Wigs and false hair have a long and noble history, but they really came into their own in the later 17th and 18th centuries. During this period, they were not just aids for balding men, but were de rigeur for anyone who wanted to look fashionable. The first half of the 17th century saw long hair for men come into fashion, and by the English Civil War (1642-49) it was all the rage, as we know from portraits of the Cavaliers. I once got into trouble with a history teacher for erroneously claiming that Charles I wore a wig – she immediately retorted that in fact, Charles I had lovely, long locks of his own!
It’s said that the wig came into fashion when Louis XIV, the Sun King, started wearing one to cover up his baldness; by 1680 he had 40 wigmakers working for him at Versailles. His court was arguably the European centre of fashion, so the periwig spread across Europe and was introduced to England by Charles II in 1660. In 1663, Samuel Pepys, ever a man alert to new fashions, bought his first wig. He described the fitting in his diary: ‘by and by comes Chapman the periwig-maker, and [upon] my liking it, without more ado I went up and there he cut off my haire; which went a little to my heart at present to part with it, but it being over and my periwig on, I paid him £3 for it; and away went he with my own hair to make up another [wig]’. Going to church the following Sunday he was worried about what people would think, but he found ‘that my coming in a perriwig did not prove so strange to the world as I afeared it would, for I thought that all the church would presently have cast their eye all upon me – but I found no such thing’.
Anyone with pretensions to fashion wore a wig, and it could be an expensive habit especially as wigs grew larger, more complex and thus costlier towards the end of the century. One critic of the fashionable elite remarked bitterly in 1694, ‘to speak plainly, Forty or Threescore pound a year for Periwigs, and Ten to a poor Chaplin to say Grace to him that adores Hair, is sufficient demonstration of the Weakness of the Brains they Keep Warm’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, wig theft became a problem in urban areas. A child, who was hidden inside a basket balanced on the thief’s shoulders, would quickly pluck off a wig from a passer-by and put it in the basket. John Gay mentions this in his 1716 poem Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London:
Nor is the wig with safety worn;
High on the shoulder, in a basket born
Lurks the small boy, whose hand to rapine bred,
Plucks off the curling humours of thy head.
These full-bottomed periwigs continued in fashion until around the 1720s, at which point smaller, powdered wigs started to be introduced. Men had a choice of wig styles, made out of a variety of materials (human hair was the most expensive; goat’s hair, horsehair and vegetable fibres were cheaper alternatives). The ‘Ramillies’ wig (named for Marlborough’s victory over the French in 1706) featured the hair drawn back into a long pigtail with bows of black ribbon at the top and bottom. Informally, men could wear bob wigs which ended in a roll around the back of the neck; clergymen and scholars marked themselves out with bob wigs which were frizzed instead of curled. There was also the ‘tye’ wig, with the hair drawn back into a queue tied back with black ribbon; the bag wig was a variation of this in which the queue was enclosed in a silk black bag.
These more modest wigs continued for the rest of the century as the staple of a gentleman’s outfit. When James Boswell lost his wig in 1789, he was devastated and rushed 25 miles to buy a replacement, explaining ‘I could not long remain an object of laughter’. With the revolutionary spirit of the 1790s and 1800s, almost everyone except older men and conservatives abandoned the wig for natural hair. Footmen, however, had to continue wearing wigs for another hundred years despite the discomfort and inconvenience (perhaps their employers liked the throwback to a supposed golden past), and judges and barristers in England still wear modifications of the 18th century wig.
Curiously, womens’ hairstyles went in the opposite direction. Throughout the late 17th century women wore natural hair, and in the first half of the 18th century hair was powdered and crimped but still mostly natural and dressed close to the head, in a style known as tête de mouton.
By the 1770s, however, the female ton were wearing towering headdresses. Already in 1767, the Hon. Mrs Osborne wrote that ‘Lady Strathmore’s dress is the wonder of the town, her head a yard high and filled, or rather covered with feathers of enormous size’. The gigantic hairstyles of the 1770s were achieved by a mixture of natural hair stretched over wire frames and hair-pads, and large quantities of false hair. The whole thing was plastered with pomatum and powdered white, violet, pink or blue with starch. Such a structure could remain untouched for months. However, those with the money and time could change hairstyles more frequently; in an extreme example, the Comtesse de Matignon made a bargain with the famous hairdresser Baulard, who agreed to provide her with a new headdress every day in return for 24,000 livres a year.
Headdresses in this period were often topped with the most fantastic objects; gardens, a ship in full sail, a windmill with farm animals around it. Anything could be taken as inspiration; current affairs (as in the 1779 illustration below), notorious lawsuits, and successful plays were all excuses for changing shapes and trimmings. The coiffre à l’Insurgent (1780) included a snake which was so lifelike that the style was banned in order to spare ladies’ nerves.
Not everyone approved; Mrs Delany, attending a court event in 1780, wrote critically of ‘rows above rows of fine ladies with towering tops…I must own I could not help considering them with some astonishment, and lamenting that so absurd, inconvenient, and unbecoming a fashion should last so long, for though every year has produced some alteration, the enormity continues, and one of the most beautiful ornaments of nature, fine hair, is entirely disguised’. Mrs Delany certainly had a point about the inconvenience of the 1770s hairstyles. They were havens for lice and fleas; so-called ‘back scratchers’, which had small ivory claws on the end of long sticks, were inserted into the headdress in a desperate effort to stop the itching. Carriages weren’t built to accommodate such high hairstyles, and there’s evidence to show that ladies had to sit or kneel on the floor of their carriages in order to fit in. The sacrifices made for fashion…
Wigs and false hair for women came to an abrupt end altogether in the 1790s and 1800s, to be replaced with natural hair arranged in classical-style coiffures – some of the most daring women cropped their hair short. Some historians have suggested that the temporary abandonment of complicated dresses and elaborate hairstyles was a reaction to the French Revolution; having seen the massacre of many of their peers, aristocrats had no desire to stand out too conspicuously in public. The long flowing lines of the Empire silhouette and the simple new hairstyles were also undoubtedly a response to the neoclassical aesthetics of the time, which valued simplicity and harmony. Interestingly, the decades around 1800 saw female fashions at their least restrictive since the middle ages. Come the Victorian period, however, women were once more slowly boxed up into tight-laced corsets and masses of petticoats, leading to some very strange and uncomfortable fashions which I’ll make into the subject of a future post.