For over a century, European men refused to go outside without first putting on an enormous wig. At the time, the headpiece was better known as a peruke or periwig.
A periwig had to have curls or at least waves. By the 1670’s the style favoured was long rows of cork-screw curls and by the 1690’s the periwig would rise high above the wearer’s head and would often be parted in the middle.
The peruke wig has a fascinating history. It turns out that powdered wigs weren’t as innocent as they look….There’s a surprising secret hidden in peruke history.
Syphilis began to spread in Europe in the 1490s.Syphilis was spread by sexual contact, and before the development of antibiotics, there was no cure. Minor symptoms included patchy hair loss and open sores, but during the late stages of the disease, the afflicted could lose eyes, noses, and hands, and syphilis also attacked the brain, causing insanity.
But Europeans devised a new way to hide evidence of their venereal diseases: wigs. Long luxurious hair was a status symbol, and rather than show off a bald head, wealthy Europeans turned to wigs to hide the symptoms of syphilis.
Wigs became big business. Originally made from horse, goat or human hair, wigs were expensive accessories. Inexpensive versions for the lower classes, might be made from wool. When wigs rose in popularity during the late 17th century, men struggled to pile as much hair as possible onto their heads. In fact, some of the most elaborate wigs included full heads of hair, from 10 different people!
Baldness was a stain on any man’s reputation, especially as it was thought if you were bald, you were syphilitic.Not every man who was bald, had the pox, so men went to great lengths to hide their hair loss, even turning to expensive powdered wigs.
France’s Louis XIV was still a teenager when he started balding. Louis was obsessed with his reputation, and being bald didn’t fit with the proper image of the Sun King.So the king hired 48 wig makers.But even though the wigs covered up Louis’ baldness, they couldn’t hide the rumour that the king had syphilis.
As wigs became an everyday accessory, people began to shave their natural hair in order to get a better fit. The shaved heads solved the head lice problem, but soon the lice infested the wigs instead instead.Still, it was much easier to delouse a wig rather than pick them off a person’s head, which could be time consuming and painful. Wigmakers specialized in removing lice, by tossing dirty wigs into boiling water.
By the latter half of the 18th century, wigs weren’t just for men – they were also popular for women. However, women’s styles weren’t the same as men’s. Many aristocratic and royal women had hairdressers style their natural hair with hairpieces or hair extensions. Scented hair powder, carrying an air of lavender or orange, also helped cover the smell of the era.
Women’s wigs could be extremely heavy, ornamented with jewelry, precious stones, and other adornments. And just as with men, a peruke could cover up evidence of syphilis for a woman, too
By the end of the 1700s, wigs were falling out of fashion. The French Revolution wasn’t just a disaster for France – it also completely changed fashion trends.Enormous powdered wigs simply didn’t fit with the new, simpler trends.But the end of wigs in Britain was even more dramatic. In 1795, William Pitt pushed for a heavy tax on hair powder.The added fee finished the trend, and by the dawn of the 19th century, short, natural hair was the new craze.
The term “bigwig” is still used today, to refer to an important person. And the word dates back to the height of wig fashion in the late 1600s, when wig wearers prioritized size and height of their hair, over all
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