Wigs are artificial heads of hair, either cunningly concealing baldness or glaringly obvious fashion items in their own right. The Jewish sheitel, for instance, is worn for religious reasons where a woman's natural hair is shielded from the gaze of all men who are not her husband. The Talmud teaches that the sight of a woman's
hair constitutes an arousal or sexual lure; thus a woman hiding her hair helps protect the fabric of Jewish society. The entertainer Elton John's obvious ginger weave is, of course, completely different, worn to retain an air of youth and as a disguise for baldness.
The earliest Egyptian wigs (c. 2700 b.c.e.) were constructed of human hair, but cheaper substitutes such as palm leaf fibers and wool were more widely used. They denoted rank, social status, and religious piety and were used as protection against the sun while keeping the head free from vermin. Up until the 1500s, hair tended to be dressed as a foundation for headdresses, but by the end of the century hairstyles became higher and more elaborate constructions in which quantities of false hair were used to supplement the wearer's own. Hair was gummed and powdered, false curls and ringlets were in fashion, and, in some cases, a complete head of false hair called a perruque, was worn. The French perruque was colloquially known as a peruke, periwyk, periwig, and eventually the diminutive wig by 1675.
Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
The seventeenth century saw the complete resurgence of the wig and it became the height of fashion for both men and women, with many shaving their heads beneath for both comfort and fit. Hair historian Richard Corson sees the ascendance of Louis XIV to the French throne as pivotal. The king supplemented his thinning hair with false pieces until "eventually he agreed to have his head shaved, which was done daily thereafter, and to wear a wig." (Corson, p. 215) By the eighteenth century, those who had the finances had a large wig for formal occasions and a smaller one for use in the home. The larger or more "full bottomed" the wig, the more expensive, thus they were also a mark of class and income and the target of wig snatch-ers. If one was unable to afford a wig, one made one's natural hair look as wiglike as possible. By the mid-eighteenth century, white was the favored color for wigs, and they were first greased then powdered with flour or a mixture of starch and plaster of paris in the house's wig closet using special bellows. Lucrative trades were constructed around their care and maintenance, such as hairdressing, so-called because hair was dressed rather than cut. Women's wigs were particularly high, powdered, and bejeweled, and the subject of much caricature. To achieve the look, hair was harvested from the heads of the rural working classes. Richard Corson noted that the full wig was disappearing by about 1790, however, "when there was a good deal of natural hair in evidence" (Corson, p. 298).
Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries
After this brief period of respite during the French Revolution, when a natural look and thus natural hair was fashionable, the elaborately dressed hairstyles of the Victorian and Edwardian era demanded a myriad of false pieces or fronts and transformations. As the feminine ideal in the Edwardian era required enormous hairstyles, the natural bulk of the hair was padded out. Lady Violet Harvey recalled,
Enormous hats often poised on a pyramid of hair, which if not possessed, was supplied, pads under the hair to puff it out were universal and made heads unnaturally big. This entailed innumerable hairpins. My sister and I were amazed to see how much false hair and pads were shed at 'brushing time.' (Hardy, p. 79)
The building of massive hairstyles was dependent on the use of postiche, the French word for "added hair" and styles included fringes, fronts, switches, pompadour rolls, and frizettes. All hairdressers had a workroom in which postiches were made for sale wherein the posticheur prepared hair. Hair combings were saved and then drawn through a hackle (a flat board with metal teeth sticking upward) to straighten them. Hair was sorted into bundles ready to be curled into false pieces or curled by a device called a bigoudis made of wood or hardened clay. Sections of hair were rolled up on the bigoudis and then dropped into water mixed with soda. After being boiled for several hours the dry hair was then unwound and stored—a method that dates back to the Egyptians. If too little hair was obtained from combings it came from other women. It was a commodity to be exploited and one famous source was the Hair Market at Morlans in the Pyrenees, one of a number of hiring fairs where dealers literally bought the hair from women's heads. Much hair was also imported from Asia Minor, India, China, and Japan and boiled in nitric acid to remove the color and vermin. Men wore wigs, too, but this was to hide baldness.
