George Frideric Handel, bigwig composer -- portrait by Balthasar Denner, c. 1727

George Frideric Handel, bigwig composer — portrait by Balthasar Denner, c. 1727

The same clothing and accessories that make you feel fashionable now will probably make you feel foolish when you flip through old photos in the future.  If you were a man in the 1970s, for instance, you now see pictures of your younger self in plaid pants and shirts with giant collars, and realize that some clown suits are more understated.

At least we came to our senses after a while and moved on to Members Only jackets in the 1980s.  That is in contrast to men of earlier centuries who clung forever to the notion that large powdered wigs made them look cool.

Wigs had been around since ancient Egyptian times, but they became the European rage in the 17th century.  That fashion seems to have caught on at first for practical reasons; specifically, personal hygiene back then was, quite literally, lousy.  Since bathing was only an occasional occurrence, infestation with head lice was a common problem.

Nitpicking — the task of removing nits (lice eggs) from the scalp — was time-consuming, uncomfortable and often ineffective.  For men of rank and privilege, it was easier to shave one’s head and wear a wig.  The wigs got infested, too, but they could periodically be sent out to be boiled, which wasn’t a convenient thing to do with one’s actual head.

The headdresses of the 1600s were elaborate — sometimes shoulder-length and beyond.  They were quite expensive, of course, so they were status symbols.  That’s how the term “bigwig” came to mean “an important or high-ranking person.”

Since the rich snobs had wigs, naturally middle-class strivers wanted them, too.  There was demand for less expensive wigs, and it was rumored during the 17th century that some of the hair for the more affordable ones was, uh, harvested from plague victims.

The higher-quality periwigs or perukes, as they came to be known, were made of horse or goat hair, or sometimes wool.  If you’ve ever wondered about the origin of the expression “pulling the wool over his eyes”, it’s based on a common practical joke from that period.  A prankster would sneak up and tip a fellow’s wig over his eyes, causing him to temporarily be unable to see.  That allowed the opportunity to deceive him, which is the current meaning of the expression.

The wigs were powdered with starch or flour, often scented with lavender.  In retrospect, it may have seemed a bit insensitive of French noblemen to put food products in their perukes when poor people were starving.  That probably contributed to wigs starting to disappear in France around the time of the Revolution, when heads also started to disappear.

Meanwhile, the English government — which had previously levied a tax on hats, gloves, wallpaper and windows — imposed a tax on hair powder in 1795.  Demand for powder waned, and men decided they could live without wigs, too.

The only vestiges of wig-wearing that remain are among U.K. judges and barristers in certain kinds of cases.  The rationale for doing so, apart from the fact that it’s traditional, is that robes and wigs confer dignity and solemnity.  Maybe.  Personally, I think a guy in a horsehair periwig would look just as dignified wearing a Hello Kitty backpack.

2 responses to “Bigwigs

  1. Hi Tom,
    I enjoyed your post “Big Wigs”. I have never heard the origin story of “pulling the wool over one’s eyes” before. In regard to the Q of “why wear those powdered wigs?”: an important part of the reason had to do with maintaining one’s status after suffering the horrible symptoms of Syphilis; one of which was severe and patchy hair loss.

    By the mid-1900s, we obviously had learned volumes about cures or management of many diseases that had devastated people and populations for centuries. before. Lucky for us, that means that such afflictions are no longer even on our radar most of the time. The more i read history, the more it seems a given that a serious health factor will be revealed in every historical story that (understandably) seems bewildering today.

    One additional point – I do not believe that there was much of a “middle class” to emulate the rich during the time period powdered wigs originated and were popular in France. Same for England. Only those with social status could afford, or be concerned with, fashion trends. Society was made up of desperately poor worker bees and then the wealthy upper classes / nobles / royals. Hence, the inevitable revolution. Now there’s a gruesome tale that perhaps we ought to revisit whenever we hear about current economic trends.

    Best regards,
    Anne Andersen

    • Health issues were indeed a factor in the wearing of periwigs; bug bites and scars from illnesses were hidden by those fashion accessories. That seems to have been the origin of the practice anyway, but as pointed out in the post, there’s a sort of contagion to fashion choices also: OMG! The cool people are buying jeans that are pre-torn, so I must get some torn jeans, too! Offhand, I can’t think of any practical reason to buy shredded garments, but there must have been some rationale when that fad started.

      Thanks for your comment, Anne.

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