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Hairstyles of the British Court: Whigs in Wigs

Updated on January 14, 2012

Rise of the Powdered Wig, known as a Peruke

And yet, I lead with a French image... here's why:
And yet, I lead with a French image... here's why:

A Brief Look at Wigs in Ancient History

The image of the British barrister in his white or gray wig is a familiar one to just about anyone with a pulse. But for most, understanding where the tradition came from might be a less familiar thing. What follows is a brief look at the history of the powdered wig, or, more correctly, the peruke or periwig.

The origins of the wig can be traced to Egypt as a means of protecting the head from a glaring desert sun and was primarily a practical device. Its popularity was resurrected in Rome for a time by women who wore them for fashion's sake ("Wig"). Once again they vanished as a trend and it wasn't until the 17th century that they became commonplace again. And again, they were brought forth for practical reasons.

The advent of the wig in Europe (primarily France and England) was a prophylactic one. The straight fact was that head lice were a genuine concern in the 17th century and a thickly woven mat atop one's head worked wonders for keeping the lice out of a person's scalp, and it was much preferred over the shaving of one's head. For the most part, the early wigs were not a fashion statement at all, and they were worn for practicality. But that was destined to change.

Louis XIII
Louis XIII
Louis XIV
Louis XIV
Charles II (1680)
Charles II (1680)

How the Wig became the Peruke (or the Periwig)

Despite the prevalence of prophylactic periwigs, ultimately their use led to fashion by way of vanity. Wigs found cosmetic use in 1624 when the French king, Louis the XIII - known as "Louis the Bald" ("Flip Your Wig") - began wearing one to cover up his onset baldness. In the mid 1600s Louis the XIV decided the practice was an amusing one, and from there the popularity of wig-wearing by the rich and powerful took off. The fashion arrived in England in 1663 and was adopted by the court of Charles II (McLaren 242-243).

Wigs amongst the rich in England were at first natural colors, but the habit of powdering them with white powder made from starch and plaster of Paris was popularized around 1690 - evolving at some points to include colors like pink, blue and gray ("Wig"). The courts did not immediately adopt this habit, however, and it wasn't until 1705 that the bench and bar finally gave way to the force of fashion sense and began donning wigs, which eventually would be referred to as "perukes" and "periwigs."

Given that at this point in time the wigs were for fashion, they were huge, physically, and this type of wig was called the "full bottomed wig." But in 1720, as it is wont to do, the fashion changed and the popular wigs began to grow smaller, becoming what was called the "bob wig" or "campaign wig" (McLaren 243). [Both styles are pictured below.]

Courts are generally ruled by precedent and tradition, and so, even in the matter of perukes, the stuffy old judges would not let their dignity suffer the reduction of their glorious large wigs and so, in defiance of change, the judges kept to the old fashion of large wigs and so began the custom of wearing a periwig as part of legal formality rather than as a fashion - although younger members did push for smaller versions and ultimately, the junior barristers began wearing shorter "campaign wigs" around 1730 or so (McLaren 243). Prior to 1720, the wigs were just in keeping with the times; after 1720, it became a matter of strict judicial propriety. By 1750 nobody was wearing large wigs except for those in the service of judiciary and so at that point the tradition was locked down and become emblematic of the bar.

Two Types of Peruke: The Full Bottom Wig and the Bob-Wig

Top Row: Full Bottom Wig.  ---  Bottom Row: "Bob Wig," "Curled Tie Wig," or "Campaign Wig."
Top Row: Full Bottom Wig. --- Bottom Row: "Bob Wig," "Curled Tie Wig," or "Campaign Wig."
The Bastille goes down.
The Bastille goes down.

Famine, Revolution and the Powdered Wig

The custom of wearing powdered wigs began to fall rapidly from popularity as heads began to fall from aristocratic necks. In France the French Revolution took place (1789-1799), and as most everyone knows, it was not a good time to be rich and powerful. Wearing a powdered wig around was essentially waving a sign to the angry mob that read, "Hey, I'm over here." So the fashion plummeted in popularity. In England, the decline wasn't quite so precipitous, but still it was a matter of not angering the general populace that brought about the periwig's eventual demise. In part, the younger folks who sympathized with the French revolution stopped wearing their wigs out of respect for the cause. But that was not the real reason for the fashion's decline.

