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The History and Evolution of Wigs

Updated on May 9, 2011

The History of Wigs

Wigs: for all their curious and fascinating characteristics and histories, they are widely under-appreciated.

Wigs were worn in ancient Egypt by both men and women. These adornments were sometimes made with human hair; other times constructed from sheep’s wool or vegetable fibers (materials that have continued to be utilized through modern times).

Back in ancient Egyptian times, wigs were worn over shaved heads, which allowed for greater comfort in hot climates and sun proteaction, and also provided a means by which individuals could stave off lice. Ancient Egyptian wigs were often adorned with braids and gold, rings and ornaments, making them significant status symbols. Random History has it that only noble women could wear “goddress” wigs, which were separated into three parts. Along with oddly-named styles, Egyptian wigs were also known to be perfumed and even dyed such colors as red, blue, and green.

Greeks, Romans, Assyrians, and Phoenicians also wore wigs, and also utilized them as status symbols (often obtaining the necessary material from slaves). Not only for nobility, wigs in Roman times were sometimes an occupational signifier- prostitutes were required by law to wear yellow wigs (or dye their hair yellow) “as a badge of their profession.”

In Asia, wigs were utilized less in general society and more in performance. Geisha, as well as Noh and Kabuki performers in Japan utilized hairpieces, which were highly stylized. Costume wigs have continued to be an important aspect of the entertainment business, allowing costumers and makeup artists to drastically change actors’ appearances with relative ease. Apparently a lot goes into the creation of different types of costume wigs; different “types” having specific characteristics. For example, Stone Age wigs are characteristically “bristly and large” whereas Medieval wigs have hair shocks sticking out at angles “and will be embedded with blood and pebbles.” Huh.

In Europe, it took wigs a while to catch on as they were initially criticized by the Catholic church as a moral sin (Random History shares that “Cyprian, for example, is said to have declared that “adultery is a grievous sin, but she who wears false hair is guilty of a greater.” “). During the Middle Ages, hair was usually covered and elaborate hairpieces were therefore useless. Wigs did not gain much of a foothold until the Renaissance when elaborate hairstyles became popular in female society. Queen Elizabeth, being one of the earlier European wig adopters, was known to have at least 80.

According to the Guardian, wigs did not become “essential wear in society” [until] the late 17th century under the reign of Charles II. “The fashion came from the court of Louis XIV.” Apparently the Sun King’s father was quite bald (and hence brought the wig-wearing prospect back into mainstream society), and his mistress was known for her fabulous Fontagne hairstyle, which became the style to replicate (something which was most conveniently done in wig form).

e-Wigs.com explains subsequent wig evolution with a reference to “elaborate wigs with mile-high coiffures and highly decorated curls.” that became popular in the 18th century. “White powdered wigs with long ringlets became the order of the day. In fact, some imaginative ladies had wigs with small birdcages complete with bird, on top of their heads. For wigs, big hair was definitely the in-thing.”

e-Wigs.com continues on to detail what became a rather vibrant European wig industry: “by the end of the 18th century the number of French master wigmakers had skyrocketed from the fashion center of Paris to other European capitols and finally to provincial cities as well. In addition to the guild master wigmakerswere thousands of journeymen wig makers and artisans traveling the European countryside producing wigs clandestinely.” By this point, wigs were worn by more than just the upper classes, and were very widespread indeed.

Wigs became less popular by the end of the 1700s, partially due to naturally changing styles, and also due to reactions against nobility-generated styles (think: French Revolution). After wigs “went out of fashion during the reign of George III, judges and barristers continued to wear them in court. Judges wore the shoulder-length “full bottom” wig, now used only for ceremonial purposes, until the 1780s, when they adopted the smaller wig with a tail at the back for civil trials. The full-bottomed wig continued to be used for criminal trials until the 1840s, when the small “bench” wig, used to this day, took over. Each high court judge receives a tax-free clothing allowance of nearly £15,000. A judge’s court wig costs around £800 and full-bottomed wigs about £2,000.” In 2007, after over 300 years of wig-wearing, this tradition came into question and is on its way out.

Wigs Today

Outside judicial courts, wigs have enjoyed some use here and there, and were also used in entertainment, but never again enjoyed the popularity they once had in 17th century Europe. These days, most wigs are worn by actors, hair-loss victims, and people at costume parties.

A growth in demand for natural human hair may encourage wigmakers to utiliz more synthetic fibers more creation in the future. Improving technology has made synthetic wigs more realistic and easy to manage than ever, though because nothing can quite replace human hair, we may someday devise an efficient way to grow it sans-human (such is being done with other body parts… why not hair?).

While wigs are hardly the popular adornments they used to be, we can hardly expect them to disappear. Indeed, wigs have been around for thousands of years- and will very likely be around for thousands more!


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