History of Wigs

Overview

Etymologically the word wig is short for "periwig", or "peruke". The word "periwig" first appeared in the English language around 1675 (Wikipedia). Throughout the ages wigs have been used for many purposes: fashion, as a symbol of social standing, for hygienic purposes, religious precepts, and even to inspire awe in the enemy before battle. Also, different materials have been used: human hair, vegetable fibers, yak hair, horse hair, etc. In this short overview we will attempt to trace the usage of wigs from the first recorded usage up to our modern times. We will depict the usage of wigs in ancient societies divided by castes, where different styles of wigs meant that the bearer belonged to a certain social stratus, right into our modern societies where wigs are used mainly for fashion.

The Far East

Wigs are principally a Western form of dress.

In the Far East they have been used in the traditional theatre of China and Japan.

Some East Asian entertainers (Japanese Geisha, Korean Qisaeng) wore wigs (Katsura and gache respectively) as part of their traditional costumes.

Koreans considered big and heavy wigs to be more aesthetic.
In fact, there is a record of an incident where a heavy gache wig actually killed a young 13-year-old bride when the heavy wig broke her neck as she was getting up to greet her father-in-law.
Also due to its cost, some families took up to seven years preparing a gache wig for their new daughter-in-law.
Such was the women's frenzy for the gache that in 1788 King Jeongjo prohibited and banned, by royal decree, the use of gache, as they were deemed contrary to Confucian values of reserve and restraint.

Japanese wigs or katsura
katsura front view katsura back view

 

Korean wigs or gache
gache front view katsura back view

Ancient Egyptians

Ancient wigAncient Egyptians wore wigs just like Assyrians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans.
These facts can be verified through universally accepted historical documentation and archeological remains.
However, the best documented civilization is the Egyptian one.

In ancient Egypt (c. 4000 to 300 BC), men and women used to shave their heads completely, replacing their natural hair with wigs.
Egyptian women did not walk around showing their bald heads, they always wore wigs.
Page-boy like hairstyles in block form together with small braids were the look of this era.
Head shaving had a number of benefits: first, removing hair made it much more comfortable in the hot Egyptian climate; second, it was easy to maintain a high degree of cleanliness avoiding danger of lice infestation.
Priests were required to keep their entire bodies cleanly shaven. They shaved every third day because they needed to avoid the danger of lice or any other uncleanliness to conduct rituals. This is the reason why priests are illustrated bald-headed with no eyebrows or lashes.

Egyptian priests
New Kingdom priest Osiris priest

In addition, people wore wigs when their natural hair was gone due to old age. However, even though the Egyptians shaved their heads, they did not think the bald look was preferable to having hair.

Female and male wigs
Female wig Male wig

Wigs were very popular and worn by men, women and children.
They were adorned both inside and outside of the house.
Egyptians put on a new wig each day and wigs were greatly varied in styles.
The primary function of the wig was as a headdress for special occasions, such as ceremonies and banquets.

Ramses the GreatWigs were curled or sometimes made with a succession of plaits.
Only queens or noble ladies could wear wigs of long hair separated into three parts, the so-called goddress. However, they were worn by commoners in later times.
During the Old and Middle Kingdoms, there were basically two kinds of wig styles: wigs made of short or long hair.
The former was made of small curls arranged in horizontal lines lapping over each other resembling roof tiles. The forehead was partially visible and the ears and back of the neck were fully covered. Those small curls were either triangular or square. The hair could be cut straight across the forehead or cut rounded.
On the contrary, the hair from a long-haired wig hung down heavily from the top of the head to the shoulders forming a frame for the face. The hair was slightly waved and occasionally tresses were twisted into spirals.

 

