. It actually looks mousy brown to me in that photo?..but it is very blurry.

Is this a photo that you took? If yes, which museum? Do you have any clearer ones?

In other photos it clearly looks blond.

And I have to wonder where she would have got the red hair from since no one in her family had red hair? But if she was a red head, she certainly had her contemporaries fooled. Marie Antoinette’s ash blond hair was so famous that there was even a color called “hair-of-the Queen.” The following is taken from the toilette of Mademoiselle Duthé:

“...wearing a dress of withheld sighs (split with an underskirt), adorned with superfluous regrets (a gathered looped band of material), with, in the middle, some perfect naivety (knots of lace); it was garnished with indiscreet complaints (appliqué silk flowers) and ribbons of marked attention (wide bows); her shoes were hair-of the-Queen color (ash blonde), embroidered with diamonds in perfidious attack (a ray-like design) with the come-hithers (embroidery on the back of the heels) in emeralds."

Unknown said...

My hairs been blonde and in that picture right there...that's not blonde whatsoever. More like Brown or something but it's not blonde if that's the actual hair of MA and is the last
"surviving" pieces.

Harris hair said...

I have just finished five months of herbal shampooing treatment and whenever I reviewed my self in the mirror I was amazed at the results. The treatment definitely works and as long as you stick with the natural healing, the positive results will come.

Sharon said...

it was bit interesting to read these comments thanks april for sharing this pic http://www.flickr.com/photos/echo_29/101001252/ to us.

alopecia said...

Very interesting topic related to hair loss


Hair Loss Adviser said...

Alopecia areata can occur suddenly. And it tends to be associated with autoimmune disease. The History registers that this happened with the hair of some prisoners condemned to death; it happened to Thomas More in 1535 and to Marie-Antoinette from Francia in 1793; their hair turned white the night before their executions

However, there are no known modern cases of this type. What if it is established is that the natural hair color can change the course of several weeks or months according to conditions affecting the body's hormones

Can the extreme fear or stress change hair color? Yes, but not instantly. The psychological state has a significant impact on the hormones that can affect the amount of melanin deposited in each hair fiber, but the effects of emotions take time to appreciate