This post refers to men’s fashion of the 18th century. Please see the footnote below regarding gender terminology.
Everyone — at least in the US — recognizes the subject of the portrait on the right as George Washington, first United States president. Everyone — who hasn’t spent time researching this because they have real hobbies — assumes he’s wearing a white wig because of the frothy hairstyle and the time period. Everyone — including me from a few minutes ago, before I learned this — is wrong. (Thanks, Hollywood!)
Wigs were a big deal beginning in the 17th century. This fashion held until about 1800, which is a very long time for a trend to run its course. What happened in the intervening years? And what made all those men flip their wigs?
As Bald as a Billiard Ball
Heredity and/or other biological conditions, such as auto-immune diseases and the effects of stress on our hormones, cause hair loss. However, these are not the reasons for the wig-wearing craze that began in the 17th century. The sores and hair loss associated with widespread syphilis accelerated the need to cover up.
Summary on syphilis: Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease. Hair loss and sores were only two of the awful symptoms. Though sheaths, or condoms, were available, not enough men wore them, stoking an epidemic in Europe greater than the spread of the Black Death. Syphilis is caused by a specific bacteria and is treated today with antibiotics.
The powdered wig — referred to historically as a peruke or periwig — became a fashion trend when two vain 17th century kings lost the battle with their hair at a young age:
King Louis XIV of France experienced hair loss at the early age of 17, and he hired 48 wigmakers to help combat his thinning locks. His English cousin, King Charles II, began wearing wigs a few years later, when his hair began to prematurely grey — both conditions being syphilitic signals.The Rise and Fall of the Powdered Wig
Courtiers and noblemen followed their king’s styles, starting a fashion trend that ultimately spread to the merchant class as a symbol of wealth. A single, extravagant wig might cost 25 shillings, or the weekly wage of a laborer. However, men spent upwards of 800 shillings on them yearly. Calculated for inflation, this amount was on par with one of today’s iconic, vintage handbags.
Perukes were made from horse, goat, sheep, or human hair. Day to day maintenance involved powdering with cornstarch scented with orange flowers, rose petals, nutmeg, ambergris, jasmine, orris root, or lavender [Perukes, Pomade, and Powder: Hair Care in the 1700s] to cover odors and filth. Special combs and pomades were used to maintain the wig’s shape.
Occasionally wigs needed delousing. While this may sound objectionable to today’s reader, it was better than the alternative, which was regular infestations of lice in one’s natural hair. Wigs solved this problem because a shaved head made wigs fit properly and a lousy place for lice to live (pun intended, of course). A wigmaker took care of the delousing for their patrons by boiling and nitpicking the wig.
Rockin’ the Rococo
In the beginning of the wig craze, the longer and fuller the wig, the better. Like most fashions, this changed over time.
Wig fashion at the beginning of the 18th century was shoulder-length and full.
By the mid-18th century, buckled side-rolls were popular with nobility and soldiers.
Macaronis preferred wigs with the height and lavishness of the French court.
Little known fact: the song “Yankee Doodle” pre-dates the American Revolution by a good 15 – 20 years. A British military surgeon wrote the song to “mock the disheveled, disorganized colonial ‘Yankees’ with whom they served in the French and Indian War.” [Yankee Doodle]
By the time the Revolution came to Concord, men in America began switching to powdering their hair instead of wearing wigs. In fact, George Washington didn’t wear wigs. He pomaded and powdered his red hair. (This guy over here is Colonel James Hamilton and he prefers pink, a color worn by all genders in the 18th century.)
Wigs became less popular in the latter half of the 18th century. During the Age of Enlightenment, leading up to the American and French revolutions, philosophers questioned leadership based on the circumstances of one’s birth versus the new theory of democracy. Wigs, equated with the nobility, fell out of fashion.
British men were the last to stop wearing wigs. In Britain, the Duty on Hair Powder Act of 1795 meant to subsidize wars with France brought the fashion trend to an end. The tax cost wig-wearers one guinea.
According to author Jenny Uglow, those who chose to pay the guinea hair powder tax were nicknamed “guinea-pigs” by reformist Whigs who chose instead to cut their hair short (the “French” cut) and go without a wig as an expression of solidarity with the French.Yankee Doodle
Footnote on Gender:
Terminology regarding gender in 18th century American and British cultures, as recorded in history, was limited to the binary. Though the gender spectrum exists across cultures and throughout history — including American and British cultures of the time, it did not become a discourse with distinct terminology until the 1950s. These posts reflect binary gender and those who identified in the record as that gender. If I’ve made an error, I welcome feedback as an opportunity to learn.
18th Century Hair & Wig Styling: History & Step-by-Step Techniques
Duty on Hair Powder Act 1795
Perukes, Pomade, and Powder: Hair Care in the 1700s
The Rise and Fall of the Powdered Wig
The Rise of the Wig
Why Did People Wear Powdered Wigs?
- George Washington, by Gilbert Stuart, 1803. https://www.clarkart.edu/artpiece/detail/george-washington Accessed May 23, 2021. Public Domain CC0.
- Portrait of Louis XIV of France, by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1701. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2618104 Accessed May 23, 2021. Public Domain CC0.
- Kelly Bag by Hermès, image by Wen-Cheng Liu – Flickr, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18058526 Accessed May 23, 2021. CC BY-SA 2.0
- Hairdresser, by C.J. Travies de Villers, 19th century. https://wellcomecollection.org/works/rbz592fe Accessed May 23, 2021. CC BY 4.0
- Cotton Mather, by Peter Pelham, 1700. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80525 Accessed May 23, 2021. Public Domain CC0.
- Portrait of a Man Holding a Compass, by unidentified painter of the North Italian School, 18th century. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24349622 Accessed May 23, 2021. Public Domain CC0.
- What is this my son Tom, by R. Sayer & J. Bennett, 1774. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=922993 Accessed May 24, 2021. Public Domain CC0
- Colonel James Hamilton, by John Smart, 1784. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58325072 Accessed May 23, 2021. Public Domain CC0
- A Ship’s Steward, by unidentified American painter, 1829. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81304426 Accessed May 23, 2021. Public Domain CC0