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Updated on April 14, 2010
Photo by Angel Norris
Photo by Angel Norris

Wig (shortened form of periwig) is an artificial hair covering for the head, worn to conceal baldness, to effect a disguise, or for ceremonial or theatrical purposes. The use of wigs as adornment originated in early times; they were worn by both men and women in Egypt for reasons of cleanliness and comfort as well as decoration, often in unnatural colors or interwoven with gold jewelry. An elaborate wig was found in the Danish Bronze Age burials (1500-800 B.C.), indicating the widespread usage. In Greece, which probably imported the wig from the Persians, it was worn by both sexes and also used as part of theatrical costume. Wigs came into fashion in late Republican or early Imperial Rome; Caesar used a wig as well as the laurel to hide his baldness, and it was worn by other emperors also. Upper-class Roman women favored wigs fabricated of blonde or red hair taken from the heads of captured women from the north.

The great vogue of wig wearing in France and England in the 17th and 18th centuries began at the court of Louis XIII, who was bald. From there it spread to England, although women had worn it earlier in Elizabethan times. (Elizabeth herself had a large and varied wardrobe of wigs, and Mary, Queen of Scots wore a wig to her beheading.)

The peruke was a familiar part of the gay costume of the Cavaliers, and it came into general use in the reign of Charles II, especially among fashionable gentlemen of the day. The full-bottomed periwig of the 'Restoration was a large, elaborate construction usually made in natural colors (the white-powdered type did not come into prominence until the 18th century), and necessitated the shaving or close cropping of the head. This form continued through the reign of Anne (1702-1714), but by 1730 a neater, soldier's style (tie wig), confined in back with a black ribbon, was favored by young men. One version was known as the Ramulies wig, consisting of long braided queues tied at top and bottom with a small ribbon bow, which was supposedly worn by soldiers at the battle of Ramillies in 1706. The pigtail was popular in the early Georgian period, and remained in use by British sailors until the mid-19th century.

Another popular style was the bag wig, in which the hair was gathered in back and enclosed in a black silk bag drawn up with a string. Further modifications in the 18th century resulted in simpler styles, evolving into stiff corkscrew curls around the head. By 1790 the wig had disappeared from general use in England, although it is worn there today as a symbol of office by the lord chancellor, judges, barristers, and bishops.

A modern form, the toupee, designed to simulate the natural hair, is widely used in the United States and elsewhere.


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