In England the problem was food. England hovered on the brink of starvation and, given that the starch portion of the "starch and plaster of Paris" mentioned above was derived from wheat; cavorting about with a shovel full of what was essentially wasted food in your wig was simply not a good idea for the well fed well-to-do. Even then, the haughty rich continued to do it anyway, and the flouting of it in the face of famine became such an issue that a tax was imposed on those who wore powdered wigs to the tune of a guinea each, which actually netted a hefty sum of £200,000 in just the year 1795. This gluttonous consumption of food for the purpose of powdering their wigs, and the elite being willing to pay the tax rather than dispense with their vanity, got these wig-wearers the nick-name "guinea pigs" by the populace (McLaren 244).

By the 1820s almost nobody else in England was still wearing perukes other than the bench and bar, and even there the attorneys and solicitors had given up the practice for themselves. Only the upper echelons of the court continued with the practice after that. The dividing line was the difference between the solicitors and the barristers - the solicitors being those attorneys who had to muck about and rub elbows with the commoners. There were no official rules about it, and they were not compelled to do so, but the legal institution maintained the practice simply because wearing a wig had become a tradition that was too long-standing to let go. It was an emblem of their dignity. (Although by the 1840s the full bottomed wig was largely abandoned in favor of the more manageable bob-wig style.)

Monty Python having some fun in powdered wigs (and other things).

Attempts to get rid of the “Judge’s Wig”

 

Anyone who's ever snickered at the sight of an English judge wearing a powdered wig would not be alone by any stretch. Even as early as 1762 these things were drawing criticism as evidence of excess and of silliness. Oliver Goldsmith wrote in The Citizen of the World, "To appear wise, nothing more is requisite here, than for a man to borrow hair from the heads of all his neighbors, and clap it, like a bush on his own," (McLaren 246). Thomas Jefferson is quoted as having said of English judges that they "look like mice peeping out of oakum" (Yablon). And in 1853 the famed Russian socialist and writer Alexander Herzen "was struck by the comicality of the medieval ‘mise-en-scene'" when he looked upon the English barristers (McLaren 246).

But not everyone was laughing. Some of the complaints were purely practical. Given the lack of easily available and perhaps suitably not disgusting human hair, the wigs were often made of horse or goat hair, and they were hot. In 1868 Sir Robert Collier and Sir James Wilde tried to set in motion a campaign to be done with the "obsolete institution" when Collier left his wig off over the course of two particularly hot days (McLaren 246). The hope was that people would recognize the pragmatism of this action and let go the grip on outdated fashion. Their campaign was not successful.

In addition to the heat, perukes are heavy, awkward, expensive and have a tendency to stink.

Periwigs Today

As recently as the 1990s, attempts were still being made to be rid of perukes as well, but the populace at large was unwilling to let the tradition go. In a complete reversal of popular opinion from the famine years of the 1790s, the British citizens of modern times like the tradition and feel when asked their opinion on the abolishment idea that the wigs give dignity and gravitas to the judges.

In fact, in perhaps a paradoxical attempt to procure rights to wear the wigs for themselves, some solicitors who'd been allowed to argue cases in the higher courts, started arguing for the right to wear the emblematic wigs as well, still reserved at this time for barristers only. They complained that not being allowed to wear the wigs made them "look like second class lawyers to clients and juries" (Pressley). Given the nature of the public demanding the tradition remain, it seems that perhaps the solicitors had a point. Nonetheless, the tradition was left to remain as it had been for centuries past and the solicitors were reminded of their unique role in the larger legal history.

The Powdered Wig Remains

For now it appears that tradition and iconographic status has the peruke set firmly in place upon the heads of Britain's courts. With so many years of history behind it, it seems unlikely that the periwig will be dislodged. While technically out-dated, clearly uncomfortable, expensive - costing as much as £1,000 (Yablon) - and cumbersome, this is a tradition whose roots have grown very deep. But who knows, they may yet come back into style. Fashion has brought back stranger things from the past, and one can never be sure when the next plague of head lice is going to strike. Until then, balding leaders beyond the British courts will have to suffice themselves with the shorthaired cousin of the peruke, the toupee, or with a bottle of Rogaine.

For the rest of us, the "judge's wig" is a great source of entertainment, and perhaps even national pride, and they are easily found for use in costumes, whether for a play, a Renaissance Fair or for Halloween. Unless a new trend develops or the head lice come back, that's just going to have to do.

