Wigs are definitely not a modern invention. These important head coverings, often used to denote social rank and for cosmetic purposes (e.g. to improve one’s appearance or to cover up baldness), enjoy a rich and varied history that reflects people’s attitudes in society throughout the ages.
Early Wig Uses
While most people would often conjure up images of stern-looking, Victorian-era men with powdered poufs, the history of wigs go way earlier than the 18th century. In southwestern France, anthropologists have discovered an ivory carving of a woman’s head wearing a wig.
The wearing of wigs is a reflection of people’s obsession with the abundance of hair, and how it signifies good health, wealth, and prosperity. In recorded history, there are instances wherein people have taken to wearing wigs for the sake of vanity, despite these objects being unwieldy and impractical for the time.
For example, the practice of wearing wigs is widely-spread in ancient Egypt despite the sizzling climate. This is proven by an intricately woven wig specimen discovered in the Temple of Isis at Thebes, dated to be around 3,000 years old and currently housed at the British Museum. Ancient Egyptians wore their hair short for comfort. In order to protect their heads from the sun, the poor wore mere caps while the rich wore elaborate wigs made out of human hair or fiber from the palm tree.
Wigs were also popular among the ancient Greeks, who used them to enhance their looks. In Rome, emperors Hannibal and Nero were known to use wigs as disguises when they went into battle.
After falling out of fashion during the Plague, wigs became in vogue once more in France during Louis XVI’s reign. Louis XVI used wigs in order to hide his baldness. The wig-wearing trend started by Louis XVI also became the driving force for French wig makers to develop most of the processes that is still used in modern wig-making up to this age.
The Wig Making Process
The oldest method for making wigs involves weaving hair around a silk warp to form a “weft”- a small fringe structure that will be used as a “building block” for the wig. The wefts are then sewn and styled onto a foundation made out of the net, silk, and other materials.
The modern method for making wigs was developed by wig-makers guilds in France during the 19th century. Here the hair is directly woven onto the foundation material (usually a flesh colored net) using a ventilating needle (similar to the needles used for embroidery). This process resulted into wigs that fitted snugly to the head, thus looking more “natural” than wigs produced using the weft method.
Modern Wig Uses
Though, in modern times the use of wigs as a social status signifier has been long erased, wigs still remain a valuable accessory for some people. It is used to cover up balding heads, while actors use it whenever they need to portray a character on screen or in the theater. Women often use wigs or hair extensions on top of their natural hair for cosmetic purposes.
The history of wig making is one that will certainly interest a lot of people, especially those who use these objects regularly. It reveals a lot about people’s attitudes toward vanity, hygiene, and social status- some important “hair-raising” topics indeed.