Wigs through the ages
When we think of wigs today there are many associations depending on the gender of the wearer. For some men, wigs have been derogatorily called a “rug”. For many modern day people wigs are a pure since of fashion and expression. Anyone seen green or blue hair dyed or as a wig? There are curly wigs, long straight wigs, short wigs, afro wigs, braided or Rastafarian wigs and so forth.
Do you know how far back wigs have been worn throughout time?
It’s been and off and on love affair since ancient times. Egyptians, both men and women, typically kept their hair either very short or shaven so wigs were worn them to protect their heads from the harsh African sun. I don’t know about you but I don’t think I’d care to keep them in place with beeswax and resin the way these people often did or use scented cones of animal fat on top of them.
There are of course other ancient cultures who used them purely for everyday fashion.
It’s interesting that wigs fell out of use for a very long time, roughly a thousand years after the end of the Roman Empire and they didn’t make an appearance again until the 16th and 17th centuries.
As would seem perfectly logical and practical, wigs in the 16th century were used to cover baldness for men and general good looks. There is the other less pleasant reasons – they were more hygienic that using one’s own hair in a time when personal cleanliness was not at its height and head lice were a problem. It’s easier to delouse a wig that someone’s head! Can I get a Yuck?!
In the mid to late 1500’s Queen Elizabeth is famous for always wearing a short, curly and close fitting red wig. In 1624, King Louis XIII started the fashion of a long wig when he started going bald and the tradition was carried on by his son. You know how it goes, what royalty does everyone else follows suit, much like today’s fashionistas. Wigs became a necessity for any man of any real social rank!
In the 18th century men started powdering their wigs to white or off-white. Wig powder was occasionally colored violet, blue, pink or yellow, but was most often used as off-white. I guess no one was worrying about looking old!
Women, by contrast, didn’t wear wigs at this time. Instead they supplemented their coif when necessary with 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. These wigs for men and supplemental hair pieces for women were de rigueur for all formal occasions.
Wig powder was made from finely ground starch that was scented with orange flower, lavender, or orris root. Powdering wigs and extension must have so been messy! The development of a naturally white or of-white powderless wig (made of horsehair) for men, made the use of these wigs MUCH more practical but by the 1780’s young men were setting trends by only lightly powdering their natural hair they way women were already doing. After 1790, powdered wigs were reserved only for older and more conservative men.
In the United States as well as France wearing wigs was abandoned by the start of the 19th century.
In England, the end of the powdered hair and wig fashion came in 1795 with the British government tax levy on hair powder of one guinea per year.
Meanwhile in the mid-to-late 18th century France, large, elaborate and often themed wigs (such as the well-known "boat poufs") were all “the thing” for women in the French court of Versailles
These combed-up hair extensions were often very heavy, weighted down with pomades, powders, and other ornamentation which sounds uncomfortable and tedious to arrange and to wear. In the late 18th century these coiffures (along with many other indulgences in court life) became symbolic of the decadence of the French nobility, and for that reason quickly became out of fashion from the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789.
In the following century men’s wig got small and more formal and were adopted by several professions as part of their official wear. To this day, England and Canada still require their barristers (lawyers to us yanks) and judges to wear wigs and robes.
Of course, the men of the military who were not officers could not afford the luxury of wigs and so to be in fashion they grew their hair longer and tied it in a queue “pony tail on the neck). In America the fashion faded fast as men preferred their own hair and powdered when wanted. George Washington declined to wear a wig and powdered his own hair instead. Only 4 U.S. Presidents in the early 1800’s wore white curly wigs tied in a queue in the old fashion style. Those men were John Adams (1797-1801), Thomas Jefferson (1801-1817), James Madison (1809-1817) and James Monroe (1817-1825).
So there you have it – a swift history of wigs in Western Europe and North America.