Some Powdered Wigs for Girls

Works Cited

"Flip Your Wig." American Heritage 52.2 (Apr. 2001): 20. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. California State University of Sacramento, Sacramento, CA. 8 Sep. 2008. <http://proxy.lib.csus.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy.lib.csus.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=4227108&site=ehost-live>.

McLaren, James G. "A brief history of wigs in the legal profession." International Journal of the Legal Profession 6.2 (July 1999): 241. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. California State University of Sacramento, Sacramento, CA. 8 Sep. 2008 <http://proxy.lib.csus.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy.lib.csus.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=6679724&site=ehost-live>.

Pressley, James. "Los Angeles court studies hairs in cap, but here the issue is wigs. " Wall Street Journal [New York, N.Y.] 19 Apr. 1995, Eastern edition: B1. ABI/INFORM Global. ProQuest. California State University of Sacramento, Sacramento, CA. 8 Sep. 2008 <http://www.proquest.com/>.

"Wig." Infoplease. 9 Sep. 2008. http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/society/A0852220.html.

Yablon, Charles M. "Wigs, Coifs, and Other Idiosyncrasies of English Judicial Attire." Cordoza Life. 5d3 1000, Spring 1999. 9 Sep. 2008. http://www.cardozo.yu.edu/life/spring1999/wigs/.

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    • gwendymom profile image

      gwendymom 8 years ago from Oklahoma

      I thought about doing a hub about this. You did it so much better than I ever could have. Great Job!

    • Shadesbreath profile image
      Author

      Shadesbreath 8 years ago from California

      Thanks for that. I've seen your hubs though, you could do a great job too. I'm glad I beat you to it though. Competition drives me to drink.

      Hey, on second thought, you should write one, I could use an excuse for tonight. lol.

    • gwendymom profile image

      gwendymom 8 years ago from Oklahoma

      Thank you. But believe writing the one I did was planty! Here's an excuse for you to drink though, Because you can.

    • CJStone profile image

      CJStone 8 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      &pound;1,000 for a horse hair wig: that seems ridiculously over-priced to me. Nice history lesson though. I enjoyed that.

    • spryte profile image

      spryte 8 years ago from Arizona, USA

      Very interesting stuff...I didn't know about the head lice :)

    • Shirley Anderson profile image

      Shirley Anderson 8 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Wow, Shadesbreath!  You put a TON of work into this, but congrats, it's great.  I never knew why they wore those whigs, and never thought of how hot, itchy and smelly they must have been, especially way, way back.

      Oh, um....they started powdering wigs in 1960?  Bet you meant 1690.

      Thx for clearing up this mystery for me.  :)

    • Shadesbreath profile image
      Author

      Shadesbreath 8 years ago from California

      Yeah, it's just always nice to have an added reason, Gwendy!

      Thanks CJ. I don't think they all cost that, just the really fancy ones. If you follow that link to the &quot;Wigs, Coifs and ...&quot; he goes into the robes stuff pretty heavily. There's like dead animal parts on the bottoms of them and stuff LOL. Insane.

      Yep, them was some lousy times. LOL. I laughed at the use of profylactic when I read it (mostly because I'm immature, but also because it was funny to see the term used in conjuntion with a wig).

    • B.T. Evilpants profile image

      B.T. Evilpants 8 years ago from Hell, MI

      Are you going legit? This makes at least three serious, informative, quality hubs! Think about your reputation man. It was awesome, by the way. If you need a reason to drink, go check out some of the pics on my entry into the hair fray.

    • Shadesbreath profile image
      Author

      Shadesbreath 8 years ago from California

      Hah, Shirley, you rule.  How the hell did I miss that?  Thanks, typo corrected.  And thanks for the compliment.  I did put in some time on it, but I love history (especially English - I should have been born there dammit), enjoy research and don't mind writing lol.

      Thanks BT, but no, I'll never sell out immaturity and sarcasm.  I just couldn't bring myself to write about the stuff I thought of.  I was gonna try to do pubic hair styles of the rich and famous, but, well, it was too crude and I had to let it go.  The PG nature of hubpages stayed my depravity. I do worry that if I write too many serious ones people won't come look when I publish new ones anymore though. :(

    • Whitney05 profile image

      Whitney 8 years ago from Georgia

      I love it! Very interesting take on the topic by far. Have you seen the Amadeus movie where Bethoven is trying out all the differnet wigs? It makes me laugh every time.

