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Hair Today…. A History of Wigs

By Jayne Shrimpton

The hair on our heads, besides keeping us warm, is an important distinguishing feature and throughout history wigs and false locks have been used to replace or augment natural tresses, often in the name of fashion, for practicality, to indicate social status, even religious faith. Wigs were adopted by early civilisations, for example in Ancient Egypt, where high-ranking men, women and children wore elaborate pre-dressed wigs set with beeswax and resin, on significant social occasions and at religious ceremonies. Complex hairdressing also featured in Imperial Roman fashion, ladies’ styles changing often and signifying social class: wigs and hairpieces were made from human hair, black from India and blond from Germanic regions, the most desirable locks obtained from the heads of captured prisoners: trophies of war. After the fall of the Roman Empire wigs fell into disuse, although as courtly fashions emerged during the Middle Ages, some extraordinary female hairstyles evolved. English tomb effigies, brasses, manuscript illuminations and paintings of the 13th – early-15th centuries depict horn-like projections or ‘cornettes’ at the temples, or stiff curled rolls or plaits, while archaeological excavations have revealed the artificial hair pieces of flax, wool, cotton and silk used to achieve these unnatural modes. During the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras high fashion favoured exaggerated artifice and by the late-1500s aristocratic ladies’ hair was dressed into tightly-curled, wide puffs, by brushing the natural hair over wired supports or pads, or by wearing a wig. Complete wigs now regained popularity and the ageing, balding Queen Elizabeth I personally owned around 80 red or auburn wigs that emulated her original hair colour. Similar modes continued during the next reign, wigs, pads, curls and hair dye all being employed to produce tall, braided edifices and artificial, halo-like effects. King James I’s Queen, Anne of Denmark, herself favoured an upswept, frizzed, pale blonde coiffure that made such an impression on the Venetian ambassador, visiting the English court in 1617, that he reported back home: ‘Her head-dress, besides very valuable diamonds and other jewels, consisted of such a quantity of false hair dressed in rays that she looked exactly like a sunflower’. Wigs and false tresses were becoming widely accepted as a way of compensating for the hair loss that was common through age, illness, poor diet and the habitual wearing of hats and caps, and also, more generally, of enhancing one’s personal appearance. They also had a practical function, for in the unhygienic 16th and 17th centuries hair could become infested with head lice, the problem reduced by shaving the head and wearing an artificial hair piece that was more easily deloused. In the early-1600s men’s hair grew steadily longer, and by mid-century the vogue was for such lengthy, curly hair that image-conscious males lacking in natural locks added false sections. Soon, during the 1660s the fashion arose for a whole head of long hair attached to a parchment- or net-like base: the perruque (French term), often called a ‘peruke’ or ‘periwig’ in England. Wearing a full wig of costly human hair - or of cheaper horsehair, goat’s or sheep’s hair - entailed having one’s own hair cut short or shaved altogether. Long and curly in the 1660s, male wigs became wider and fuller during the 1670s; during the 1680s the crown was raised, reaching a significant height around the mid-1690s, then becoming divided into two peaks. These distinctive long ‘full-bottomed’ wigs remained fashionable until the 1710s, thereafter being reserved for formal occasions and for those representing the professions, such as doctors and lawyers. Initially periwigs were expensive to buy and to maintain, but eventually they became more affordable. More practical wigs also evolved, like the ‘campaign’ wig with separate locks over the shoulders, fashionable until c.1750. Shorter ‘bob’ wigs developed in the 1720s/1730s, some wigs formed as queues, the hair tied back in a tail with a bow (the tie wig) or enclosed in a black silk bag: the bag wig. Periwigs remained correct wear and as they grew more popular even farm workers wore modest wigs. Some of the most extravagant examples were the towering powdered wigs adopted by male and female ‘macaronis’ of the 1770s. Wigs excited much popular attention through literature, the theatre and humorous caricatures until finally in the 1780s gentlemen began to discard them, preferring their own hair, powdered. In 1795 hair powder was taxed and natural hair became commonplace, although older, conservative men retained their familiar wigs and they remained part of the ‘fossilised’ dress, or livery, of domestic servants. Fashion accelerated during the nineteenth century and at times hairdressing grew so ornate that generous applications of false hair became obligatory. The most fanciful styles were reserved for formal evening wear and when high chignons and prominent loops and knots such as the ‘Apollo knot’ were in vogue during the later 1820s and 1830s, artificial hair pieces were shaped and stiffened with gum Arabic or wire and decorated with combs, pins, flowers, ribbons and other ornaments. Throughout the Victorian age myriad styles evolved, the heavy, complex coiffures of the late-1860s and 1870s again necessitating large quantities of artificial locks, ideally of human hair and often obtained from the poor, prepared to sell the hair from their own heads. A woman’s hair was her ‘crowning glory’ and long luxuriant tresses were much-admired throughout the Victorian and Edwardian eras. When fashion demanded unusually large quantities of hair, as in the thick, upswept feminine styles of the early-1900s, few had hesitation in using fake frames, bands or curls to eke out their own locks and many women built up the hair over artificial pads called ‘rats.’ Since the 20th century, hair pieces and wigs have been in and out of fashion and widely worn for the theatre, films, by celebrities, cross-dressers and for dressing-up occasions like Halloween. Some Orthodox Jewish women have worn wigs for reasons of modesty and hair extensions are commonplace. Archaic Georgian-style curled wigs were retained as a major element of legal dress, being worn by judges and barristers, where, along with the traditional gown, they express the dignity of the law and, importantly, the anonymity and equality of those holding office.

Posted in History on Mar 01, 2017