Hair Studies: Wigs
By Gina Schiappacasse
For myself, wearing a wig has always coincided with dress-up and costumes, so it seems appropriate to delve into the topic as we watch the leaves change, and wait for Halloween’s approach. The holiday offers us the chance to briefly take on a new role, and as a kid who wholeheartedly embraced theater in high school, putting on a costume was the final step to becoming the character you’d been rehearsing for weeks, and slipping on the complete head-to-toe was enough to be that character.
Although my personal take on wigs is associated with the theatrical, they have been worn for centuries and across continents for cosmetic use and adornment, or to conceal the loss of hair due to health conditions and aging. So while we help raise awareness of breast cancer, we celebrate the resourceful artisans who have crafted wigs using human hair to plant fibers, wool, and nylon. Wigs can allow us to feel beautiful again after traumatic hair loss, help conceal identities, and even create new and exciting ones.
Ancient Egyptians traditionally shaved their heads, with the wealthy populace choosing to wear wigs to protect the tops of their heads from sun exposure (while the lower class resorted to wearing caps). Wigs were made from human hair or palm tree fibers, and were kept in place on the head using resin and beeswax. The wealthiest Egyptians (like Cleopatra, above) would often wear cones of scented animal fat on top of elaborate wigs for fragrance and decoration.
The ancient Greeks wore wigs for decorative purposes and more; elsewhere, Roman Emperors Hannibal and Nero were known to wear them as disguises when entering battle.
After the decline of the Western Roman Empire, the tradition of wig wearing was generally abandoned, but made a comeback in the 16th century as a way of covering up hair loss or to enhance appearance. The French King Louis XII (above) is often credited with re-popularizing the custom when he lost his hair prematurely. As a result, the ornament became extremely popular among the aristocracy, and the French became adept at making wigs, developing many of the techniques for construction that are still in use today.
By the mid-18th century, powdered hair and wigs were entirely the rage. Wigs were typically greased and powdered in a special closet using bellows specifically designed for the task. Powder was scented and occasionally colored, although white was most common. Women of the French aristocracy wore their hair in in a style called the Pouf with hair extensions and ornamentation from jewels to toy boats and birds. This style was popularized by Queen Marie Antoinette and quickly fell out of favor during the French Revolution.
Wigs were similarly popularized by regal favor in England where Queen Elizabeth I (above) was famous for wearing a red wig, tightly and elaborately curled into what was referred to as the “Roman” style.
Perukes or periwigs were introduced to the country with the return of Charles II to the throne in 1660 after his lengthy exile in France. They were worn by men, and were often shoulder-length or longer. Their use became popular in the English court and were generally donned by judges or barristers.
Wigs, and the social status they represented, were largely abandoned by American founding fathers. Only four presidents, from John Adams to James Monroe (including Thomas Jefferson, above), wore the style, and it was ultimately abandoned by George Washington who favored wearing his natural hair.
Women’s wigs in America lost popularity in the 1920s with the rise of the bob, and they were generally considered old-fashioned during the decade, as they tended to be worn by older and less modern women. Wigs saw a resurgence in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, with women adopting them for temporary cosmetic use, however, they became a staple in the world of black hairdressing as a way to avoid tedious, expensive, and often painful hair treatments.
Today, wigs are newly popular in America in part due to celebrities who frequently change and experiment with their look and take no pains to hide the fact. Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Beyonce (above), and Kylie Jenner have publicly shared their love of wigs. As a result, wig-makers like Darnell Would, Tokyo Stylez, and Shay Ashual have recently elevated the craft, creating covetable wigs ranging from the fantastical to the deceptively natural.
Why are wigs having such a moment right now? "You don't have to worry about your real hair—you can keep it healthy, and you can keep it growing. The idea of wigs is growing on young people because wigs can look even better than your real hair." – Tokyo Stylez interview on Allure.