Ancient Egyptians - continued

Wigs were very expensive. Poor people who could not afford to buy wigs had to use the cheaper hair extensions.
Hair extensions were often preferred because they could be tied up in the back. Egyptians considered thicker hair as ideal, so, just like today, hair extensions in the form of false plaits and curls were attached to wigs, although full wigs were more common.
Many wigs were extremely complex, and carefully arranged into braids and strands.
Women often wore very long, heavily-braided wigs, and these were considered to add to their sensuality, based on the frequent references in Egyptian romantic poetry.
Men generally wore shorter wigs than women, although their styles were sometimes even more elaborate.
Although Egyptians preferred to wear wigs and took care of them, they also did take care of their natural hair. Washing their hair regularly was a routine for Egyptians. However, it is not known how frequently Egyptians washed their hair.
Wigs were meticulously cared for using emollients and oils made from vegetables or animal fats. Those wigs that were properly cared for lasted longer than those without proper care. Wigs were worn on special occasions and were scented with petals or pieces of wood chips such as cinnamon.
There are numerous representations of guests at banquets and public functions who wear incense cones on top of their heavy wigs. These incense cones can be found in both men and women, and were made of aromatic incense mixed with fat.
Since such incense cones have never been discovered archaeologically, it is assumed that the depiction of the incense cone is used simply to convey the idea that wigs were scented, as a way to illustrate a fact that would otherwise be impossible to represent in pictorial form.

Incense cones
Incense cone 1

A wig-making workshop has been discovered overlooking the Temple of King Mentuhotep at Deir el-Bahri. Wigs were made by barbers or by wig specialists, one of the occupations open to Egyptian women. A brown powder, discovered at the aforementioned wig factory, is at present believed to be hair dye.

Wig-making tools

 

Ancient Egptians - epilogue

New Kingdom WigWhen wigs were not used, they were kept in special boxes, on a stand or in chests. When needed they could be worn without tiresome combing, this practice is recommended wig care even in our times.
Because wigs were also considered necessary for the afterlife, they were buried in tombs, some contained in special wig chests. Quite a few wigs have survived, in particular from the New Kingdom.
In the New Kingdom, people preferred wigs with several long tassel-ended tails, while shorter and simpler wigs became popular in the Amarna period.

 The finest wigs were made entirely of human hair. Others, apparently in the mid-price range, have vegetable fibers intertwined with the hair. Sometimes sheep wool was also used. The least expensive wigs, certainly the least realistic, were made entirely from vegetable fibers.
Some human hair wigs had a vegetable fiber padding underneath, to enhance fullness and thickness, very desirable attributes according to Egyptian standards.
Although wigs depicted in artwork are recognizable as such, the effect given is always realistic. The ideal for a good wig seems to have been that it should look like real hair, only better.

Ancient Egyptians were very concerned about appearance, just as modern-day people, and strived to conceal aging. They used a material called henna (used for nails and lips, too) to dye their hair red. Henna is still very popular in all the Middle Eat nowadays. Scientific studies show that people used henna to disguise their grey hair from as early as 3400 BC. There is a body of evidence from paintings that depict the existence of people with red hair, such as the 18th Dynasty Hunutmehet. She had distinctive red hair mentioned by Grafton Smith.
Sometimes hair would be dyed, even after death, with vegetable henna, which would dye the naturally dark hair a deep auburn color, and the unpigmented grey hairs would usually be much lighter.
Wigs were also dyed, with henna and other materials.

Henna dyes
Henna dye 1

Summary

The ancient Egyptians were the first, and probably unique, civilization to have recorded a widespread usage of wigs, throughout all their social layers.
They became famous for their expertise in the crafting of wigs and continued to use them well into Roman Empire times, as this portrait of an Egyptian woman wearing a Roman style wig shows.

 

 

 

 

Roman Empire

During the Roman Empire (500 B.C. to 500 A.D.) wigs became especially popular among women. Hairpieces, sometimes colored, were added to increase the volume and therefore the effect of the hairstyle.

 

 

 

Roman woman ca. 80 ADRaised hairstyles, made by mixing stranger and own hair, were very common during the Flavian dynasty (Vespasian, Titus, Domitian: 69–96 CE) at the court and outside.
The pointed nose and double chin indicate a realistic design of the portrait, which points out the republican time and comes in contradiction with the idealization of the early empire art.
Historian Suetonius reports that Emperor Domitian became bald, possibly the consequence of a long sickness, and allegedly extremely sensitive regarding his baldness, which he disguised in later life by wearing wigs. According to Suetonius, he even wrote a book on the subject of hair care.
Wealthy Roman women wore wigs made from the hair of slaves. Hair was also traded as a commodity, dark hair came from India and blond or red hair from Europe.

Middle Ages and Renaissance

 After the fall of the Roman Empire, in the Middle Ages (1200 to 1400), wigs lost their importance. It was customary for young women to wear their hair long, whereas married women covered it with a scarf or a cap. This was to comply with the command issued in Apostle Paul's First Letter to Corinthians: to stress women’s dependence on their husbands only them had the right to see their heads uncovered.

