The bizarre history of the giant powdered wig

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Giant shoulder pads came back around. Track pants: stylish once more. So isn’t it about time we all started wearing giant powdered wigs again?

They’re ubiquitous in old paintings. Everybody who was anybody in the 1700s had white curls pouring down over their shoulders. To our modern taste, it looks – quite frankly – a tad bit preposterous. So why were exaggerated wigs such a thing?

As it turns out, the history of the peruke (what powdered wigs were called back in the day) is awfully strange.

Like many stories, this one starts with syphilis

It’s distasteful but true. Syphilis reached epidemic levels in the 15th century western world. Antibiotics weren’t around yet, so the disease would ravage those infected with quite obvious symptoms: sores, rashes, blindness, dementia, and – tellingly – hair loss.

Because of its association with disease, baldness was a highly embarrassing condition. Long hair was trendy, practically a status symbol. Going bald could make you lose your reputation. Yes, even if you were the 18th-century equivalent of Vin Diesel.

You see where this is going. Wigmakers started cranking out artificial coiffures. Victims of syphilis hid their hair loss with wigs, sometimes made of human hair, but quite frequently made of more low-cost options like horse and goat.

In order to further hide infection, the wigs were doused with lavender- and orange-scented powders – just to cover up any funky smells. Delightful.

Wigs get the royal treatment

Though ubiquitous, wigs weren’t cool – more like a shameful necessity. That is, until the mid-17th century, when the King of France started going bald.

(Yes, probably from syphilis. It really was all the rage back then.)

King Louis XIV started losing his mop at the ripe old age of 17. So as not to let his reputation suffer, he hired 48 wigmakers to set him up with a whole set of healthy heads of hair.

Just five years later, the King of England – Louis’ cousin, Charles II – did the exact same thing when his hair started to go. And so a trend was born, trickling down from copycat aristocrats to the upper-middle class.

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But high fashion has a high price

The cost of wigs shot up, of course. An “everyday” peruke cost about 25 shillings, equivalent to a week’s pay for a common Londoner. The elaborate wigs you see in paintings ran as high as 800 shillings.

Giant wigs turned into status symbols for those who could afford the luxury. Even after Louis and Charles died, the wig fad stuck around on everybody’s head for decades.

By the way – if you’re wondering whether the word “bigwig” comes from these 17th century fashion snobs, the answer is YES.

Hair today, gone tomorrow

By the late 18th century, wigs had gone the way of the fidget spinner (is that over yet?).

The French Revolution knocked wigs off their pedestal as an overblown symbol of the bourgeois. And a 1795 tax on hair powder enacted by William Pitt turned Brits off their wigs. It’s been short-n’-natural haircuts all around ever since.

So how’s about it? Let 2018 be the year perukes come back in style. If we can just get Rihanna on board…


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