1920s to Present
With the introduction of the new bobbed hairstyle in the 1920s, wigs fell out of favor and were worn by older women who were not interested in the newly shorn look. Their use returned in the 1950s, but only as a way of having temporary fantasy hairstyles. The most renowned wigmakers and hairdressers in Europe were Maria and Rosy Carita. In black hairdressing, though, the wig was of supreme importance allowing for fashionable styles without undergoing the time-consuming, and in some instances painful, process of straightening. Black stars such as Diana Ross were known for their stylish wig collections in the mid-1960s. It was not really until the late 1960s that wigs underwent a massive renaissance in white hairdressing practices. Rapidly changing fashion, a space-age chic and the vogue for drip-dry clothes in new man-made fabrics led to a vogue for the artificial over the natural. By 1968 there was a wig boom and it is estimated that one-third of all European women wore what hair-dressers called a "wig of convenience." Men still tended to wear wigs differently moving further toward the naturalism that many women were rejecting. Until the early 1950s, all wigs were made by hand. However, the invention of the machine-made, washable, nylon and acrylic wig in Hong Kong led to cheap, mass-produced wigs flooding the market. The novelty fashion wig or hair-piece became one of Hong Kong's fastest growing exports and by 1970 the industry employed 24,000 workers. In 1963 British imports of wigs and hairpieces from Hong Kong was worth £200,000 ($350,000); by 1968 it was almost £5 million ($8.78 million). By 1969 around forty percent of wigs were synthetic and the leading companies in wig development were the American firm Dynel and the Japanese Kanekalon, who both used modacrylics to create wigs that were easy to care for and held curl well. In the late twentieth century, many false forms of hair are used and the change from a long to a short hair-style can be completed at a whim with extensions that have moved from black hairdressing to white hairdressing. Singers such as Beyoncé and Britney Spears use weaves of all styles and colors openly.
Corson, Richard. Fashions in Hair: The First Five Thousand Years. London: Peter Owen, 1965.
Cox, Caroline. Good Hair Days: A History of British Hairstyling. London: Quartet, 1999.
Hardy, Lady Violet. As It Was. London: Christopher Johnson, 1958.
During the Roman Empire (27 b.c.e.–476 c.e.) wealthy members of Roman society developed a rich and fashionable lifestyle, which included much attention to appearance and ornamentation. Both women and men used any means available to improve their looks and decorate their bodies. Cosmetics and luxurious costumes were used, and elaborate hairstyles came into fashion for women. Baldness in men was viewed as an ugly defect. Both women and men made frequent use of wigs to hide any shortage of hair.
The citizens of the vigorous Roman Republic, which thrived between 509 and 27 b.c.e., had valued simple styles in hair and clothing. Even the wealthy styled their hair plainly, though they may have curled it with hot irons. By the time of the Roman Empire (27 b.c.e.–476 c.e.), which saw the Roman people grow in wealth and power, styles had changed, and luxury and excess were in fashion for those who could afford them. Though hairstyles for men remained short and simple, most who suffered hair loss were unwilling to have their lack of hair exposed. Julius Caesar, the famous general and leader of Rome who lived from 100 to 44 b.c.e., frequently wore a laurel wreath to hide his baldness. Other wealthy Romans glued hairpieces onto their scalps for the same reason.
During the Roman Empire, Roman women began to wear more and more elaborate hairstyles, with masses of corkscrew curls piled high on the fronts of their heads. The Empress Messalina, who lived from 22 to 48 c.e. and was married to Emperor Claudius I (10 b.c.e.–54 c.e.), became famous for the complicated and showy hairstyles she wore. Soon other noble women copied the empress. Women who did not have enough hair to achieve the ornate styles wore wigs or added extra false hair to their own. It became especially popular to use blond or red hair that was bought or taken from slaves and prisoners of war from more northern countries like Gaul (present-day France) and Germany. Blond hair had once been associated only with Roman prostitutes, but once the empress began to wear it, the shame attached to blond hair disappeared. Eventually light-colored northern hair became so popular that a lively trade developed, and red and golden hair became a sort of currency.
The dramatic hairstyles of wealthy Roman women changed so frequently that even sculptures began to have a sort of wig. Many notable women who had their portraits carved in marble began to ask that the hair be carved as a separate piece, so that the hair on the sculpture could be changed to keep up with the current fashion.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1977.
Black, J. Anderson, and Madge Garland. Updated and revised by Frances Kennett. A History of Fashion. New York: William Morrow, 1980.
Upper-class Egyptian men and women considered wigs an essential part of their wardrobe. Wearing a wig signaled a person's rank in Egyptian society. Although a shaved head was a sign of nobility during most of the Egyptian kingdoms, the majority of Egyptians kept their heads covered. Wigs were worn in place of headdresses or, for special occasions, with elaborate headdresses. Egyptian law prohibited slaves and servants from shaving their heads or wearing wigs.
