Gettin’ Wiggy With It

You might want to laugh at the heights of these wigs, but there’s quite a tale waiting beneath… and it isn’t pretty.
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1 – Welcome back to #ThreadTalk, your weekly dose of fashion history from yours truly.

Today, we're getting Wiggy With It.

But don't get comfy, yet. The styles might be laughable at first, but wigs are steeped in imperialism & colonialist privilege… like a poison tea. ☠️🫖

a woman with an exceptionally tall wig - Drouais - Marie Therese de Savoie, comtesse d'Artois - Versailles - the wig is gray, and topped with a sheer hat of blue and white, and feathered. It's easily three times as tall as her own forehead. #threadtalk - Gettin' Wiggy With It - August 30, 2021, @nataniabarron

2 – We begin in Ancient Egypt (no surprise).

Egyptians were wild about wigs in the early days. And b/c they doused wigs in oils & perfumes, sometimes they stood the test of time.

Nany's here (human hair) was covered in beeswax & animal fat; thusly preserved from 1040–992 B.C.

This wig was found lying behind the head of Nany's mummy in her inner coffin. It is made of braids of human hair fastened at the top with a cord. The braids were treated with beeswax and a layer of animal fat covers the entire wig. From the Met Museum.

3 – Ancient Egyptian tombs are a wealth of wig wonders, including headdresses & other ornaments.

Unfortunately, hair is organic. So, just like other human bits (i.e. those harder to embalm), we re-create (this dates from the reign of Thutmose III).

Rosettes headdress from Egypt, reign of Thutmose III, Dynasty 18, Met Museum. A flat-topped headdress with long, rosette strands over a thick wig.

4 – Which begs the first question. Why wigs? We know many Egyptian men & women shaved their heads and wore scented perfume cones that melted with heat in the sun. Religion? Aesthetics? Cooling?

The record has both dark hair & fair hair, too.

From Daily Life in Ancient Egypt - 1973 - The sculptor Ipy and his family.  41l wear the flowing cos- tumes of the later New Kingdom, the 
women sari-like robes wrapped tightly the first time around, then tied in loose 
folds. Both men have voluminous kilts, Ipy's covered with a long, draped shawil, the son's with the leopard skin of his  priestly ofice;  both wear sandals. Notice the ladies' jewelry, the gar- lands and bouquets of flowers, the ebony and gold chairs and wooden footstools, the wickerwork table, and. particularly, the cat with the silver earring and its less dignified kitten. About 1200 B.C - Met Museum

5 – In China, hair embellishments grew & changed over the centuries, from minor enhancements to elaborate structures of wire and wood.

In Xin Zhui's tomb, excavators found a wig still pinned to her head–and a spare one in a box, dating from the 2nd BC, Western Han Dynasty.

6 – During the Tang Dynasty, bigger hairstyles required even more coiffures, & not every court woman could summon up the locks naturally.

So, if you had the $$$, you would use whatever you could to get that high shape. Tang court ladies, 706 AD, Qianling Mausoleum.

7 – We'll get to Rome in a moment, because they get really into wigs.

It's at this point I start just really wondering WHERE DID THE HAIR COME FROM? And this, friends, is where this thread gets twisted fast.

Below: Creepy ass bust of a Roman woman w/a "diadem" wig, ca 80 CE.

A bust of a woman wearing what's called a diadem wig, which is all the curls facing forward, but really they look like a million eyes. And since this is carved in to marble, and it's unpainted, and she has no pupils, it's just eerie. The curls are HUGE.

8 – We know Romans had a lot going on, including major opinions about hair.

For men – Hair on face? Bad. Hair on head? Good.

So what to do if your hair was not happening in the correct order? Well, you make yourself a wig & you plucked/shaved the crap out of your beard.

Bust of a Roman man with a curly head of hair, but no nose. He has faint pupils. Might be a wig, might not. Hard to tell, but it is quite lush.

