11th February 1765. Big Wig.
Since classical times, for whatever reason, avoidance of head lice or fashion, wigs have been worn.
The wearing of a wig or peruke (made by peruke-makers) came into its own in Europe with Queen Elizabeth I who had eighty ‘attires’ mostly red or yellow. However they became really fashionable after 1624 when France’s Louis XIII wore one to hide his baldness.
Soon white, wig-powdering from starch and Plaster of Paris gave way to pink, blue and grey, when servants ‘frisseurs’ blew coloured powder on wigs which came in many styles: bob, bag, campaign, grizzle, Ramillies, cauliflower, brown tie, riding bob and more, depending on length of braid and bounciness of curl.
A full wig could be a costly £50 and were left in wills, thus hair from the dead, was to acquire a price and young children were at risk of having theirs forcibly removed, whilst the poor bought lottery tickets in the hope of winning a wig.(1)
Diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) bought a full-bottomed-wig in 1663 and as the fashion was new he was worried that people might laugh at him in church, or that the hair could have come from someone with the plague.(2)
He wrote: ‘Up, and W Batelier Frenchman, a Perriwigg (sic) maker comes and brings me a new one, which I liked and paid him for…’
The Law Courts adopted wigs in the early 1700.s-perukes or periwigs-then fashion changed from the full-bottomed to bob-wigs or ‘campaign’ wigs, so by 1750 only judges were wearing the large wig as a legal formality; barristers were now wearing the bob-wig.
Fashion again changed and in 1789 Parson Woodforde recalls in his Diary, that: ‘Old Mr. Dalton called on me…I did not know him at first as he now wears his Hair’.
The growing wig-less trend resulted Today in 1765 in a petition to King George III by the master perukemakers of the metropolis, which complained about…’the almost universal decline of their trade, in consequence of gentlemen so generally to wear their own hair’.
However Dandies continued to have their wigs powdered blue in the late 18thc; there was even a tax on wig powder.
In the early 19thc the ‘Jasey’ (a corruption of Jersey), ‘a worsted wig, a very old-fashioned article’, was still being worn by some octogenarians.
Wigs eventually became the sole preserve of clerics, barristers and judges with evidence of the clerical origin of lawyers seen in the circular orifice in the centre of the judge’s wig, all that remains of the monastic and clerical tonsure.
Archbishop William Wake enthroned in 1716 wore a curly wig quite unlike real hair and the next eight archbishops all wore more formal wigs, ending with William Howley as late as 1848. (3)
The last prelate to wear a wig under his mitre was Archbishop John Bird Sumner. Bishops were be-wigged in the Lords until 1830.(4)
Cecil Hartley’s Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette (1873) wrote: ‘there was a time when it was thought presumption and vanity to wear one’s own hair instead of the frightful elaborations of the wig-makers’.
Will Owen the artist records in Old London Town (1921), that a wig-maker in the Temple, Mr Witts, daily powdered Mr Justice Hawkins’ wig when he presided at the Old Bailey.
(1) ‘You can buy that kind of hair as a wig made from dead men hair’. Bassanio: Merchant of Venice. Act 3 Sc 2 P.4.
(2) Acquired 3.11.1663. Wigs might come human hair, horse hair, cotton thread, goat hair and silk.
(3) Sumner wore his wig as Bishop of Chester and when presiding over the marriage of Princess Royal and Frederick III of Germany.
(4) In the 1851 census there were around 12,000 hairdressers and wig-makers.
End Column, Christopher Howse Sacred Mysteries. Daily Telegraph. Sat. 23.2.2013.
unihair.info. How the wig became peruke or periwig.