Dolly Parton is credited with the phrase “the higher the hair, the closer to God,” but King Louis XIV might have shared her sentiments some 300 years earlier. The French king, famous for his ostentatious sense of style, donned wigs with long flowing locks, and men around the continent—from kings to commoners—followed suit.
Wigs had been around for millennia in Europe and the Mediterranean before Louis XIV’s reign. Some of history’s oldest wigs were donned by the elite of ancient Egypt, both in life and death. Wigs have been found on mummies’ heads, and ancient tombs contain wig boxes along with other personal items.
In ancient Greece, wigs were used mostly by actors in plays. Some Romans wore fashionable wigs; wealthy women favored blond hair imported from Germany. During the Middle Ages, the church discouraged wig wearing, calling for simpler hairstyles for women and men.
Attitudes toward wigs changed drastically during the reign of England’s Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603). The aging queen hid her thinning hair with a collection of more than 80 red wigs. The archaic term for wig, periwig, from the French perruque, made one of its earliest written appearances in the 1590s, in William Shakespeare’s early play The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
These English roots would give way to French dominance by the mid-17th century, when the 23-year-old king of France went prematurely bald in 1624. Before his hair loss, King Louis XIII had worn his natural hair luxuriantly long, a sign of health and virility. Thinning hair and baldness had become associated with sickness, perhaps because those who suffered from syphilis were “treated” with mercury, whose toxic effects included hair loss. To give the appearance of long locks, the king’s hairpiece was constructed from three broad sections of hair joined together. Once adopted by Louis XIII, wig wearing was embraced by the court elite as a status symbol.
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Tresses and toupees
Louis XIII may have started the trend, but his successor, Louis XIV, would take it to new heights. The four-year-old king succeeded his father in 1643, when Europe’s fashion capital was Madrid. The Spanish preference for elegantly dark, severe clothing held sway.
As he grew, Louis XIV wore his brown hair in long, wavy curls. Before the king began to bald, he supplemented his natural hair with falls to give it more volume. Like his father, he began to lose his hair and regularly wore wigs to disguise it. By the time Louis XIV was in his 30s, he gave up on half measures and wore a long, full-bottomed wig of tight curls, created for him by his personal barber, Benoît Binet.
The king employed 48 wigmakers in his retinue. They brought innovation to the craft by knotting strands of hair and interlacing them in intricate patterns with silk threads, which created an effect of flowing tresses. Woven bands were then sewn onto a light textile cap shaped to the wearer’s head. The weighty, full-bottomed wig popularized by Louis XIV was a labor-intensive creation that required roughly 10 heads of human hair.
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Men’s fashion craze
Louis XIV’s court began to dominate the fashion of Europe’s elite. France was growing in economic and military strength, eclipsing Europe’s former great power, Spain. Known as the Roi Soleil (Sun King) for the magnificence of his fashions, Louis XIV made the wig an essential accessory at his court for men and women alike. He applied the same demands he imposed on his wigmakers to all areas of taste and technology.
Louis XIV’s taste in wigs spread well beyond France, reaching royal courts across Europe and becoming a standard feature of European noble costume. When King Charles II returned to his throne in England in 1660 after along exile in France, he brought French fashion with him, including large wigs of flowing locks. Charles reportedly favored wigs not to hide baldness but to hide another sign of aging: gray hair. Around this time, the word “bigwig” became popular in England, developing out of the wealthy’s conspicuous consumption. Wealthy patrons would pay as much as 800 shillings on a wig. (When calculated for inflation, today that wig would cost around £8,000, or $10,000.)
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Wigs may have been the height of fashion, but they posed plenty of problems for the wearer. Men had to learn how to manage their wigs in court. Handling one’s wig while bowing, for example, to stop it from falling over the face was essential. Full-bottomed wigs could be oppressively hot and weighed three to four pounds. And with candles providing illumination indoors, wigs could easily catch fire.
Ghoulish superstitions attached themselves to hairpieces. During the Great Plague that raged in London during 1665 and 1666, people feared wigmakers were using the hair of the dead. London diarist Samuel Pepys had second thoughts about a wig that he bought in 1665 “because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it.” Eventually, he decided that enough time had passed since the purchase that he could safely wear it.
Once established at court, wigs became de rigueur among high-ranking professional groups, such as judges, priests, financiers, merchants, shop-keepers, prestigious artisans, respected domestic servants, and the hairdressers who constructed and cared for the wigs.
To meet growing demand, the number of master wigmakers boomed in France during Louis XIV’s reign. In Paris, it increased from 200 in 1673 to 945 in 1771. In the provinces, journeymen wigmakers traveled around the country as well, and soon ordinary people began wearing wigs, to the consternation of the upper classes.
At the heart of wig economics was the hair itself. Higher priced wigs used women’s hair because of its length and the belief that it was of higher quality than men’s. Traders at fairs would buy hair from peasant girls. Blond or silver-gray hair was often in high demand, followed by black. Naturally curly hair was the most valuable of all. With so many wigs to make, French artisans bought hair from all around Europe. In England tracts were written in defense of nationally sourced human hair, which competed not only against continental human hair but also against horsehair (from manes) or goat hair for cheaper wigs.
(In 1500s Europe, masks were fashionable—and scandalous!)
Big hair falls flat
Louis XIV’s death in 1715 heralded the end of the big wig craze. When King Louis XV came of age, he favored simpler hairstyles at his court. Portraits of the new king depict him with powdered hair: Curls frame his face, while the rest is pulled back into a low ponytail.
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In 1761 the English satirist and artist William Hogarth poked fun at the elaborate wigs worn by guests to the coronation of Britain’s King George III and Queen Charlotte in his engraving ”The Five Orders of Periwigs”. Mimicking the five orders of classical architecture, Hogarth organized the wigs and their wearers into five categories: Episcopal, Old Peerian, Aldermanic, Lexonic, and Queerinthian. Each of his detailed descriptions, written in the style of a contemporary architectural treatise, satirizes these different divisions of British society as well as their embrace of ostentatious, and often ludicrous, wigs.
The profound social changes that took place at the end of the 18th century brought the fashion for wigs to an end. Wigs were linked in the popular imagination with the excesses of France’s ancien régime, none more so than the towering wigs associated with Marie Antoinette and the court of Louis XVI, which gave rise to the French Revolution.
Like Napoleon himself, men of fashion began to spurn wigs. Some professions still allowed for their use, however. Although aristocrats no longer wore them, their staff did. In England, judges retained the wig as a symbol of their official role. The custom remains to this day: In criminal cases English judges wear bob-style wigs, with shorter sides and a tail at the back.