9 – Women had even more going on, especially nobles. Their elaborate hairstyles rivaled the goddesses, quite literally.

But where'd the hair come from? Well, darker hair came from India, most likely. And the blond stuff? Spoils of war from the Germanic tribes.

Yup.

This portrait of an attractive young woman has a simplified version of the hairstyle popular during the reign of the emperor Trajan. The rough finish at the back of the
neck indicates that the head was meant to be set into a draped statue. - Met Museum

10 – You *can* make a wig out of anything. Horse hair, yarn, flax, etc. But people with $$, they want the good stuff.

So let's begin with Elizabeth I. She started with wigs after 1562, when smallpox robbed her of her naturally lush red locks. She used it to rebrand herself.

The "Phoenix" portrait of Elizabeth I, attributed to Hilliard, from 1575, after she had smallpox, as she began to construct her image. It's intensely elaborate, with a massive ruff, high brow, and tightly curled wig.

11 – Although wigs were likely in use before that time, her court rose up in support. It became *fashionable* to wear a wig.

Or, well, to have *enhancements." This "Portrait of a Ladyin White", dated 1595-1600, by George Gower gives you a glimpse into such heights of fancy.

A ruffled woman with a high head of hair in a similar hairdo to Elizabeth I, with blonde hair, and a feathered crown on top. She wears all white, and pearl jewelry. She had grey eyes and a very pale complexion.

12 – But let's be real. Most of us, when we think of Western wigs, think of in this direction.

We have one man's vanity to thank for that & (potentially?) syphilis.

That man, King Louis XIII, started to go bald and, in French style, made it *fashion*. (I had to use this pic)

Louis XIII between two women with laurels on his head, goatee 100. The women are Navarre and France, united. He is in a Captain Morgan kind of pose, with a blue cloak, and flowing wig locks.

13 – Before Louis XIII et his son, who also rocked the periwig, outside of Lizzy's court, wigs hadn't caught on much. But now, it kind of went bonkers.

The French (my people!) went to TOWN. And Louis XIV was like, "Papa, hold my biere!"

Louis XIV, King of France (1638–1715). Portrait of Louis, in full armor, with a mountainous wig that is clearly not his own hair. He wears a pink cape and ornate armor against a landscape.

14 – Samuel Pepys, the English Restoration diarist, had a bit to say about wigs. And plagues.

Seems folks were shaving their heads for hygienic reasons, since they were concerned about spreading disease. Weird, right?

Pepys was on board w/these new wigs, but had some worries.

Portrait of Samuel Pepys, holding a sheet of music. He has long, flowing locks of hair. He is wearing what looks like silk, in brown, with a concerned expression on his face.

15 – First, he was a bit concerned that local wig makers were using plague cadavers for their new wigs.

I mean, fair.

Second, he was worried that wearing his new wig out in public might be a vector for spreading disease.

Because he was a considerate person. 👀

People collecting the dead in 1665. A wagon with people smoking, hauling limp bodies onto it. Very Monty Python.

16 – From this point on, wigs are big Western business. And it coincides with Colonialism & Imperialism perfectly.

Everyone wigs out Well, poor folks have to wear itchy horse hair wigs. Rich folk use the hair of enslaved people, impoverished people, & anyone they can pay off.

Another super high wig on a super pale woman in taffeta and ribbons and lace. A green dress in this case. 1774. Marie Antoinette.

17 – Why grey? Well, some wigs started out white, because white/blond is the rarest (read most expensive) hair. So people started *powdering* brown wigs, which eventually went grayish.

Many women combined their own hair with wigs for a natural hairline. "Natural." Totally.

Another sky-high hairstyle from the late 1775. Grey hair, grey dress, big bows.

18 – Again, the French sort of took this to the wildest extreme, especially at Versailles. The 1770s in France truly blow my mind.

But gray was not the only color & not only for women. Men wore periwigs in a variety of hues. Like this pink from British officer Col. Hamilton.

