Why Were Wigs Fashionable in the Past?

Wigs have existed in many different styles for thousands of years. Those who are most familiar with old-time movies and television depictions will have no trouble recalling the classic stereotype of the 18th-century judge, complete with a humongous powdered wig and a gown. But why were wigs even fashionable in the past?

Wigs were fashionable in the past because they covered up baldness and sores caused by widespread syphilis in London and Europe in general during the 18th century. Wigs came to signify status and rank among society and were worn by judges, royal family members, and intellectuals.

In this article, we will discuss the history of wigs and when they were first designed. We will also discuss how wigs are made and how they managed to become so popular. Lastly, we will touch on the maintenance of wigs and how to care for them properly.

man wearing an old fashioned wig
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The History of Wigs

The history of wigs dates back to 2700 (B.C.E.) when they were widely popular in ancient Egyptian society. Many ancient Egyptian paintings and sculptures from the time depict both men and women sporting wigs. However, these ancient wigs were much different from the wigs in which most people would be accustomed to seeing today. 

As we will find to be a common theme throughout this article, wigs were a sign of high status in ancient Egyptian society. Typically features colorful and decorative, complete with beads and braids; these wigs were made from the human hair, sheep’s wool, and even the fibers from plants and vegetables. 

Another great and more practical use of wigs during ancient Egypt was that they also acted to protect bald heads from sunburns and overexposure. Discover more about hats in ancient Egypt here.

Around the time of the first century in Rome, wigs of great variety were also popular. These wigs would often be created from the hair of conquered people and worn as a trophy of war. These Roman wigs were often tall, curly, colorful, and attracted a lot of attention at social gatherings and public festivities.

When Did Wigs Become Popular?

In addition to ancient Egypt and Rome, wigs were also popular for aesthetic purposes in Europe. However, it was not until much later that wigs began growing in popularity for many more necessary reasons.

During the middle ages in Europe, cases of syphilis began to surge drastically. Syphilis is a bacterial disease commonly transmitted sexually or via direct contact with others carrying the disease through cuts or saliva.

Syphilis ranges in severity and is ranked according to a three-stage system. More progressed syphilis cases can result in hair loss and sores, which is why wigs became so popular following the 16th century and peaking in the 18th century.

Severe forms of syphilis can also cause extremely detrimental health complications, including deafness, blindness, brain damage, organ failure, and death.

Another reason why wigs were commonly used during the 18th century was to prevent and eliminate head lice. Lice are a parasitic organism that lives in human hair and causes extreme itching and irritation. Many people would routinely shave their heads completely bald and then compensate by wearing a wig to combat this parasitic organism.

Wigs came to indicate high-status and financial prosperity because they are incredibly expensive and time-consuming to produce. Before mass production technology, these wigs were made exclusively by hand, and as such, they required special skills to create. Even today, with all of our modern advancements in the industry, high-quality wigs are still by no means cheap.

Members of the plebeian class, or common working class, would not have had the financial means of attaining a quality wig. They would have had to use hats, caps, and hoods if they wished to conceal their baldness.

Famous People Who Wore Wigs in the Past

During this era in Europe and the United States during its formation in the mid to late 18th century—wigs were fashioned not only for the women but also for men. Some of the most affluent members of the ruling class prominently wore wigs during public appearances.

Some of those notable people in the list include:

  • Queen Elizabeth l
  • American Patriots/Founding Fathers: John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Monroe, and James Madison
  • French philosopher Rene Descartes who famously stated, “I think, therefore I am.”
  • King Louis XIII of France

Interesting fact: George Washington, the first United States President, never wore a wig. Instead, he styled his own hair in a manner that imitated the look of the powdered wigs fashioned in his day.

What Are Other Uses of Wigs?

In addition to the reasons for wearing wigs mentioned above, wigs are also commonly worn by actors and actresses, those involved in the cosplay community, and those who are victims of cancer.

During the renaissance era, it was common practice for all-male plays to take place in the theatre, as during that time, women were commonly prohibited from taking part. This meant that men would often dress up as women, complete with the fashioning of wigs and dresses, and portray themselves in female roles on stage.

In order to help recovering cancer patients, you can donate your hair to help create wigs. Your contribution will greatly help those brave individuals who are undergoing chemotherapy treatment. 

How Are Wigs Made?

Wigs can be made from many different materials. Some wigs are made from organic sources such as human and animal hair, while others are designed from purely synthetic materials to look like real hair.

The process of creating custom wigs is arduous and painstaking and requires time and talent. The hairs are first separated and organized by which direction the roots run. After that, the hairs are processed through a machine and bundled together. Finally, the bundles are then woven into a base that molds to the scalp of the wearer.

For anyone interested in designing and creating their custom wigs, Shon Stoker’s book entitled Wig Making Made Simple on Amazon is an incredible resource for providing you with all the information you need to get started. 

How to Care for and Maintain Wigs

For you to maintain your wig and preserve its integrity, here are some basic hygienic protocols that should be regularly performed:

  1. After use, always wash your wig thoroughly in a bowl or a sink with room temperature water, shampoo, and conditioner. 
  2. After that, rinse all of the shampoo residue out, and dry the hair gently with a towel.
  3. Once the hair is dry, brush or comb the hair to straighten it out and remove all knots.
  4. Store your wig appropriately when not in use. The best place to store your wig is on a human-like mannequin head. Never leave your wig strewn about carelessly as this can cause it to become warped and damaged.

Final Thoughts

In this article, we set out to discover why exactly wigs were so fashionable in the past. Upon researching the history, we can clearly understand that wigs have been popular for thousands of years, first beginning in ancient Egyptian culture and culminating in Europe from the middle ages to the 20th century.

The reason why wigs were so popular during the 17th century, in particular, was due to the commonality of syphilis during this time, which caused baldness and unsightly sores. The prevention of head lice also played a significant role in drawing people to the appeal of wigs.

Eventually, the wigs became a sign of affluence—being worn by royalty, intellectuals, and government officials—and remained popular in and of themselves.

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