The Evolution of Wigs and Hair Pieces (part one)

Ancient Use

The ancient Egyptians wore wigs to shield their shaved, hairless heads from the sun. They also wore the wigs on top of their hair using beeswax and resin to keep the wigs in place. Other ancient cultures, including the Assyrians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans, also used wigs in an everyday fashion.

16th and 17th Centuries

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the use of wigs fell into disuse in the West for a thousand years until they were revived in the 16th century as a means of compensating for hair loss or improving one’s personal appearance. They also served a practical purpose: the unhygienic conditions of the time meant that hair attracted head lice, a problem that could be much reduced if natural hair were shaved and replaced with a more easily de-loused artificial hairpiece. Fur hoods were also used in a similar preventative fashion. Royal patronage was crucial to the revival of the wig. Queen Elizabeth I of England famously wore a red wig, tightly and elaborately curled in a “Roman” style, while among men King Louis XIII of France (1601–1643) started to pioneer wig-wearing in 1624 when he had prematurely begun to bald. This fashion was largely promoted by his son and successor Louis XIV of France (1638–1715) that contributed to its spread in European and European-influenced countries.

Perukes or periwigs for men were introduced into the English-speaking world with other French styles when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, following a lengthy exile in France. These wigs were shoulder-length or longer, imitating the long hair that had become fashionable among men since the 1620s. Their use soon became popular in the English court.

The London diarist Samuel Pepys recorded the day in 1665 that a barber had shaved his head and that he tried on his new periwig for the first time, but in a year of plague he was uneasy about wearing it:

“3rd September 1665: Up, and put on my colored silk suit, very fine, and my new periwig, bought a good while since, but darst does not wear it because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it. And it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwigs, for nobody will dare to buy any hair for fear of the infection? That it had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague.”

Wigs were not without other drawbacks, as Pepys noted on March 27, 1663

“I did go to the Swan, and there sent for Jervas my old periwig-maker and he did bring me a periwig; but it was full of nits, so as I was troubled to see it (it being his old fault) and did send him to make it clean.”

With wigs virtually obligatory garb for men with social rank, wigmakers gained considerable prestige. A wigmakers’ guild was established in France in 1665, a development soon copied elsewhere in Europe. Their job was a skilled one as 17th-century wigs were extraordinarily elaborate, covering the back and shoulders and flowing down the chest; not surprisingly, they were also extremely heavy and often uncomfortable to wear. Such wigs were expensive to produce. The best examples were made from natural human hair. The hair of horses and goats was often used as a cheaper alternative.

18th Century

In the 18th century, men’s wigs were powdered in order to give them their distinctive white or off-white color. Women in the 18th century did not wear wigs but wore a coiffure supplemented by artificial hair or hair from other sources. Women mainly powdered their hair grey, or blue-ish grey, and from the 1770s onwards never bright white like men. Wig powder was made from finely ground starch that was scented with orange flower, lavender, or orris root. Wig powder was occasionally colored violet, blue, pink or yellow, but was most often used as off-white.

Powdered wigs (men) and powdered natural hair with supplemental hairpieces (women) became essential for full dress occasions and continued in use until almost the end of the 18th century.

The elaborate form of wigs worn at the coronation of George III in 1761 was lampooned by William Hogarth in his engraving Five Orders of Periwigs.

Powdering wigs and extensions were messy and inconvenient, and the development of the naturally white or off-white powderless wig (made of horsehair) for men made the retention of wigs in everyday court dress a practical possibility. By the 1780s, young men were setting a fashion trend by lightly powdering their natural hair, as women had already done from the 1770s onwards.

After 1790, both wigs and powder were reserved for older, more conservative men, and were in use by ladies being presented at court. After 1790 English women seldom powdered their hair.

In 1795, the British government levied a tax on hair powder of one guinea per year. This tax effectively caused the demise of both the fashion for wigs and powder. Granville Leveson-Gower, in Paris during the winter of 1796, noted “The word citoyen seemed but very little in use, and hair powder being very common, the appearance of the people was less democratic than in England.” Among women in the French court of Versailles in the mid-to-late 18th century, large, elaborate, and often themed wigs (such as the stereotypical “boat poufs”) were in vogue for women.

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