The Secret History of Powdered Wigs

Ever pondered the enigmatic allure of powdered wigs worn by prominent historical figures? Join us on this dazzling voyage into the world of powdered wigs, where glamour, history, and intrigue intertwine.

Get ready to immerse yourself in a bygone era filled with powdered “perfection”!

Louis XIV, the Trendsetter

1684 Portrait of Louis XIV of France (1638-1715) – Musée Antoine-Lécuyer Collection – Wikimedia Commons

The earliest records of people wearing wigs date back to ancient times. The Greeks and Romans were fans of these extravagant headpieces. However, it was King Louis XIV who truly popularized them in the mid-1600s.

Renowned for his impeccable fashion sense, Louis XIV was often referred to as the “Dancing Sun King.”

Despite his flair, King Louis XIV didn’t don a wig solely for its aesthetic appeal. His primary motivation was to conceal his thinning hair. Nonetheless, this fashion choice quickly gained popularity throughout Europe and the American colonies.

In the 1700s, wigs became symbols of wealth, status, authority, and even occupation. The term “big wig” emerged from the perception of those who wore the most extravagant wigs.

As wealth increased, so did the quality of wigs. The affluent could afford higher-quality wigs made from human hair, while those of lesser means opted for wigs made from horse, goat, or yak hair instead.

Beyond Fashion

While the trends popularized by Louis XIV played a significant role in the widespread adoption of wigs, there was another, less glamorous reason behind their usage.

During the 1600s, the rampant spread of syphilis across Europe resulted in distressing symptoms such as rashes, skin sores, and hair loss. Individuals afflicted by syphilis turned to wigs as a means to conceal their bald patches and maintain a sense of dignity.

Even King Charles II, a cousin of Louis XIV, began wearing a wig while exhibiting other symptoms of the disease.

In the 17th century, head lice posed another health problem for people. Wigs served as a solution to combat this issue.

What About the Powder?

Dressing a wig with hair bellow and powder, 1750-1780

While men had various reasons for wearing wigs, the question arises: what does the “powdered” aspect entail?

The answer lies in matters of hygiene. Unlike most people who couldn’t regularly and thoroughly clean their wigs, Louis XIV had the luxury of a wig room to air out his collection, along with a personal wigmaker who washed his wigs between wearings.

To mask the accumulated odor of the wigs, owners would generously apply a powdery solution consisting of flour, chalk, kaolin clay, and natural scents such as lavender, cinnamon, and amber. This powder proved particularly beneficial for white wigs, as it rendered them looking whiter, brighter, and more pristine.

The renowned powdered wigs were commonly referred to as “periwigs” (eventually shortened to “wig”) or “perukes.”

The End of a Trend

In the United States, powdered wigs fell out of fashion during and after the Revolutionary War.

While the portraits of the first six presidents often depicted them wearing powdered wigs, many individuals began perceiving these wigs as a British fashion trend as the war continued. Eventually, as the fight for independence intensified, people in the United States completely abandoned the use of powdered wigs.

In France, the French Revolution played a significant role in diminishing the popularity of powdered wigs.

Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the rest of the French court faced severe criticism for their excessive spending on wigs, clothing, and accessories, while the general populace suffered from poverty. In response to these critiques, they eventually relinquished their extravagant wigs in favor of more understated alternatives.

Wigs of Today

In contemporary times, the majority of people no longer rely on wigs to disguise the presence of head lice or syphilis. Nevertheless, many individuals still opt for wigs as a means to conceal hair thinning or a bald head resulting from factors such as aging or certain health conditions.

Wigs are also favored by women who seek to safeguard their natural hair, explore diverse hairstyles, or honor religious customs. For instance, many Orthodox Jewish women wear wigs in public or when in the presence of men who are not immediate family members.

While powdered wigs may not be readily available at your local beauty supply store, you can still discover a wide range of fashionable and natural-looking alternatives!