Wigs are artificial heads of hair, either cunningly concealing baldness or glaringly obvious fashion items in their own right. The Jewish sheitel, for instance, is worn for religious reasons where a woman's natural hair is shielded from the gaze of all men who are not her husband. The Talmud teaches that the sight of a woman's hair constitutes an arousal or sexual lure; thus a woman hiding her hair helps protect the fabric of Jewish society. The entertainer Elton John's obvious ginger weave is, of course, completely different, worn to retain an air of youth and as a disguise for baldness.
The earliest Egyptian wigs (c. 2700 B.C.E.) were constructed of human hair, but cheaper substitutes such as palm leaf fibers and wool were more widely used. They denoted rank, social status, and religious piety and were used as protection against the sun while keeping the head free from vermin. Up until the 1500s, hair tended to be dressed as a foundation for headdresses, but by the end of the century hairstyles became higher and more elaborate constructions in which quantities of false hair were used to supplement the wearer's own. Hair was gummed and powdered, false curls and ringlets were in fashion, and, in some cases, a complete head of false hair called a perruque, was worn. The French perruque was colloquially known as a peruke, periwyk, periwig, and eventually the diminutive wig by 1675.
Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
The seventeenth century saw the complete resurgence of the wig and it became the height of fashion for both men and women, with many shaving their heads beneath for both comfort and fit. Hair historian Richard Corson sees the ascendance of Louis XIV to the French throne as pivotal. The king supplemented his thinning hair with false pieces until "eventually he agreed to have his head shaved, which was done daily thereafter, and to wear a wig." (Corson, p. 215) By the eighteenth century, those who had the finances had a large wig for formal occasions and a smaller one for use in the home. The larger or more "full bottomed" the wig, the more expensive, thus they were also a mark of class and income and the target of wig snatch-ers. If one was unable to afford a wig, one made one's natural hair look as wiglike as possible. By the mid-eighteenth century, white was the favored color for wigs, and they were first greased then powdered with flour or a mixture of starch and plaster of paris in the house's wig closet using special bellows. Lucrative trades were constructed around their care and maintenance, such as hairdressing, so-called because hair was dressed rather than cut. Women's wigs were particularly high, powdered, and bejeweled, and the subject of much caricature. To achieve the look, hair was harvested from the heads of the rural working classes. Richard Corson noted that the full wig was disappearing by about 1790, however, "when there was a good deal of natural hair in evidence" (Corson, p. 298).
Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries
After this brief period of respite during the French Revolution, when a natural look and thus natural hair was fashionable, the elaborately dressed hairstyles of the Victorian and Edwardian era demanded a myriad of false pieces or fronts and transformations. As the feminine ideal in the Edwardian era required enormous hairstyles, the natural bulk of the hair was padded out. Lady Violet Harvey recalled,
"Enormous hats often poised on a pyramid of hair, which if not possessed, was supplied, pads under the hair to puff it out were universal and made heads unnaturally big. This entailed innumerable hairpins. My sister and I were amazed to see how much false hair and pads were shed at 'brushing time.' (Hardy, p. 79) "
The building of massive hairstyles was dependent on the use of postiche, the French word for "added hair" and styles included fringes, fronts, switches, pompadour rolls, and frizettes. All hairdressers had a workroom in which postiches were made for sale wherein the posticheur prepared hair. Hair combings were saved and then drawn through a hackle (a flat board with metal teeth sticking upward) to straighten them. Hair was sorted into bundles ready to be curled into false pieces or curled by a device called a bigoudis made of wood or hardened clay. Sections of hair were rolled up on the bigoudis and then dropped into water mixed with soda. After being boiled for several hours the dry hair was then unwound and stored-a method that dates back to the Egyptians. If too little hair was obtained from combings it came from other women. It was a commodity to be exploited and one famous source was the Hair Market at Morlans in the Pyrenees, one of a number of hiring fairs where dealers literally bought the hair from women's heads. Much hair was also imported from Asia Minor, India, China, and Japan and boiled in nitric acid to remove the color and vermin. Men wore wigs, too, but this was to hide baldness.
1920s to Present
With the introduction of the new bobbed hairstyle in the 1920s, wigs fell out of favor and were worn by older women who were not interested in the newly shorn look. Their use returned in the 1950s, but only as a way of having temporary fantasy hairstyles. The most renowned wigmakers and hairdressers in Europe were Maria and Rosy Carita. In black hairdressing, though, the wig was of supreme importance allowing for fashionable styles without undergoing the time-consuming, and in some instances painful, process of straightening. Black stars such as Diana Ross were known for their stylish wig collections in the mid-1960s. It was not really until the late 1960s that wigs underwent a massive renaissance in white hairdressing practices. Rapidly changing fashion, a space-age chic and the vogue for drip-dry clothes in new man-made fabrics led to a vogue for the artificial over the natural. By 1968 there was a wig boom and it is estimated that one-third of all European women wore what hair-dressers called a "wig of convenience." Men still tended to wear wigs differently moving further toward the naturalism that many women were rejecting. Until the early 1950s, all wigs were made by hand. However, the invention of the machine-made, washable, nylon and acrylic wig in Hong Kong led to cheap, mass-produced wigs flooding the market. The novelty fashion wig or hair-piece became one of Hong Kong's fastest growing exports and by 1970 the industry employed 24,000 workers. In 1963 British imports of wigs and hairpieces from Hong Kong was worth £200,000 ($350,000); by 1968 it was almost £5 million ($8.78 million). By 1969 around forty percent of wigs were synthetic and the leading companies in wig development were the American firm Dynel and the Japanese Kanekalon, who both used modacrylics to create wigs that were easy to care for and held curl well. In the late twentieth century, many false forms of hair are used and the change from a long to a short hair-style can be completed at a whim with extensions that have moved from black hairdressing to white hairdressing. Singers such as Beyoncé and Britney Spears use weaves of all styles and colors openly.
Corson, Richard. Fashions in Hair: The First Five Thousand Years. London: Peter Owen, 1965.
Cox, Caroline. Good Hair Days: A History of British Hairstyling. London: Quartet, 1999.
Hardy, Lady Violet. As It Was. London: Christopher Johnson, 1958.