    • Shadesbreath profile image
      Author

      Shadesbreath 8 years ago from California

      Wow, I loved that movie and have forgotten all about it.  I need to rent that again (and maybe go see if that clip is on You Tube lol, heh.).  I'm glad you liked my hub, too.  Thanks.  :)

      Edit: I just checked, he's actually wearing the poofy wigs that the physicians wore, a different style (and one I wouldn't have known about had I not read all this stuff lol). Oh well. Gonna put that movie on my netflix now. heh.

    • Ryan Hupfer profile image

      Ryan Hupfer 8 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Wow, you've outdone yourself with this one....what a great Hub.

      Thanks for joining the HubMob!

    • Shadesbreath profile image
      Author

      Shadesbreath 8 years ago from California

      I'm nothing if not anal-retentive. Heh. This is a fun idea though, pushes people outside of their normal boundaries, forces us to read wide rather than just deep. Thanks for coming up with it and thanks for popping by.

    • Uninvited Writer profile image

      Susan Keeping 8 years ago from Kitchener, Ontario

      Fun, fun hub. And with footnotes even!

    • Christoph Reilly profile image

      Christoph Reilly 8 years ago from St. Louis

      I knew you were very, very funny, and I knew that you were a good writer, but I didn't know you were a friggin' very, very funny good writer scholar too! Seriously great job, very well researched and presented. Your style still comes through with the occasional glib observation or turn of phrase that I can appreciate.

      It's an achievement to entertain and inform simultaneously, seemlessly. It's a complicated subject really, but you made it simple. Congratulations.

    • Shadesbreath profile image
      Author

      Shadesbreath 8 years ago from California

      Thanks Uninvited. I can't help the footnotes, they've been beaten into me.

      And thanks to you too, Christoph for the kind words. Coming from you that's high praise. And glib just seeps out sometimes, even when I'm trying to act mature. I'm afraid it can't be helped.

    • SweetiePie profile image

      SweetiePie 8 years ago from Southern California, USA

      This is where we got the expression an influential person is a big wig, because back then the politicians and well to do business people all wore these. Thanks for the interesting hub.

    • Shadesbreath profile image
      Author

      Shadesbreath 8 years ago from California

      Yep, you are correct, SweetiePie. And thank you for stopping by and saying nice things. :)

    • dineane profile image

      dineane 8 years ago from North Carolina

      ditto to all the praise in other comments - very well written, and thanks for yet another French tidbit...I think I'm going to have a whole new section for my hub by the time I finish reading everyone's contributions to HubMob!

    • ajcor profile image

      ajcor 8 years ago from NSW. Australia

      you certainly write well Shadesbreath! thanks for such informative and researched information.

    • Dottie1 profile image

      Dottie1 8 years ago from MA, USA

      What silly silly looking wigs they wore back then. Thanks for the history lesson.

    • Shadesbreath profile image
      Author

      Shadesbreath 8 years ago from California

      Thank you very much for that, Ajcor. I try. I love a good research project sometimes. It clears the writing sinuses after so much silliness for me. Plus it's fun to learn random stuff, helps the creative writing side.

      Yeah, pretty insane, eh? Course, three hundred years from now they'll be looking back at the hairstyles from the 60,70,80 and now and say the same things about our hair choices too, I reckon. Thanks for the comment.

    • rmr profile image

      rmr 8 years ago from Livonia, MI

      All this info and a Python clip too! Awesome!

    • Shadesbreath profile image
      Author

      Shadesbreath 8 years ago from California

      Yes, there should be a rule that you can't write about England without one, imo. It's like eating pumpkin pie without whipped cream, something that shouldn't be done.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 8 years ago from North America

      The most serious people/writers can be the funniest as well. Shadesbreath, you're both. Well done!

    • Shadesbreath profile image
      Author

      Shadesbreath 8 years ago from California

      That's a tremendous compliment coming from you. Thank you.

    • Research Analyst profile image

      Research Analyst 8 years ago

      Thanks for such an educational hub taking us back in history. I like it.

      http://Awsome-Hair-Style-Hubpage-from-the-HubMob

    • Shadesbreath profile image
      Author

      Shadesbreath 8 years ago from California

      Doh, Research, I went off and read your hub the other day via the link and never said, &quot;thanks&quot; for the nice comment on mine. So, &quot;thanks.&quot;

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 8 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      What a well researched hub Shadesbreath! :) Although they looked funny in those wigs and yet it's different too --- what's the word...uhhh &quot;aristocratic!&quot; LOL

    • Shadesbreath profile image
      Author

      Shadesbreath 8 years ago from California

      Yeah, that's apparently how the average Brit on the street sees it. To me looking at them is kind of like saying a word over and over too many times; it starts out normal seeming but after too much attention it starts to seem nonsense.

