A wig is a head or hair accessory made from human hair, animal hair, or synthetic fibre The word wig is short for a periwig which makes its earliest known appearance in the English language in William Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Some people wear wigs to disguise baldness; a wig may be used as a less intrusive and less expensive alternative to medical therapies for restoring hair or for a religious reason.
In Egyptian society, men and women commonly had cleanly shaven or close-cropped hair and often wore wigs. The ancient Egyptians created the wig to shield shaved, hairless heads from the sun. They also wore the wigs on top of their hair using beeswax and resin to keep the wigs in place. Wealthy Egyptians would wear elaborate wigs and scented head cones of animal fat on top of their wigs. Other ancient cultures, including the Assyrians, Phoenicians, Jews in ancient Israel, Greeks and Romans, also used wigs in an everyday fashion.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the use of wigs fell into disuse in the West for a thousand years until they were revived in the 16th century as a means of compensating for hair loss or improving one’s personal appearance. They also served a practical purpose: the unhygienic conditions of the time meant that hair attracted head lice, a problem that could be much reduced if natural hair were shaved and replaced with a more easily de-loused artificial hairpiece. Fur hoods were also used in a similar preventive fashion.
Royal patronage was crucial to the revival of the wig. Queen Elizabeth I of England famously wore a red wig, tightly and elaborately curled in a “Roman” style, while among men King Louis XIII of France (1601–1643) started to pioneer wig-wearing in 1624 when he had prematurely begun to bald. This fashion was largely promoted by his son and successor Louis XIV of France (1638–1715), which contributed to its spread in European and European-influenced countries.
Perukes or periwigs for men were introduced into the English-speaking world with other French styles when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, following a lengthy exile in France. These wigs were shoulder-length or longer, imitating the long hair that had become fashionable among men since the 1620s. Their use soon became popular in the English court. The London diarist Samuel Pepys recorded the day in 1665 that a barber had shaved his head and that he tried on his new periwig for the first time, but in a year of plague he was uneasy about wearing it
With wigs virtually obligatory garb for men with social rank, wigmakers gained considerable prestige. A wigmakers’ guild was established in France in 1665, a development soon copied elsewhere in Europe. Their job was a skilled one as 17th-century wigs were extraordinarily elaborate, covering the back and shoulders and flowing down the chest; not surprisingly, they were also extremely heavy and often uncomfortable to wear. Such wigs were expensive to produce. The best examples were made from natural human hair. The hair of horses and goats was often used as a cheaper alternative.
Wig, 1780–1800. Wigs that had the back hair enclosed in a bag were called bag wigs.
In the 18th century, men’s wigs were powdered to give them their distinctive white or off-white color. Women in the 18th century did not wear wigs, but wore a coiffure supplemented by 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. Wig powder was made from finely ground starch that was scented with orange flower, lavender, or orris root. Wig powder was occasionally colored violet, blue, pink or yellow, but was most often off-white.
Powdered wigs (men) and powdered natural hair with supplemental hairpieces (women) became essential for full dress occasions and continued in use until almost the end of the 18th century. The elaborate form of wigs worn at the coronation of George III in 1761 was lampooned by William Hogarth in his engraving Five Orders of Periwigs. Powdering wigs and extensions were messy and inconvenient, and the development of the naturally white or off-white powderless wig (made of horsehair) for men made the retention of wigs in everyday court dress a practical possibility. By the 1780s, young men were setting a fashion trend by lightly powdering their natural hair, as women had already done from the 1770s onwards. After 1790, both wigs and powder were reserved for older, more conservative men, and were in use by ladies being presented at court. After 1790, English women seldom powdered their hair.
In 1795, the British government levied a tax on hair powder of one guinea per year. This tax effectively caused the demise of both the fashion for wigs and powder. Granville Leveson-Gower, in Paris during the winter of 1796, at the height of the Thermidorian Directory, noted “The word citoyen seemed but very little in use, and hair powder being very common, the appearance of the people was less democratic than in England.
Among women in the French court of Versailles in the mid-to-late 18th century, large, elaborate and often themed wigs (such as the stereotypical “boat pouffes”) were in vogue. These combed-up hair extensions were often very heavy, weighted down with pomades, powders, and other ornamentation. 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.
During the 18th century, men’s wigs became smaller and more formal with several professions adopting them as part of their official costumes. This tradition survives in a few legal systems. They are routinely worn in various countries of the Commonwealth. Until 1823, bishops of the Church of England and Church of Ireland wore ceremonial wigs. The wigs worn by barristers are in the style favoured in the late eighteenth century. Judges’ wigs, in everyday use as court dress, are short like barristers’ wigs (although in a slightly different style), but for ceremonial occasions, judges and also senior barristers (QCs) wear full-bottomed wigs.
19th and 20th centuries
The wearing of wigs as a symbol of social status was largely abandoned in the newly created United States and France by the start of the 19th century. In the United States, only four presidents, from John Adams to James Monroe, wore curly powdered wigs tied in a queue according to the old-fashioned style of the 18th century, though Thomas Jefferson did not always wear a wig, but only wore a wig when he was Ambassador to France with his long red hair implied to be short until his terms as secretary of state, vice president, and president, in which he powdered his long hair. Unlike them, the first president, George Washington, never wore a wig; instead, he powdered, curled and tied in a queue his own long hair.
Women’s wigs developed in a somewhat different way. They were worn from the 18th century onwards, although at first only surreptitiously. Full wigs in the 19th and early 20th century were not fashionable. They were often worn by old ladies who had lost their hair. In the film Mr Skeffington (1944), Bette Davis’s character has to wear a wig after a bout of diphtheria, which is a moment of pathos and a symbol of her frailty.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century hairdressers in England and France did a brisk business supplying postiches, or pre-made small wiglets, curls, and false buns to be incorporated into the hairstyle. The use of postiches did not diminish even as women’s hair grew shorter in the decade between 1910 and 1920, but they seem to have gone out of fashion during the 1920s. In the 1960s a new type of synthetic wig was developed using a modacrylic fibre which made wigs more affordable. Reid-Meredith was a pioneer in the sales of these types of wigs.
Especially in the field of Entertainment
A number of celebrities, including Donna Summer, Dolly Parton, Sia Furler, Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, Melanie Martinez, Lady Gaga, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Tina Turner and Raquel Welch, popularized wigs. Cher has worn all kinds of wigs in the last 40 years, from blonde to black, and curly to straight. They may also be worn for fun as part of fancy dress (costume wearing), when they can be of outlandish color or made from tinsel. They are quite common at Halloween, when “rubber wigs” (solid bald cap-like hats, shaped like hair), are sold at some stores.
Wigs are used in the film, theatre, and television. In the Japanese film and television genre Jidaigeki, wigs are used extensively to alter appearance to reflect the Edo period when most stories take place. Only a few actors starring in big-budgeted films and television series will grow their hair so that it may be cut to the appropriate hairstyle and forgo using a wig.
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