The term ‘wig’ is derived from the French word periwig. However, wigs go back to the 4th century B.C. and the culture of the Egyptians, who shaved their heads so as to remain free of vermin in the hot Egyptian climate. Palm and wool fibres, animal hair and even gold and silver metals were used to show the rank of office held by the wearer the more elaborate, the higher the office of state. The wigs were styled from braids to spiral curls, and were held tightly in place by bees wax (the earliest know affixative) on a mesh base.
An active social life was important for people of all classes. One's appearance was also very important. Being fashionably dressed meant dressing from the head down.
In the 16th century the periwig merely simulated real hair, either as an adornment or to cover hair loss. The 17th century saw the periwig worn as a distinctive feature of costume. Louis XIII, prematurely bald, also adopted one, thus setting the fashion. In fact the periwig never really came out of fashion, being favoured by Charles I, Queen Anne and George III.
As incredible as it sounds, men and women took baths only twice a year! (May & October) women always kept their hair covered while men shaved their heads (because of lice and bugs) and wore wigs. Wealthy men could afford good wigs. The wigs couldn’t be washed so to clean them, they would calve out a loaf of bread, put the wig in the shell and bake it for 30 minutes. The heat would make the wig big and fluffy, hence the term “big wig.” Today we often use the term “here comes the Big Wig” because someone appears to be or is powerful and wealthy.
The barber and peruke maker played an important role in keeping people supplied with the latest in hair fashions.
The wigmaker offered a wide range of goods and services in the shop. Wigs and queues (hair pieces usually worn hanging at the back of the head) for men, and curls, braids and knots for women were sold for a wide range of prices.
A wig or queue was a fashion necessity for men of the gentry and successful businessmen. Being able to afford a wig, or sometimes several wigs, was a means of showing one's status in society. Even the lesser sort (those with little money to spend) wanted to own a wig or queue. Wigs, queues and hairpieces were made of goat hair from
horse hair from
yak hair from
, or human hair from young women.
A queue was often the choice for a man who had limited need for a fashionable hairpiece. A queue matched to the colour of one's own hair and tied on the head with string provided a less expensive yet fashionably acceptable alternative to a wig
One 18th-century source stated that it took six men six days working from sun-up to sundown to complete a wig. Wigs on display in the shop could be purchased, or a custom fit wig could be ordered. Wearing a custom fit wig required the gentleman to cut his hair very short or to shave his head bald! Measurements taken of a man's head were used to ensure that the proper size blockhead was used to construct the wig.
The wigmaker used nails to attach a caul of ribbon and cotton or silk net securely to the blockhead. Rows of hair constructed by weaving a few strands of hair at a time on a tressing frame were attached to the caul with a simple straight stitch. When all the rows of hair were in place, the hair was curled using clay rods. Finishing and dressing the wig, (trimming and shaping each curl and bunch of hair), completed the process.
There were thirty or forty different names for wigs: such as the artichoke, bag, barrister’s, bishop’s, brush, bush, buckle, busby, chain, chancellor’s, corded wolf’s paw, Count Sax’s mode, the crutch, the cut bob, the detached buckle, the Dalmahoy (a bob-wig worn by tradesmen), the drop, the Dutch, the full, the half-natural, the Jansenist bob, the judge’s, the ladder, the long bob, the Louis, the periwig, the pigeon’s wing, the rhinoceros, the rose, the scratch, the she-dragon, the small back, the spinach seed, the staircase, the Welsh, and the wild boar’s back.
, Lord Chancellors, judges and barristers still wear big wigs. Bishops used to wear them in the House of Lords till 1880.