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“Horrid Bushes of Vanity”

A History of Wigs

As a species, humans show an almost obsessive preoccupation with hair--or lack of it. From the earliest written records, hair has exerted a certain fascination over both men and women. It is central in myth, magic, and folklore: Rapunzel lets down her hair for her prince, Delilah cuts Samson’s hair to render him helpless, scalping is seen as taking one’s spirit, and various religions try to regulate the length of the hair of their congregation. The way hair is worn affords a powerful identification of social, economic, intellectual, and sexual status. Even more than natural hair, wigs (from “periwig,” connected to the Latin pilus, meaning “hair”) have been used for medicinal reasons, disguise, and ceremony, as well as badges for the elite. From ancient Egyptian queens to current members of the British court, wigs are not just decoration, but crucial elements of identity and community.

Egyptians and Their Wigs

Egyptian artifacts and wall painting on ancient tombs reveal wigs were very common (Love 2001). Most Egyptians found it easier to shave their hair than to keep it clean and free of pests in the hot Egyptian sun. However, because Egyptians did not think looking bald was aesthetically pleasing, most Egyptians, except for priests and laborers, donned a wide variety of wigs. Wigs did not try to simulate real hair, and typically consisted of assorted sizes of braids set with beeswax or something similar, creating a rather stiff feel (Corson 1965).

While all classes wore wigs, wigs also served as a class barrier, and it was not unusual for upper-class women to own several large, decorative wigs in different styles. The most expensive wigs were made of human hair, but could also be made from wool or palm leaf fibers or even pure silver. Only noble women could wear long wigs that were separated into three parts, called a “goddress” (Cooper 1971).  While dark brown hair was sometimes worn, wigs were also dyed various colors such as red, blue, and green.

Wigs for all classes were typically well ventilated, but they could be uncomfortable indoors. As a remedy, cakes of perfumed wax were placed on wigs, in which the melting wax was supposed to provide a cooling effect. Wigs were also carefully cared for with vegetable and animal oils and were washed regularly and scented with flower petals or cinnamon. Because Egyptians felt that wigs would continue to be symbols of affluence and importance in the afterlife, they were often buried with their wigs (Corson 1965).

Ancient Greek and Roman Wigs

In ancient Greece, natural hair was viewed as sacred. In fact, Greeks would often hang the hair of the dead on their doors previous to interment, and mourners would cut their own hair to place on the corpse. While Greek hair tended to look more natural, wigs were also commonplace. The Great Carthaginian General Hannibal (247-183 B.C.), for example, is credited with having two types of wigs: one to improve his appearance and one to disguise himself in battle. The wealthy might also crown their wigs with wreaths of flowers or with diadems of silver and gold. Greek actors would often wear wigs in which the color and style gestured toward the nature of individual characters (Cooper 1971).

Roman hair was worn rather simply prior to the Empire. Early Roman women, like other ancient peoples, thought hair was sacred, and both washing and cutting their hair was ceremonial. It was after the establishment of the Empire during Livia’s (58 B.C.-A.D. 29) reign that hair styles became more elaborate and wigs more popular, though Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.) would use a wig and laurel wreath to hide his baldness (Corson 1965). Famous for her many yellow wigs, the insatiable Empress Messalina (A.D. 17-48) would wear them on her nightly visits to a brothel. Roman prostitutes, in fact, were not only licensed and taxed, but they were also compelled to wear a yellow wig or dye their hair yellow to display a badge of their profession. This may have caused confusion later when virtuous Roman matrons decided that yellow hair was the fashionable color and would wear blond wigs (made from the hair of German slaves) or bleach their hair.

Faustina the Elder (A.D. 100-141) was said to have worn at least three hundred wigs, while Caligula (A.D. 12-41) was fond of a large capillameus, a full wig. Though, sometimes bald Romans, both men and women, would paint hair on their heads rather than wear a wig. The popularity of wigs and artificial hair was fodder for Martial’s and Juvenal’s acerbic wit as they made fun of women who used wigs to look younger and old men who hoped to hide their age (Corson 1965).

Wigs continued to be worn after Rome became Christian (A.D. 313), and the Church did not hesitate to criticize them as a mortal sin. 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.” Clement of Alexandria declared that when wig wearers were blessed, the blessing would remain on the wig and not go to the wearer (Corson 1965).

The Fall and Rise of the Wig

During much of the Middle Ages, a married woman’s hair was covered, and wigs in general declined in popularity. Though wigs were not popular, if they did happen to appear, the Church condemned them throughout the Middle Ages as badges of the devil. In the fifteenth century, however, men occasionally wore them to conceal their hair loss and, in 1450, merkins (pubic wigs) made their debut as a device to cover syphilitic pustules and gonorrheal warts (Cooper 1971). In 1520, Henry the VIII’s royal treasury paid out twenty shillings “for a perwyke for Sexton, the king’s fool.” It is generally thought that Henry the III of France (1574-89) renewed the fashion for wigs when he began to wear a curled one to disguise his thinning hair.

By the end of the sixteenth century, a great deal of false hair was used in Europe, and by the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign (1558), wigs were becoming an indispensable part of a lady’s wardrobe and increasingly popular with men. In England, women’s wigs were often dyed red as a compliment to Queen Elizabeth who had natural red hair (and at least 80 wigs). Marguerite de Valois (1553-1615) is rumored to keep blond servants to provide hair for her wigs. Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589) also helped popularize the wig and paid a woman for her daughter’s hair. And Mary of Scotland (1542-1587), who had an even larger collection than her predecessor Elizabeth, preferred the winged or horned style wig (Corson 1965).