An officer in a blue jacket with a pink powdered periwig. He is looking off to the side, very jaunty.

19 – Col. Hamiton died at Waterloo, which reminds me of Waterloo teeth. Waterloo teeth were, well, rich people dentures made from… those left behind.

I'm pretty Waterloo wigs happened. Because people are horrible.

https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33085031

20 – I do wonder if someone took Col. Hamilton's pink wig…

ANYWAY.

Even though George Washington DID have dentures (not wood), he did not wear a wig. He just powdered his hair. Jefferson only wore a wig in France.

(Where have you been?… uh, FRANCE.)

Thomas Jefferson in 1786, looking sad. He's in a black jacket, has a periwig on, with classic curls, striped weskit.

21 – About the powder. Wig (& hair) powder was big business. Just like the Egyptians, you started with some grease. Pomade. Gotta get it sticky.

Then, you administer the dust en masse. Could be flour. Clay. Ash. Usually scented to cover up the ungodly under-stench. See below.

A gentleman being powdered by his valet. A cone protects the gentleman’s face during the process. Powder was made from starch, often wheat flour, or powdered white clay. The Toilette of the State Prosecutor’s Clerk, c. 1768 by Carle Vernet. via https://livesandlegaciesblog.org/2015/01/28/perukes-pomade-powder/

22 – As you probably imagine, this was a SEVERELY messy business. Hence, we have "powder rooms". All those darlings at Versailles would have been worse than a Head & Shoulders commercial with all that dust!

Couldn't ruin a good suit with dust, after all.

This guy look suspiciously free of dust, given the hue of his periwig. Man in a dark blue uniform.

23 – Ultimately, powder was the wigs' undoing. When Parliament put a tax on wig powder in 1795, thinking it would bring income to the empire, people simply stopped using it.

Eventually, the long Regency ushered in an age of natural hairstyles… that look Greek & Roman…

 Wrapped in a cashmere shawl, her manor glimpsed in the background, Countess Luise von Voss's (1780-1832) presentation in semi-grisaille recalls early Ingres.

24 – Look, I don't pretend to understand. Humans like big hair.

This woman gets it. #teamdolly #teammoderna The higher the hair the closer to whatever power you choose or don't choose.

Dolly Parton. An actual goddess.

25 – What SUCKS is that court wigs and barrister wigs are still a symbol of oppression & colonialism.

I did not realize how many countries still use them around the world–MUST LEGALLY use them in some cases.

And those wigs are still hella expensive.

26 – As a sheltered American, I see Parliament videos & giggle because that's just weird to me.

But that's privilege of a different sort.

Wigs mean more than what they seem. They're sacred, they're culture, they're oppression, they're art. It's complex.

David Richter the Younger - Abraham Brahe (1669 – 1728) - Google Art Project - another armor suited white dude with a flowing Allonge grey wig.

27 – So, a few bits of beauty before I sign off. I have a soft spot for the late 1700s, with Joshua Reynolds & Gainsborough's winsome gray-haired ladies.

Reynolds – Mary Darby, Mrs Thomas Robinson 'Perdita' – The wig, the hat, the stare. We would get up to much mischief, 1782.

A young woman with an enormous hat with ostrich feathers, hands folded, at 3/4 bust, with a pursed mouth and a bit of a glare. She wears a curled wig and has dark brows.

28 – This is entitled: The daughters of the 2nd Earl Waldegrave: Lady Elizabeth (1760-1816) Lady Charlotte (1761-1808) Lady Anna (1762–1801) – and I do love that it's a triune of sisters.

Their brows, their rosy cheeks, their mountains of hair. 1780, so they are all around 20.

Three sisters in matching white dresses and matching piles of gray wigs curls. One is staring, another is playing cards, and a third may be knitting or playing another kind of game. One is looking way while the other two are engaged.

29 – Gainsborough, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, 1783.

I blame Gainsborough for all of this, really. I saw a painting of his when I was in second grade, and it lit my brain on fire.