The base of an Egyptian wig was a fiber-netting skullcap, with strands of human hair, wool, flax, palm fibers, felt, or other materials attached. The wig hair often stuck straight out from the skullcap, creating large, full wigs that offered wearers protection from the heat of the sun. Most often black, wigs were also other colors. Queen Nefertiti, who lived during the fourteenth century b.c.e., was known for wearing dark blue wigs, and festive wigs were sometimes gilded, or thinly coated in gold.
Wig hair was arranged in decorative styles throughout all the kingdoms of Egypt. During the earliest dynasties (which began around 3200 b.c.e.) and the Old Kingdom of Egypt (c. 2700–c. 2000 b.c.e.), both men and women wore closely cropped wigs with rows of short curls or slightly longer straight hair. In later kingdoms, some women began to grow their hair longer and wore wigs of greater length and bulk that showed their natural hair beneath. By the time of the Middle Kingdom (c. 2000–c. 1500 b.c.e.), bulky wigs with hair coils draping forward over each shoulder were favored. During the New Kingdom (c. 1500–c. 750 b.c.e.) men's wigs became much longer in the front than in the back and less bulky, but women's wigs became larger, completely covering the shoulders. For special occasions, wigs were decorated with gold, braided with colorful ribbons, or adorned with beads. Wigs were made even more elaborate with the addition of golden bands, caps, and fancy headbands.
The hot climate of Egypt made it uncomfortable for men to wear beards. However, Egyptians believed that the beard was manly, so they developed artificial beards, or beard wigs. Men of royal rank tied stubby beards on their chins for official or festive occasions. The king's beard was longer than that of other men and was usually worn straight and thick. Gods were depicted with thinner beards that curled up at the tip. Egyptians believed that kings were descended from the gods, and in some ceremonies kings would wear a curved beard to show that they represented gods.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Apparel in the Western World. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess, 1970.
Lister, Margot. Costume: An Illustrated Survey from Ancient Time to the Twentieth Century. London, England: Herbert Jenkins, 1967.
Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume: From Ancient Mesopotamia Through the Twentieth Century. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
During the seventeenth century, men of the upper classes shaved their heads and wore long elaborate wigs that grew shorter and simpler during the early decades of the eighteenth century. By 1750 these, too, gradually went out of fashion as men began to give up shaving their heads and natural hair became more popular, although it was usually curled and powdered to look like a wig. The powder could be brown, gray, or white, although the latter was preferred. If the natural hair was worn unpowdered and short, a hairpiece with a braided or tied queue could be attached at the back of the crown to fill out the hairstyle. By the 1790s soldiers in the American army were ordered to wear their hair tied and powdered when they appeared for review. From 1770 to 1800 hair styles among American men ranged from natural hair worn short to natural hair worn long and tied back to natural hair crimped and curled and powdered to full formal wigs. By 1800 wigs had universally died out among men except for older or more conservative men, especially those in the clergy, lawyers, and doctors, some of whom continued wearing wigs through the first three decades of the nineteenth century.
At his second inauguration in 1793, George Washington wore his own hair tied back and powdered, but his successor, John Adams, wore a wig which, it was said, he hurled to the ground in anger when his cabinet displeased him. Thomas Jefferson wore his reddish hair natural and his successor, James Madison, powdered his receding locks. By the time of Andrew Jackson's election in 1828, most men wore their hair short to medium in length and natural in color. Vanity also played a role in the choice to wear a wig or not, and former Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin was described in 1832 as wearing "an ugly wig" that was intended to hide his baldness.
Women, on the other hand, rarely wore wigs from 1750 to 1800. The high, elaborate hairstyles of the time were constructed by brushing one's own hair, well greased with pomatum, over rats or puffs, and powdering it. When shorter hairstyles became popular among women after 1790, wigs, too, became more popular and were frequently worn to eliminate the necessity of styling one's own hair for
formal occasions. President Jefferson's married daughters asked him to have wigs made to match their natural hair for their visits to Washington in 1802 and 1805, and Dolley Madison and her sister ordered wigs in 1807 and 1809. Women whose hair was turning gray would often wear natural-colored wigs to hide the fact. From 1810 to 1830 women wore full wigs less often than partial wigs, with false curls, ringlets, and bangs being utilized to fill in hairstyles where needed. Also, the high-piled curls so popular about 1830 were frequently augmented by false ringlets attached to combs. Wig use gradually died out among women also, and by 1830 wigs were seldom worn by either sex.
