and the Whigs
Written by James Hawksley
In the 17th century, a time before Head and Shoulders, Just for Men, and good old-fashioned nit spray, how did you maintain a wonderful mane? Well, the truth is, you couldn’t. Of course you could try, but it was very difficult. Then throw in a good dose of Syphilis to add to your troubles, and it really was a trying time for scalp maintenance. Perfect, natural hair was nigh-on impossible.
Formal wigs from the 4th or 5th Dynasty, Egypt
So the only real option was to shave your head. Once sufficiently bald, you would visit a wig maker or, if you were really posh, have them come out to you.
Wigs first became popular in ancient Egypt, and during the Roman empire. In fact, following the fall of the Western Roman empire, the wig disappeared until the 16th Century before making a glorious reappearance (they were used to disguised the bald patches caused by Syphilis!). Elizabeth I was perhaps the best known wig wearer of the era, with her tightly curled red hair perched on top of her head, “Roman” style.
The next famous wig wearer was a hop, skip and a jump over the English Channel in France. In 1624, Louis XIII was beginning to go prematurely bald, so decided to have a wig made. It was at this point that wigs moved from being a practical item to cover baldness and prevent nits, to being a fashion statement. This was a period when, if you were an aristocrat, you changed your fashion according to the king’s flavour of the month. Image mattered, so now the king and his wig set off a new trend through Baroque Europe. By the 18th century, the Periwig had arrived.
Wigs were expensive and, like the clothing of the time, wealth was shown with use of expensive materials and colour. White was an expensive colour for wigs, so, if you couldn’t afford a white wig, you powdered it white. Obviously with much darker hair, the white powder turned the wig grey instead. As well as being a dye, wig powder was also a scent and delousing solution, all be it with varying degrees of success I should imagine.
The rather unglamorous process of powdering a wig
18th Century powdering bellows from Austria or Germany
Wig powder was typically made from wheat flour or dried white clay, but beanmeal and cornflour were also used. Powder was often enhanced by fragrances, such as those of orange flowers, rose petals, nutmeg, ambergris, jasmine, orris root, and lavender.
So what were the wigs themselves made of? Human hair for the Rolls-Royce of wigs. Horse or goat hair for the rest. As wigs were made of hair, they had the same problems as hair, namely nits and lice. 17th Century diarist Samuel Pepys wrote of the time his wig maker presented him with a louse covered wig; he feared the plague would finish off the trend.
“Up, and put on my coloured silk suit, very fine, and my new periwig, bought a good while since, but darst not wear it because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it. And it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwigs, for nobody will dare to buy any haire for fear of the infection? That it had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague.”
Often wigs became affected by lice and nits, though at least it was only an unsightly issue rather than torture to your scalp. As Samuel Pepys also reports, you were able to send the wig back to its maker, and he would boil the little critters off.
What killed off the fashion of wig-wearing?
In Europe, social movements; especially the revolution. Such displays of wealth were frowned upon, so people adopted a more natural look to avoid such attention.
In England it was a Whig that killed the wig. William Pitt put a tax on wig powders, which made owning hairpieces even more expensive. This paved the way for the wig’s demise as a fashion statement. In terms of trends, we were now looking at a reversion towards ancient Greece with the resurgence of ‘neo-classicism’, thus putting the final nail in the coffin of the Periwig.
An 18th Century wig makers’ form
An 18th Century powdering bellow from England
Powder was applied to wigs with bellows, and there was several types of bellows for the job. We are lucky enough to have two examples in our collection!
The first is an 18th century English bellow, made in the style of the traditional bellow you might use for fanning fires, only in miniature. The second is an 18th century German or Austrian bellow made of red morocco leather, concertinaed, with meissen caps and gilt decoration. This item is particularly exciting, as we have found out it still contains a small quantity of powder!
Lastly, we are also in possession of an 18th century wig makers’ form, complete with a hinged door for tool storage. Having this little door on the front leads us to believe that it may have been a mobile wig makers’ head.
So, next time you wear a fancy dress wig for Halloween or a party, spare a thought for the poor nit infested, powder-dusted souls of our past that had to wear them!