Georgiana is draped in muslin & silk. Maybe it's a wig. Maybe it isn't.

Ephemeral woman draped in classic wrap gown of the period with a high hairstyle that could be a wig, but is certainly voluminous. She's wearing silk and muslin.

30 – 1775 was just one of those years. The AUDACITY of this hair. But also her eyes?

Gainsborough, also. Portrait of Miss Elizabeth Linley [later Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan].

A woman with a low-necked gown and a beehive-style wig as high as heaven. One long coil down her shoulder. She had black brows, and dark eyes, and is looking up and away.

31 – 1778 brings Mrs. Dalyrimple, and I love her profile, her hair, everything. The look of sadness on her face, the way she's clutching her gown… it just speaks to me.

Also, orange silk, yes. Peep the shoes. Are we running away? Are we tossing that wig and eloping?

A woman in full, face in profile, high grey wig, in an orange and cream colored gown. She is clutching the train to her chest, and looks as if she's moving away.

32 – There's much more I didn't get to, but this is Twitter, etc. Lots of sources this week, and much in the scholarly way.

Sources 1

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wig#Ancient_use
https://fashion-history.lovetoknow.com/fashion-history-eras/history-wigs
https://www.battlefields.org/learn/head-tilting-history/rise-and-fall-powdered-wig
https://www.jstor.org/stable/2211360
https://www.jstor.org/stable/25527004?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

https://www.jstor.org/stable/25081126?read-now=1&refreqid=excelsior%3A87a7257f7a2ed04305c4c0ab10c2886f&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

33 – Sources 2

https://www.jstor.org/stable/27867791
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_Orders_of_Periwigs
https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/31056/why-did-people-wear-powdered-wigs
https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33085031

https://www.google.com/books/edition/Encyclopedia_of_Hair/9Z6vCGbf66YC?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=history+of+wig+hair+from+dead&pg=PA397&printsec=frontcover

34 – Sources 3
https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-curious-victorian-tradition-making-art-human-hair
https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/intricate-craft-art-human-hair-jewelry-mourning-braid-mutter-museum
https://www.geriwalton.com/hair-powder-history-of-its-popularity-and-unpopularity/
https://www.regencyhistory.net/2016/01/hair-powder-and-pomatum.html
https://www.jstor.org/stable/507324

35 – Sources 4 –
http://nationalclothing.org/asia/39-china/535-chinese-traditional-hairstyles-and-hairpieces-samples-from-tombs.html
https://thisisafrica.me/african-identities/african-judges-wigs-symbol-of-colonialism/
http://grandmotherafrica.com/18995-2/
https://www.reddit.com/r/ArtefactPorn/comments/9s2fym/the_wig_of_nauny_a_21st_dynasty_princess_buried/?st=JNV70NYY&sh=59854c11

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Pepys

36 – Sources 5 –
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xin_Zhui

https://www.pepysdiary.com/encyclopedia/517/

37 – And just a few notes. If you're like, "Why didn't you share a ton of pictures of old wigs, Natania?"

It's because they all look like this, and like, there was already enough nightmare fuel in this #threadtalk.

This looks like a dead white pigeon.

38 – Also, there is still a horrible black market for human hair. Not much changes, alas. If you're a wig-purchasing person who wants to buy human hair wigs, please do your research.

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/secret-history-buying-and-selling-hair-180961080/

39 – Thanks for (re)joining me on #threadtalk tonight!

(Yes, wigs were absolutely used for lice prevention if you shaved your head. But the wigs also still carried lice. And maybe plague. The powder helped a bit.)

Question beauty relentlessly.

40 – Oh, and a few other notes…

Wig powder colors besides white most commonly in violet, blue, pink.

Also pomades used grease which, y'know, went rancid. So that's fun.

Wigs SO EXPENSIVE to make. So easy to ruin.

Here's one more ::runs away::

Originally tweeted by Natania Barron (@NataniaBarron) on August 30, 2021.

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