Figure 1.--This 18th century drawing shows British soldiers undergoing wig dressing in preparation for guard duty. They were shaved and had their wigs powdered in one setting. Notice the drummer boy, also wearing a wig, tieing the ribbons to their queues.
No well-dressed gentleman in the 18th century would have thought himself completely dressed without a wig. Many men had several wigs of different styles. There was a wide range of styles, but two basic types those worn with or without queues (pigtails). The queues were secired with ribbon bows. While wigs were primarily worn by adults, boys from affluent families might also wear a wig.
Women in the last two-thirds of the 17th and the early 18th century wore generally simple hair styles.
Toward the middle of the 18th century, feminine coiffures in France became increasingly complex. This was imprtant as fashionable women throughout Europe, including England, followed French styles. During the reign of Louis XV, French women were wearing lofty constructions of curls stiffined with wire, cloth, or other materials. One of Louis XV's mistresses, Madame de Pompadour, played an important role in popularizing new elaborate hair styles. She had countless different styles and cortisons at the court had trouble keeping up with her. On top of the huge ediface of hair was placed a cap or hat decorated with flowers or plumes. It was Madame Pompedour that gave womwn's hair one of its most common modern features--wearing it without a part. She combed her hair straight back from the firehead and worn high at the front. [Severn, p. 67.] In the reign of Louis XVI the style became even more extravagent. Soon women were wearing huge constructions on their heads, supported with wire and other materials. Everyone competed with each other for the more ellaborate, complicated constructions. Natural hair arranged on wire was stuffed with cotton, wool, rope, horsehair, bran, straw, and other materials. Victorious naval battles were even celebrated in women's hair dos. The extreme was perhaps reached by a hairdresser of the 18th century was devised the coiffure à la frégate, a high vertical structure of hair held in place by gigantic combs and adorned with jewels, the whole crowned by the model of a period war ship. Greasy hair stuffed with materials likely to rot, especially during the summer, created a strong market for perfumers. The frivolus Queen Marie-Antoinette promoted the use of ostrich feathers which added even more height to hairdos. The style spread to England and the opponents of long mens' hair for a time directed their moral tirades at womens' hair styles.
The story of men's hair fashions in the 18th century is largely an account of wigs. Men in the 18th century continued to wear wigs, in fact wigs became even more common in the 18th century. This was in part a reflection of increasing prosperity in Europe. More men could now afford them and not just wealthy arristocrats. Fashion arbiteurs advised that wigs were "... as essential to every person's head as lace is to their clothes". [London Chronicle, 1726] The editorial, however, wentvon to complain that the new rage for wigs made many men look like the rows of pots displayed on drug store shelves "which are much ornamented but always stand empty". Wigs were worn in many different styles. Nen wore their hair in a different variety of styles then ever before. Many men had wigs of differing styles, limited only by their pocket book. Satrist Peter Pindar wrote:
Those wigs, which once were worn alone by kings,
Whence they derived their air of awful state,
Now decorated every plebeian pate ...
While wigs became even more common in the 18th century, several major changed occurred in hair and wig styling. Quite a wide variety of wigs were worn with many specialized styles. Some of the changes and stylistic innovations included:
Size: The massive wigs of the 17th century declined in popularity although they comtinued to be worn by older gentlemen in some professions. They are still worn, for example by English judges. There were many different styles of wigs. As Europe became more prosperous, more people wanted to wear wigs. People like shop keepers who could not have afforded wigs in the 16th century, were often able to do so in the 18th century. The wigs they wore tended to be smaller, more practical and thus less expensive. These were called undress wigs. The most popular style was the bob wig. This style initially worn by tradesmen and others of more limited means was eventually adopted by the aristocracy as well. A factor here was that large wigs were not practical for military men. We see commanders in the 17th century in large cumbersome wigs, but this had changed by the 18th century where even the highrst commanders wore the more practical smaller wigs. The small bob wigs became the major style worn in the American colonies. There were several different styles. Many different styles of wigs were worn in the 18th century. Some of the different styles included: short bobs, long bobs, tie wigs, bag wigs, tick up wigs, naturals, half naturals and many others with more artistic names like "Grecian flyers," "Curley Roys," and "Airy Levants". Basically, however, there were two general styles, those with or without queues (pig tails). Each styles had its proponents and critics. Different professions adopted different styles of wigs. The Protestant clergy adopted the bob wig. Catholic priests had bob wigs with a tonsure, eather a strange feature for a wig.
