Why Did People Wear Powdered Wigs?
For nearly two centuries, powdered wigs – called perukes – were all the rage. The postiche chic would never have become popular, however, without a venereal disease, a pair of shy kings and poor hair hygiene.
The history of Peru begins like many others – with syphilis. By 1580, the STD had become the worst epidemic in Europe since the Black Death. According to William Clowes, an “infinite multitude” of syphilis patients obstructed London hospitals and filtered more each day. Without antibiotics, the victims had to deal with all the consequences of the disease: open wounds, unpleasant rashes, blindness, dementia and hair loss in places. Baldness swept the earth.
At the time, hair loss was a one-way trip for public embarrassment. Long hair was a status symbol in fashion, and a bald dome could stain any reputation. When Samuel Pepys’ brother contracted syphilis, the chronicler wrote, “If [my brother] lives, he will not be able to show his head, which will make me very ashamed.” It was such a big deal.
The epidemic of syphilis has therefore caused a surge of the wig. The victims hide their baldness, as well as the bloody wounds that have shaved their faces, with wigs made of horse, goat or human hair. The perukes were also covered with powder – scented with lavender or orange – to mask all the great aromas. Although common, the wigs were not very elegant. They were just a shameful necessity. This changed in 1655, when the King of France began to lose his hair.
Louis XIV was only 17 when his mop began to clear. Afraid that baldness would harm his reputation, Louis hired 48 wigmakers to save his image. Five years later, the King of England – Louis’s cousin Charles II – did the same when his hair turned gray (both men were probably syphilis). The courtiers and other aristocrats immediately copied the two kings. They wore wigs and the style spread to the upper middle class. The new European fashion is born.
The cost of wigs has increased and perukes have become a ploy to display wealth. An everyday wig costs about 25 shillings, which is a week’s salary for a regular Londoner. The bill for large complex journeys reached 800 shillings. The word “bigwig” was coined to describe snobs who could afford big perukes.
When Louis and Charles died, the wigs stayed. Perukes remained popular because they were so practical. At that time, lice were ubiquitous and the tattoo was painful and time consuming. Wigs, however, have limited the problem. The lice stopped infusing people’s hair – which had to be shaved so that the peruke adapted to their size – and put on wigs. To unpick a wig was much easier than to marry a hair: you would send the dirty helmet to a wigmaker, who would boil the wig and remove the nits.
By the end of the 18th century, the trend was disappearing. French citizens ousted the wig during the Revolution and the British stopped wearing wigs after William Pitt levied a hair-powder tax in 1795. Short, natural hair became the new craze and will remain so still about two centuries.
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