Seventeenth Century: “Horrid Bushes of Vanity”

The seventeenth century was one of dramatic change for men. Though the Puritan Parliament faction (called “Roundheads” for their short, somber haircuts) railed against wigs, and some Puritan pastors even refused to allow anyone wearing a wig into the church, this century saw the widespread use of wigs for men for the first time since the days of the ancient Egyptians. French King Louis XIII wore a wig to conceal his baldness, and when French King Louis XIV’s hair started to thin when he was 35, he shaved his head and wore a large wig. As a compliment to the Sun King, all his courtiers began to wear yellow wigs. Later, in old age, Louis wore an enormous wig, thickly covered with perfumed and white powder. Men and women (who were more likely to wear extensions), both old and young began to copy him as looking old became “in” (Corson 1965). Louis also was said to have hired 40 wig makers and considered his wig so vital to his dignity that he never let anyone see him without it except his barber. Whether he kept it on in bed for the benefit of his many mistresses—there is no record.

With long wigs, combs took on considerable importance, and it was considered properly fashionable to arrange the hair in public with large combs. It was a nicety, like taking snuff. The Chambers Journal in 1860 pointed out that “combing the wig” was appropriate when “the conversation slackened from a lack of ideas” (Corson 1965). For a man, a wig was the crowning glory of his appearance, and it was not unusual for him to spend hours arranging and powdering it, “beseeching the Winds to favor his delicate Friz” (ibid). Large wigs were considered an investment and were often willed along with other valuables.

Those who could not afford a wig wore their own hair to look as much as possible like a wig. Wig making was so well established by the end of the seventeenth century that wig makers in France created a guild, and wig making provided “employment for decayed gentlewomen” (ibid). Not surprisingly, wig thieves emerged, some specializing in robbing passengers in hackney coaches. They would cut an opening on the back of the carriage while on horse back, grab the passengers wig and disappear.

In the New World, despite protests from Puritan ministers such as Increase Mather (President of Harvard University), the wig craze spread. While Mather argued that wigs were “horrid bushes of vanity,” his son Cotton and many clergy adopted the fashion. Wigs were also popular in the South, and wealthy plantation owners and bricklayers alike wore them. Even slaves who could not afford authentic wigs made wigs from cotton wool and goat hair (Cooper 1971).

Eighteenth Century and the Revolt against Wigs

During the early eighteenth century, wigs continued to be popular and, in 1715, there were even riots in Caen, France, resulting from the fact that badly needed flour for bread was being used by aristocrats to adorn their wigged heads. The death of Louis XIV in 1715, however, led to the decline of extravagant wigs and fashion began to favor less pretentious wigs. There were also attempts to integrate wigs into a more natural hairline by combing and blending the natural front hair over the front edge of the wig. Eventually these smaller partial wigs would develop into the toupee (French for “tuft of hair”).

By the 1760s, more men were wearing their own hair and, in 1765, worried wig makers in London asked the king to require men to wear wigs by law. The final demise of the wig seemed to be the French Revolution as wigs were associated with the aristocracy. But wigs lingered into the nineteenth century, worn mostly by the elderly and conservative men (Cooper 1971). The tradition of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’ wigged barristers and judges lingered on in England as well as in several African countries such as Kenya and Ghana, once ruled by Britain. But by the beginning of the nineteenth century, men’s hair was natural, unpowdered, and shorter, and soon facial hair was making a comeback (Corson 1965).

Modern Wigs

In 1915, wigs made a slight comeback when the hair stylist Carita designed wigs for Givenchy’s models as a gimmick for a Paris fashion show.When Life magazine reported the story, wigs started to lose their stigma. The fad for wigs blossomed in the late 1950s, and by 1963 the wig industry was once again well established. Wigs were worn for medical reasons, by movie stars, and for covering up “hair problems” (Cooper 1971). Many women found them incredibly convenient, simply dropping their wigs off at the hair dresser and picking them up later. It was even possible to buy a wig of bleached white human hair which could be tinted as often as a woman wanted with a temporary rinse. In addition to full wigs, false hairpieces (sometimes called “wigbands,” or hair that was mounted on a band) were also popular.

For the less wealthy and those who could not afford to buy the more expensive blond wig, wigs were available as “pay-as-you-wear.” In 1964, the arrival of the Beatles and their modified fifteenth-century haircut set off a Beatles-wig craze. And just as there were wig thieves in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, wig theft increased during the 1960s as people fell victim to wig-buying scams (Corson 1965).

Men and women have never ceased to devote considerable time and attention to their hair, and wigs continue to play various cultural roles in the twenty-first century. Gone are the days when one would whip a slave for a curl gone awry, and the days are over when only royalty and the social elite could afford the time and the money to maintain their hair in the latest fashion. From the high school girl experimenting with different styles to the wigged English legislature, wigs are more popular and more affordable than ever. Indeed, in the twenty-first century, artificial hair continues to be big business and limited only by the wearer’s imagination.

-- Posted February 24, 2009


Cooper, Wendy. 1971. Hair: Sex, Society, and Symbolism. New York, NY: Stein and Day Publishers.

Corson, Richard. 1965. Fashions in Hair: The First Five Thousand Years. London, England: Peter Owen Limited.

Love, Toni. 2001. World of Wigs, Weaves, and Extensions. Florence, KY: Cengage Learning.