    • profile image

      Lucy Loo 8 years ago

      Not sure what this has to do with British Food, but it came up when I did a search: http://www.buy-british-food-usa.com/

    • Shadesbreath profile image
      Author

      Shadesbreath 8 years ago from California

      Hah, funny. There is a portion of the article that discusses a famine in England and the trouble rich folks got into for powdering their wigs during it with powder made from wheat while people were starving. It has to be that.

    • rpgshow.com profile image

      rpgshow.com 7 years ago from United States

      How interesting !I like this hub!

    • Shadesbreath profile image
      Author

      Shadesbreath 7 years ago from California

      Thanks. A bit of a topical aside for me, but was fun to work on.

    • LondonGirl profile image

      LondonGirl 7 years ago from London

      My wig isn't heavy or smelly, promise! The standard barristers' wigs are made from horse-hair, and cost about &pound;450, I think.

    • profile image

      Solicitor West Sussex 7 years ago

      I can't understand why solicitor still wear these silly wigs. It's a bit unnessary and old fashioned. I guess some people like the tradition though.

    • Shadesbreath profile image
      Author

      Shadesbreath 7 years ago from California

      Yeah, it's pretty much totally about the tradition (and the image ingrained and upheld by that tradition) I imagine. From an American perspective, I have to say, it is pretty cool in a historical way. I think I'd HATE it though if I actually WAS a solictor.

    • itcoll profile image

      itcoll 7 years ago

      this is one of the best hubs i have read this month.thanks.

    • Shadesbreath profile image
      Author

      Shadesbreath 7 years ago from California

      I'm glad you enjoyed it, Itcoll, and thank you very much for saying so. :)

    • profile image

      sreeiit 7 years ago

      This has been a useful and interesting post

    • Shadesbreath profile image
      Author

      Shadesbreath 7 years ago from California

      Thanks, Sreeiit.

    • RachaelLefler profile image

      Rachael Lefler 6 years ago from Illinois

      They're fabulous. I think everybody should wear big powdered wigs! Let's revive the trend!

    • Shadesbreath profile image
      Author

      Shadesbreath 6 years ago from California

      Hah, Rachael, I would have been with you on that except that I recall my "ah ha!" moment upon having come across the part about them being "heavy, hot and stinky." I believe it may be one of those fashions that looks better in our minds eye than in our reality.

    • profile image

      Samuel Augustus Jennings 6 years ago

      Traditional or not, most male wigs looks ridiculously silly. Balding is my biggest regret of growing old, but I refuse too look like a clown, so I shave it ALL OFF!

    • Shadesbreath profile image
      Author

      Shadesbreath 6 years ago from California

      Well Samuel, I tend to agree. Age has not been kind to my hairline either, but I'm not sure that's my biggest regret of growing old. I could name some other stuff that is, but they'd be too gross. LOL.

      Thanks for commenting.

    • Nadine Convery profile image

      Nadine Ackermann 6 years ago

      Great stuff! What a fantastic history lesson! I'd love to link you to one of my hubs - please have a look first though. I'm new and you may not want to be affiliated!

      Seriously wonderful article!

    • Shadesbreath profile image
      Author

      Shadesbreath 6 years ago from California

      I did go have a peak at one of them (and will get to the other soon I can tell--you write wonderfully). Of course you may link to my hub; I'd be honored.

    • profile image

      Nosey One 5 years ago

      Why were some of the shorter wigs...all curly...one flip above each ear...or two flips above each ear? Was this just style or did it represent rank of some kind?

    • Shadesbreath profile image
      Author

      Shadesbreath 5 years ago from California

      Nosey One, that's a great question. When researching this, I didn't dig into the manufacture of the individual wigs at all. That might be a good follow up piece to this, although, being your idea, I wouldn't scoop you on it if you were interested. I can only guess why that might be, but it may have been fashion, or some exegency of making them or the material itself. Hard to say, interesting to think about. Great question!

    • profile image

      Meh 5 years ago

      This didn't help at ALL!!!!

    • Shadesbreath profile image
      Author

      Shadesbreath 5 years ago from California

      Well, Meh, I tried.

      Hopefully the next stop will have what you need.

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