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When a one-time friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau criticized the Genevan philosopher’s understanding of wealth and privilege as a problem, rather than a reward, Rousseau (according to a biographer) used a timely metaphor to illustrate his point:
“We must have gravy in our cooking, and that’s why so many sick people lack broth. We must have liqueurs on our tables, and that’s why the peasant drinks. We must have powder for our wigs, and that is why so many poor people have no bread at all.”
The equity and income gaps are still the fodder of philosophical hand-wringing—but at least today it’s not because of our use of cornstarch for vanity’s sake.
Aside from your weird uncle Sal and his waxy toupee or your barrister friend with his traditional white drape, it’s unlikely that you’ve seen a straight, cis guy wearing a hairpiece during your lifetime. Wigs, though still worn by plenty of folks of all genders and a few professions, have largely fallen out of fashion for the average businessman or bureaucrat. But it was (in the grand scheme) a relatively quick tumble from favor; up until just a hundred years ago, the wig was a must-have attire staple for men of wealth and power.
Wigs: Designed to Cover a Problem
Wigs were certainly not invented in the Western world. There’s historical evidence of wigs dating back to some of the earliest civilizations. And it seems that from their origin, wigs were designed to be both functional and fashionable. (In ancient Egypt, wigs were designed to protect the head from the sun.)
In the case of the most common (and most recent) instance of widespread wig wearing, the style’s intent was to cover up the icky truth of life before the revolution.
In the 1500s, when wigs — also called perukes or periwigs — first cropped up, relatively poor hygiene, a lack of running water, and the fact that humans didn’t quite have a grasp on germ theory until the end of the 19th century resulted in patchy, oily, unfortunate-looking hair being extremely common. At the time, wigs were made mostly of animal hair (typically goat or horse), which meant they had a distinctly barnyard-like odor and were prone to pestilence.
Add increasingly tight quarters as more people moved into urban areas in England and France, and you also have a recipe for everyone’s favorite childhood pest: Lice. As a result, many people would shave their heads (easier to clean) and don a wig treated with some kind of powder, which served the dual purpose of keeping creepy-crawlies at bay and lending a more palatable scent to the living unit.
Wigs gained their biggest popularity boost around 1600, when they fell into favor with royalty, most notably King Louis the XIII, who was reportedly balding by 23. From there, perukes became ubiquitous among nobility and others among the upper crust, providing yet another way to flaunt their wealth and luxury. But as wig making became more popular as a trade, the price of wigs became less prohibitive.
It does bear noting that wigs during this time were less commonly worn by women, particularly in England and later in the colonies; though many women wore what were basically extensions, perukes were mostly the purview of men. Additionally, wigs fell out of fashion with women quite a bit earlier than they did among men, for whom balding was a much greater concern.
To achieve the tall, fashionable hair worn by the royals, many women got creative with pomade, hats, and devices to shape to their curls and coifs.
Powdering to the People
Because of the natural fibers used to make wigs, many were treated with oils or powders to reduce stink and scourge. In the 16th century, powdering was less about fashion and more about reducing infestation.
However, by the 18th century, the look of a powdery wig had became très chic, which made wig powder a must-have and a popular import from the motherland, even in the era of the revolution. In fact, George Washington didn’t wear a wig—he was genetically blessed with luxurious locks—but he did powder his hair to make it look like a wig.
Writing for National Geographic, RadioLab host Robert Krulwich detailed it here:
Washington’s hair wasn’t splotchy. It was like a snow-covered mountain, evenly white. This was accomplished by sprinkling a fine powder on the head. There were lots of powders to choose from, writes Myers, including “talcum powder, starch, ground orris root, rice powder, chalk, [or] even plaster of paris…” Washington probably used a finely milled (expensive) product, which was applied, cloud-like, to his head. To keep from gagging in a powder fog, it was common to cover the face with a cone of coiled paper.
Some of these powders, you may notice, are the very same that a person in 1776 might have used for edible, rather than aesthetic, purposes. Which brings us back to Rousseau’s quote about the bread—wealthy people were literally sprinkling their hair with corn starch and rice powder while peasants lived hand-to-mouth.
Possibly looking for ways to drum up revenue (or just to make the new Americans cross), the British Parliament imposed a tax on the Yankees’ imported wig powder. The tax—coupled with a general feeling of resistance to all things English—dramatically reduced sales of hair powder and ushered in a new era of fashion. Shorter hair was coming into style anyway—the Revolutionary War having proven that wigs weren’t ideal during battle—and by the time construction of the White House was completed, men’s wigs were largely a thing of the past in the United States.
Oh, and Another Thing…
If you know one thing about why people wore wigs in the 16th century, it’s likely this: The rise of peruke popularity is due in part to a particular disease.
Yes, it’s true that historians have linked the rise of syphilis to the rise of men in mops. The breakout, which began around the Renaissance, killed millions of individuals in Europe and has been fairly conclusively traced to none other than Christopher Columbus. Among the other symptoms we’d recognize today—rash, boils, madness in the later stages—syphilis (and the extremely dangerous ways people tried to treat it) also caused hair loss and blotchy skin, which could be disguised with powder and a wig.
But in the days before penicillin, salicylic acid, and a general understanding of how to care for skin and hair, people didn’t really need One Disease to Rule Them All to give them reasons to cover up—unfortunate hygiene led to lots of hair loss and weird skin. Which means that while the rise of wigs was certainly fueled by “Cupid’s disease” (we should really rename it “Columbus’ disease”), it certainly wasn’t the only reason that a precurled cap of horsehair became all the rage.
Neither Gone Nor Forgotten
It’s true that cis men don’t wear wigs basically ever anymore, and powdered wigs have definitely disappeared aside from the occasional period piece, but let us not pretend that all wigs are gone from the face of the earth. To do so would be to erase some pretty major swaths of the population who are already marginalized.
Wigs serve a lot of purposes, both socially and from a style standpoint. They remain a staple for many black women (one moment from How to Get Away with Murder definitely blew a lot of white minds). Wigs can be a huge confidence boost for cancer survivors. They may help some trans women pass (and thus stay safer) and offer some orthodox Jewish women an option for covering their hair in the form of a sheitel.
Basically, wigs are still extremely useful.
Aside from lawyers and judges in England and the occasional Revolutionary War reenactor, wigs—along with a lot of European fashion from the 17th century—have become something that mostly women rely on. But until science has discovered a miraculous cure for male-pattern baldness, maybe men should reconsider. Wigs seemed to work for the Founding Fathers, anyway.
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