See alsoClothing .
Corson, Richard. Fashions in Hair, The First Five Thousand Years. New York: Hastings House, 1965.
Cox, James Stevens. An Illustrated Dictionary of Hairdressing and Wigmaking. London: Batsford Academic and Educational, 1966; revised 1984.
Marly, Diana de. Dress in North American: The New World, 1492–1800. Vol. 1. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1990.
McClellan, Elisabeth. Historic Dress in American, 1607–1870. New York: Blom, 1904. Reprint, New York: Blom, 1969.
Shulman, Holly C. The Dolley Madison Digital Edition. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2004.
Warwick, Edward, Henry C. Pitz, and Alexander Wyckoff. Early American Dress: The Colonial and Revolutionary Periods. New York: Blom, 1965.
Mary A. Hackett
Wigs became a necessity for French courtiers (officers and advisers) in 1643 when sixteen-year-old Louis XIV ascended the throne sporting long curly hair. For all who could not grow their own, long flowing locks were created with wigs. The fashion persisted when, at the age of thirty-five, the king began to lose so much of his own hair that he needed to add false hair to maintain his beloved style. He eventually shaved off all his thinning hair and wore full wigs.
Wigs came in several different styles, but the most popular by the end of the century was the full-bottomed wig, a mass of long curls parted in the center that towered above the head by several inches and hung down past the shoulders. The style was so huge that a satirist of the time referred to a man's face peaking out from his full-bottomed wig as "a small pimple in the midst of a vast sea of hair," according to Richard Corson in Fashions in Hair. The full-bottomed wig was the most formal of all wig styles and continued to be worn by clergy and some professionals, such as lawyers, into the following centuries. But many men had several different styles of wigs for different activities, such as rising in the morning, going to church, hunting, and eating at different meals.
Wigs were made of human, horse, and goat hair and worn over shaved heads. They were dressed with fragrant powders made of nutmeg or orrisroot, the root of a sweet-smelling European iris. The hair was sometimes dyed black, brown, or blond. Hair powder would later become so popular that houses were built with powder rooms made solely for the purpose of dressing the hair.
Although quite popular by the end of the century, wigs were not worn by every man because of their expense. Wigs became a true symbol to differentiate the upper from the lower classes. They were so expensive that some men left them to their heirs upon their own death. The history of the century is also filled with accounts of wig theft. The exclusivity of wigs did not last, however. Wigs became the defining hair accessory of the eighteenth century and were worn by every class of man. While women also wore wigs during the seventeenth century, their styles did not reach the magnitude of men's full-bottomed wigs. It was the next century that saw women wearing huge mountains of false curls.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Apparel in the Western World. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing, 1970.
Contini, Mila. Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. Edited by James Laver. New York: Odyssey Press, 1965.
Corson, Richard. Fashions in Hair: The First Five Thousand Years. London, England: Peter Owen, 2001.
Trasko, Mary. Daring Do's: A History of Extraordinary Hair. New York: Flammarion, 1994.
Wigs, false hairpieces that are worn over or attached to the natural hair of the wearer, have been fashion accessories for many centuries. The nineteenth century did not see the widespread use of elaborate wigs that had marked previous eras. Still, false hair remained popular during the 1800s, mainly for women who wished to achieve fashionable hairstyles that required abundant curls.
Both men and women had commonly worn wigs during the 1700s, but by the end of the century the popularity of the elaborately powdered and styled wig was beginning to fade. At the start of the nineteenth century much of fashionable society began to be fascinated with the styles of ancient Greece and Rome. Many men trimmed their hair in a short, informal cut, in the style of Roman generals, while some women adopted a classic Greco-Roman women's style of masses of curls, loosely bound up on the head. Those who did not have enough curls of their own, added false pieces of hair called cachefolies (French for "hidden foolishness") to add the necessary volume of hair.
During the 1860s wigs again became popular for women, as hairstyles with masses of long ringlets came into fashion. For those women who could not afford full wigs, partial wigs were available to add hair where it was needed. Wigs were costly, and women who needed money could cut their hair and sell it to wigmakers, the way the literary character Jo March did in the 1868 novel Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888).
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Apparel in the Western World. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing, 1970.
Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.