Color: White became very popular in the 18th century.More and more men wore powdered white wigs rather than the dark colored wigs of the 17th century and early 18th century. White wigs appeared in the late 17th century and by the 1720s had become the dominant color. White was not the only color. There were other colors such as blue, but especially for men, white became the dominant color. A reader asks why white became so important as a color for wigs. We are not sure what inspired the popularity of white wigs. We have noted some suggestions. One was that white became assiciated with the image of ageless beauty. An interest in Greece and Rome developed inthe 18th century and the surviving sculptures were all white. (The original Greek sculptured were painted.) This could have been a factor. We also note that light-colored silk and satin clothing became fashionable in the early 18th century. It may have been that the fashionable saw white wigs went better with these colorful clothes. We are uncertain at this time as to just why white became so popular. We would be interested in any insights readers might have.
Pig tails/queues: Pigtails were interestingly not only initially a male hair style, but a military style. This might come as a surprise to little 20th century boys who delighted in pulling little girls' pigtails. Pigtails or queues were, in fact, the most obvious difference between 17th and 18th century wigs and hair styles. (The British term for a line of people is derived from this term which evolved from the Latin word "coda" meaning tail.) The style was apparently born in the military. Soldiers and sailors in the wars of thecearly 17th century began combing their hair to the back out ot of the way. The curls were bunched together and held their with a ribbon. The pigtails were sometimes braided or stiffened with pipe clay or even tar. Military wigs appeared with detachable pigtails, some of hairm but others of wood, baleen, leather, or wire with tufts of hair at the end.
Ribbons and bows: Soldiers began adding ribbons, sometimes tied in discrete bows to secure their pigtails.
Any large city would have hundreds of wig makers. A small town of any size would commonly have at least two. The wigs in these shops hung in rows on stands topped by wodden heads. The craft of wig making bcame an art that produced detailed books of instruction and styling. Wigs were curled over hot clay pipes and doctored with special tools. They were cairred in boxes specially designed to preserve their form. Advertising had become more common in the 18th century. One London wig maker offerred wigs that gave the clergyman "a certain demure, sanctified air," lawyers "an appearance of great sagacity and deep penetration," professional men "solemnity and gravity," and the military "a most warlike fierceness". [Bill Severn, Hair: The Long and Short of It (David McKay: New York, 1971), p. 39.]
One aspect of waring a wig for most of the century was powdering it. As the white wig became a standard, powdering the wigs was considered essential. The problem with white wigs was how to bleach hair to get the white color. To look really white, one had to powder the wig. This might be done before an important occassion when it was important to look just right. The wealthy buits rooms just for powdering--the original powder rooms. The less affluent had to do it in their attic or a barbershop. Soldiers did it in their barracks. When having his wig powdered, the individual wore his wig smeared with grease. He would wrap himself in a cloth or robe covering the entire body except for the head. Often the individual would bury his face in a face shield made of paper or glass. The powder was then dumped on his head or pumped from a hand bellows. The wealthy used scented powders, usually white, although some dandies preferred blue or violet. The less afluent might use plain flour. Men who over powdered his wigs left trails of it in the air when they walked.
Wigs were very expensive. A man could reportedly buy a complete outfit, including hat, coat, shirt, breeches, and shoes for the cost of a good wig. This is one reason that wigs as it was adopted by the middle classess became smaller and simplier in the 18th century. And it was not just the initial purchase price that was involved. Dressing and caring for wigs was also a significnt expenditure. Often men paid their barbers an annual fee for shaving and wig dressing.
Wig wearing patterns in Europe were quite similar, this was in part due the extent to which to which styles were influenced by the elegant French court.
Europe: Most European nobels and gentlemen wore wigs. Wig wearing was almost universal in cities, except for the very poor who could not afford them.
