The Inside Scoop

A Brief History of the Wig

June 15th, 2015

As you may have guessed, the history of the hairpiece is as long and lush as our Brianna wig. From small and practical to big and ostentatious, wigs have been around for millennia.

 As with most important things in history, the wig seems to have its roots in the time of the ancient Egyptians (c. 2700 BCE). Not just aesthetically pleasing, these early wigs protected Egyptian heads from blazing sun and pesky vermin. While more expensive models were made of human hair, cheaper substitutes of palm leaf fibers and wool were more widely used. Thus, wigs became not only a fashion statement, but also a mark of rank, social status, and even religious piety.

 Throughout ancient civilization, many cultures adopted the wig into everyday fashion. After the fall of the Roman Empire (c. 476 CE), however, they seemed to fall into disuse. They began to make a comeback in the 1500s as a way to improve personal appearance and disguise hair loss (and as a way to control the nettlesome head lice problem). What began as a trend for smaller, practical headdresses became a desire for larger and more ornate pieces, until the perruque–or full head of false hair–became the fashion. The French word “perruque” was colloquialized as “peruke,” “periwyk,” “periwig,” and finally the diminutive…“wig.”

 Many historians credit the full revival of the wig during the 17th and 18th centuries to royal patronage. Queen Elizabeth I of England was famous for wearing an elaborate, tightly curled, red wig. It was King Louis XIV of France, however, who is most responsible for catapulting the wig into almost absurd popularity in the mid-to-late 1600s. Originally conceived as a way to cover his thinning hair, Louis’ adoption of towering, ornate wigs spread throughout his court and quickly became the height of fashion–literally–in most of Europe. By the 18th century, wigs were ubiquitous.

 The size of the wig (the larger, the better) became a symbol of status and income. Especially among courtly women, wigs could reach massive proportions–powdered and pomaded, and hung with jewels and ornaments (think: Marie Antoinette). Those who could afford wigs often had multiples for formal and everyday use, and those who could not afford them styled their natural hair to look as if they were wearing one. Everything changed by the late 18th century, however, as the French Revolution brought about the downfall of anything associated with the decadence and excess of the nobility. Wigs included.

 Hairpieces as fashion–mostly for women–made a very cautious comeback in the Victorian and Edwardian era. Large, poofy coiffures became fashionable, but these were achieved through inconspicuous pads and strips of false hair, rather than large, full-headed wigs. By the 1920s, when the bobbed hairstyle became all the rage, the wig was again put back on the stand.

 In the 1950s, wigs got some use as temporary fantasy hairstyles, but their real boom came about in the late 1960s, when a new form of machine-production meant they were cheaper and more accessible to everyone. Mass-produced, washable, synthetic wigs became all the rage, and since then, wigs have remained a popular choice–for fashion and as a hair loss solution–for men and women everywhere.

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