Where did wigs come from

After being in the industry for 20 years, I wondered how or why did people start to wear wigs, believe it or not the trend started back in the late 1500’s but became popular because of illness. They were called Perukes or Periwig which was a man’s wig, especially the type popular from the 17th to the early 19th century. It was made of long hair, often with curls on the sides, and drawn back on the nape of the neck.  We have all seen them depicted in many English courtrooms.

Use of the word peruke became widespread in the 16th century, for nearly two centuries, powdered wigs—called perukes—were all the rage. The chic hairpiece would have never become popular, however, if it hadn’t been for a venereal disease, a pair of self-conscious kings, and poor hair hygiene.  Its ironic that illness was responsible for the popularity of this long standing substitute for hair.

The peruke’s story begins like many others—with syphilis. By 1580, the STD had become the worst epidemic to strike Europe since the Black Death. According to William Clowes, an “infinite multitude” of syphilis patients clogged London’s hospitals, and more filtered in each day. Without antibiotics, victims faced the full brunt of the disease: open sores, nasty rashes, blindness, dementia, and patchy hair loss. Baldness swept the land.

At the time, hair loss was a one-way ticket to public embarrassment. Long hair was a trendy status symbol, and a bald dome could stain any reputation. When Samuel Pepys’s brother acquired syphilis, the diarist wrote, “If [my brother] lives, he will not be able to show his head—which will be a very great shame to me.” The syphilis outbreak sparked a surge in wigmaking. Victims hid their baldness, as well as the bloody sores that scoured their faces, with wigs made of horse, goat, or human hair. Perukes were also coated with powder—scented with lavender or orange—to hide any funky aromas. Although common, wigs were not exactly stylish. They were just a shameful necessity. Hair was that big of a deal and still is, crazy.

That changed in 1655, when the King of France started losing his hair, the peruke was no longer worn as an adornment or to correct nature’s defects but rather as a distinctive feature of costume, Louis XIV was only 17 when his mop started thinning. Worried that baldness would hurt his reputation, Louis hired 48 wigmakers to save his image. Five years later, the King of England—Louis’s cousin, Charles II—did the same thing when his hair started to gray (both men likely had syphilis). Courtiers and other aristocrats immediately copied the two kings. They sported wigs, and the style trickled down to the upper-middle class. Europe’s newest fad was born, it became an accessory.  From 1770, wigs were also extended to women. And, as the years were going on, women wigs were being made taller and more sophisticated, especially in France. Men’s wigs were generally white, and women’s wigs of pastel colors, like pink, light violet or blue. Depending on how wigs were ornamented, they could reveal a person’s profession or social status. Wealthier peoples wigs would cost more and were made by expensive wig designers and with better materials. They were made in general with human hair, but also with hair from horses or goats.

Because it was a trend and fad the cost of wigs increased, and perukes became a scheme for flaunting wealth. An everyday wig cost about 25 shillings—a week’s pay for a common Londoner. The bill for large, elaborate perukes ballooned to as high as 800 shillings. The word “bigwig” was coined to describe snobs who could afford big, poufy perukes. It was said that the countess of Matignon, in France, paid to the famous hairdresser Baulard 24.000 livres a year to make her new headdresses every day of the week.

When Louis and Charles died, wigs stilled stayed around. Perukes remained popular because they were still practical and easy and still a necessity, head lice was everywhere, and nitpicking was painful and time-consuming. Wigs, however, helped curbed the problem because people would  shave their heads so the peruke would fit better and the lice stopped infesting people’s hair and camped out on wigs instead. Delousing a wig was much easier than delousing a head of hair: you’d  send the dirty headpiece to a wigmaker, who would boil the wig and remove the nits.  This trend was big in getting the lice epidemic under control.

Wearing of wigs also caused industries to grow and industries to fail,  But the success of wigs required a demand of new professionals; wig makers and designers also cleaned and repaired wigs, refreshing the curls with powder and fragrances. Since the end of the former century guilds of wig makers were organized, and they required to pay a fee and to give an exam of aptitude to work in the profession. In this century the wig-making industry grew and became important, generating new jobs and sources of income to many people. On the other hand, it affected the millinery industry; men stopped wearing hats in order to exhibit their wigs, and new kind of hats was required for large and heavy wigs.

At the middle of the century, the new king of France, Louis XV, imposed a smaller wig’s style for men and the strictly white or grayish powdered hair. Women continued with their extravagant styles until the French Revolution, when all the luxury and exuberance were vanished into the new republican ideas. Since then, hairstyles were more classic and simple.  By the late 18th century, the trend was dying out. French citizens ousted the peruke during the Revolution, and Brits stopped wearing wigs after William Pitt levied a tax on hair powder in 1795.  Philosophic changes of thinking also changed the hairstyles. Little by little, people stopped wearing wigs, and the hair started to be natural, with no powder. The Revolution and the transformation of the whole system happened suddenly.

Some of the information in this blog came from an article by Lucas Reilly and the  website www.thehistoryofthehairsworld.com

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