America: Wig wearing was also common in America. They were worn by college teachers and students, magistrates, preachers--even low paid ones, craftsmen and their aprentices, and even house slaves in the South who might wear white goat's hair wigs. Wigs were much less common in rural areas, especially pooer and frontier areas. Reports from colonial America indicate city dwealers traveling in rural and being shocked by seeing so many men without wigs. America was laregely rural at the time of the Revolution (1776-83). Americans varied. Some wouls not be caught with out a wig. Adams wore a formal powered wig as Ambassador to France during the Revolution. He disliked and was glad to discard it when he returned to America, but often felt compeled to wear it as Vice President. Jeffereson varied through his life. Washington rarwly wore a wug, preferring his own hair. During the Revolutiin, However, he wore his natural hair powdered and often with a queue which he tied with a ribbon or cobered with a black bag. Many of his Continental soldiers and militia wore their own natural long hair. Reportedly the militia that was raised in Virginia frightened the citizens of Williamsburg, at the time the capital. Their long natural hair was in many cases worn untied without queues and they thus looked to the townspeople like savages. Wig wearing was more common in New England, but often mobs amused themselves by ripping the fancy wigs off Torries and micking them. James Murray, a Bostobn Torry, described how a crows "made sport" of him by holding his arms and pulling off his wig. They made him parade home with his "pate ... left exposed" while a jeering mob followed with his "wig dishevelled ... born on a staff behind." The Revolution turned many against wigs, but the fashion persisted for some time. Many who signed the Declatation of Independence wore wigs. It was not until wig wearing in Europe declined after the French Revolution that wig wearing ended in America--Americans still following European fashion trends.
Wigs were worn most of the century, but by about 1765 some young men had begun to wear their natural hair rather than wigs. Most continued wearing wigs until the French Revolution (1789) began to affect fashion. Some even took to wearing elaborate wigs, forming the Macaroni Club. They adopted many extreme fashions. They were the inspiration for the Yankee Doodle Dandy, who as we know "stuck a feather in his cap and called it macraroni".
Looking back at the 18th century one wonders why wigs were so commonly worn. Readers should recall that fashion causes people to do strange things. Many older readers looking at their highschool year book will ask themselves, why did I wear such funny looking clothes, glasses, or hair styles. Here the 18th century was no different. Wigs were considered stylish and an aspect of proper dress. Social status was a very important part of wig wearing. They were expensive and a fine wig was a sure sign of affluence and social status. The modern term "big wig" dervives from important people who could afford large, expensive wigs. There were, however, some practical aspects to wearing wigs. People in the 18th century did not bathe like modern people. Personal hygene was a problem. One particular problem was lice. Having a wig meant that it could be sent out for cleaning which removed the lice. Also it was convenient, at leat for the privlidged, to have your hair done without bothersome vists to the barber or hair stylist. In addition, the wig put folically callenged older people on an equal footing with younger upstarts.
Figure 2.--John Randolph of Virginia is shown here at about 14 years of age. That would have mean about 1787. He wears his hair cut short and swept forward in a style harkening back to Rome.
While wigs were primarily worn by adults, boys did also wear wigs. Here social class was a majior factor. Little information is available on boys' wigs and boys wore the same styles as adults, akthough boys' wigs could be simplier and smaller.
There was a class element involved because of the cost. Boys from affluent families were much more likely to wear wigs.
One source suggests that boys began wearing wigs at about 7 years of age, but I so little information on this that I can not confirm that this was a widely followed convention for boys.
Boys appear to have worn the same style of wigs worn by thier fathers, at least after breeching. I know of no special boys' wig style, although we suspect that boy's wigs tended to be somewhat smaller and simplier. This was especially true in the early 17th century when very large wigs were still in style. As boys tended to wear the same style as their fathers, HBC has covered mens' wig styles in some detail. Both boys and men, for example, wore ribbon bows to secure their queues. If a boy did not wear a wig, for formal occassions his hair might be dressed with curling irons, powdered, and even pomade added.
HBC believes that wig wearing by boys began to decline significantly after the mid-17th century, before the trend became popular for men. While a young boy might wear a wig for a formal occassion, this was most common among royalty and the aristocracy. Most of the portaits we have noted of boys wearing powdered white wigs are portraits of royal children and aristocratic boys involved in court life. Most boys did not wear them. Here as we have mentioned, there were variations among social classes. Most of the portraits I have seen show boys without wigs. Here a good source of information is the HBC art section. Good examples of artists who pictured childern without wigs are: William Hogarth (1697-1763), Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), Sir William Beechey (1753-1839) and Sir Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88). Many boys, however, did wear queues, but usually not powdered. This began to change by the 1780s, even before the French Revolution, when short hair became increasingly common for boys.
HBC has have little information on childrens' wig wearing. Several questions arise. To what extent did boys wear wigs? When did they start? Did boys wear girls' wigs before they were breeched? Did boys always adopt the style of wig worn by his father?
Severn, Bill. Hair: The Long and Short of It (David McKay: New York, 1971).
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