Wigged Out: When Powdered Wigs Were Popular and Going Grey Was A-OK
Americans spent $1.6 billion on hair color for the 52-week period ending March 23, 2002. Much of that color was used to cover up grey strands, which are considered unsightly in today’s youth-focused culture. But there was a time when grey was great and healthy-looking tresses were not the goal of hair care.
It was Louis XIV of France in the 1600s who kicked off the trend of wig-wearing among wealthy, influential men. Louis XIV, dubbed The Sun King, was losing his hair. He had already created a very distinctive and formal court style and soon that included flowing tresses to his shoulders. Anyone who wanted to be accepted at court quickly adopted his over-the-top look. Since other European countries traditionally copied French styles, massive wigs were soon The Look in London and other capital cities.
Many of the men’s wigs were white, which designated power and wisdom, and they were expensive. The most costly were created from human hair, while less affluent wig wearers had to settle for products made from horse or goat hair.
By the 1700s, men were powdering their wigs in order to achieve a distinctive white or slightly off-white color. Women copied the look by adding an early form of hair extensions to their own hairdos and finishing off the result with either grey or pale blue-grey powder. Wig powder was actually a finely ground starch, often scented with natural ingredients, such as lavender or orange flowers. Soon, a wig was required in order to be fashionably dressed.
Toward the end of the 1700s, younger men started a new trend when they began powering their own natural hair, and women followed suit. However, ladies being presented to the royal family at court were still required to wear the powdered wig in order to be properly attired.
Taxes have killed a lot of things, and one of them was the powdered wig. In 1795, the English government levied a tax on wig/hair powder, and the fashion of wearing powdered wigs at social and court occasions died off.
However, the look is still with us in the form of ceremonial wigs worn by those in the UK legal system. Judges wear short white or grey wigs with curls on the side when court is in session, while British barristers wear a similar wig in a slightly different style. Powder is no longer used.