The 16th century (also known as the Renaissance) saw a revival of the wig 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.

Queen Elizabeth IRoyal 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.
King Louis XIII of France (1601-1643) became prematurely bald and pioneered the use of wigs from 1620 onwards.
During his reign, the Allonge wig for men was invented and became an important part of every garment. At this time, wigs were mainly made of human or animal hair.

His similarly follicle-challenged son, King Louis XIV (1638-1715), also known as Le Roi Soleil (the Sun King) took wig usage to a whole new level.
During his reign he built the Château de Versailles, a large and extravagant royal residence and moved there the court life from Paris. He created an elaborate court style at Versailles, that included forty-eight wig makers.
King Louis XIV was dictating men's fashion at the time with his sophisticated style, and his exuberant taste for luxury.

 

Marie AntoinetteMarie Antoinette, born in the imperial house of Austria, last queen of France. Here depicted wearing the classical pouf style wig.

Among women in the French court of Versailles in the mid-to-late 18th century, large, elaborate and often themed (such as the stereotypical "boat wigs") were in vogue for women.
These wigs were often very heavy, weighted down with pomades, powders, and other ornamentation.
In the late 18th century these wigs (along with many other indulgences in court life) became symbolic of the decadence of the French nobility, which only helped to fuel the French Revolution.

Rococo

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.
With wigs becoming virtually obligatory garb for men of virtually any significant social rank, wig makers 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.
Towering wigs covered the back and shoulders and flowed down the chest; not surprisingly, they were also extremely heavy and often uncomfortable to wear.
Also, such wigs were expensive to produce; the best were made from natural human hair, hair of horses, goats, and yak was often used as a cheaper alternative.

The 18th century, better known as Rococo, was the flowering period of wigs. Wigs gained enormously in importance and were adopted as a status symbol by both men and women. In the 18th century, both men and women's wigs were powdered in order to give them their distinctive white or off-white color.
Wig powder was made from finely ground starch scented with orange flower, lavender, or orris root, and was occasionally colored violet, blue, pink or yellow, but most often white.
Powdered wigs became an essential for full dress occasions and continued in use until almost the end of the 18th century. Powdering wigs was messy and inconvenient and the development of the naturally white or off-white powderless wig (made of horsehair) is no doubt what has 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. After 1790, both wigs and powder were reserved for older more conservative men, and were in use by ladies being presented at court.
In 1795, the English 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 by 1800.

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 still survives in modern times.

 

 

Modern Times

Queen's court barristersThe Rococo tradition was continued by judges and clergymen.
Until 1823, bishops of the Church of England and Church of Ireland wore ceremonial wigs.
Even in our present times, the usage of Rococo style men's wigs survived in a few legal systems.
The wigs worn by barristers are in the style favored in the late eighteenth century and are routinely worn in various countries of the Commonwealth.
Judges' wigs are, in everyday use as court dress, short like barristers' wigs (although in a slightly different style), but for ceremonial occasions judges and also senior barristers (Queen's Court), here depicted, wear full-bottomed wigs.

The wearing of wigs by men, as a symbol of social status, was largely abandoned in the newly created United States and France by the start of the 19th century, although it persisted a little longer in the United Kingdom.

Women's wigs developed in a somewhat different way. They were worn from the 18th century onwards, although at first only surreptitiously.
Hairpieces were once again worn around 1820, and the Biedermeier style enjoyed great popularity. Hair was tightly arranged around the head and artistic hairstyles were created with side locks and flower-like hair loops.
Full wigs in the 19th. and early 20th. century were not fashionable. They were often worn by old ladies who had lost their hair.

The development of high-tech plastic synthetic fibers and modern techniques of weaving wigs result in hyper-ventilated, ultra-light and relatively inexpensive wigs.
This caused a revival of wig usage in fast-paced modern women, who not always have time for hair-styling and prefer to rapidly don a wig in order to look their best.
Chemotherapy patients regularly use wigs while waiting for hair regrowth, in insurance speak wigs are called "cranial prosthesis".
Men also use hair toupees.
Reasons for wearing wigs have also changed over time: no more hygienic purposes. People wear wigs for fashion, convenience or psychological comfort.

References