J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Thoughts on the Powdered Wig

When we picture Europe or its North American colonies in the 1700s, we usually think of men in white wigs. Such men appear in most of the images we have from that period (which of course lean toward showing the upper class as they wanted to appear).

What’s more, the fashion for white wigs got confined to the eighteenth century, not evolving the way the modern three-piece suit traces back to the gentlemen’s garb of the 1700s. So white wigs now seem not only emblems of an antique style but very, very strange.

Having one’s perfectly good hair shaved in order to wear an expensive wig covered in white powder was not only common but practically required in the mid-1700s. People like George Washington had their natural hair powdered to achieve the same look for formal appearances. Upper-class boys got their heads shaved for wigs as they came of age. (One reason this habit is so alien to us is that our culture values looking young and back then people were trying to look like distinguished older men.)

The style didn’t affect only upper-class males. The most fashionable women also powdered their hair. Middling men with social aspirations invested in wigs, though I think they tended to avoid the white powder to avoid appearing too uppity. And British soldiers comprised a large class of working-class men also powdering their hair on a regular schedule.

At Regency History Rachel Knowles traced the story of white hair powder:

Louis XIII (1601-1643) also had a hair problem—he started to go bald at a young age. To hide his baldness, he started to wear a long haired wig and, unsurprisingly, his courtiers soon followed suit. The fashion spread to England and was adopted by Charles II (1630-85) and his court.

The rarest and most expensive wigs were white. As a result, people put white powder on their wigs in order to make them look as white as possible. People also used white powder on their hair. It intensified the blondeness of very fair hair but made darker hair look grey, the shade depending on the natural hair colour. . . .

Hair powder was made from flour or starch and varied considerably in quality, with the best powders being made from highly refined starch.

Although white was the most popular colour, other shades were also used, including brown, grey, orange, pink, red, blue and violet. . . .

In 1795, [the younger William] Pitt introduced a new tax on hair powder. Those wishing to use hair powder had to obtain an annual certificate for the privilege at a cost of one guinea. There was an outcry against the expense of this licence and the tax did not have quite the effect that Pitt had hoped for.

There was already a move toward more natural hairstyles and many people chose to abandon their hair powder altogether rather than spend a guinea on a licence. The tax never brought in the anticipated revenues; it simply hastened the demise of the fashion for hair powder.
Lots more detail at that post.

As for the wigs themselves, Geri Walton offered a taxonomy of styles that evolved over the decades:
Besides the tie-wig, the bob-wig (minor and major) also became popular in the 1700s. It arrived on the scene during George II’s reign. What made this wig popular was it “was a direct imitation of the natural hair, and was used chiefly by the commonalty. The ’prentice minor bob was close and short; the citizen’s bob major, or Sunday buckle, had several rows of curls.”[4]

The macaronis similarly introduced a toupee that was supposed to be natural. It had “a large queue, which required the hair to be very long to be fashionable. The wig, having been made to imitate natural hair, became in its turn the model, and the natural hair was [soon] arranged to imitate the wig.”[5]

In France, bag wigs were called Peruqes à la Regencé. They came into fashion when the Duke of Orléans was serving as regent (1715-1723) to King Louis XV. Bag wigs came into vogue in England [a] little later, around 1730. When they first appeared there, they were not as popular as other style of wigs because these wigs were claimed to have originated with French servants, “who tied up their hair in a black leather bag as a speedy way of dressing it, and keep it out of the way, flowing curls being thought out of place for a man waiting at table.”[6] Bag wigs got their name because they were exactly that, a bagged wig. In England, the long hair at the back of the wig was placed in a black silk bag. Then the ribbons attached to the bag were pulled to the front and tied in a bow, known as a “solitaire.”

Various wigs remained popular throughout the 1700s, and almost every profession had their own peculiar wig, with “the oddest appellations … given to them.”[11] One author noted, that each profession seem to chose a perwig that best expressed its function. For instance, “The caricatures of the period represent[ed by] full-fledged lawyers with a towering frontlet and a long bag at the back tied in the middle; while students of the university … [sported] a wig flat on the top, to accommodate their stiff cornered hats, and a great bag like a lawyer’s at the back.”[12]
Again, more detail at that site.

All told, an eighteenth-century person could look at a bewigged man and pick up information about his profession, wealth, and personal style. Which of course was the point. We no longer understand that visual language, making the habit all the more strange.


Sophie Schiller said...

You may be interested to know that sea captains and sometimes even ordinary seamen took their wigs with them to sea. And if they were especially prominent, they would have a "dress wig", ordinary wigs, and "clipped wigs". So important were the wigs! I am reading "The Slave Ship Fredensborg" about the final voyage of a Danish slave ship, which gives an idea about the day to day lives of ordinary mariners in the 18th century. They were living on the cusp between the old world and the new, the old ways and the new. When the old traditions and values were on the way out and a new age was being ushered in. Only they didn't know it. The wigs, like the old ways, represented a past that would soon be gone forever.

J. L. Bell said...

I'm not surprised that sea captains carried their wigs. Not only did they have to maintain authority over their men, but they also had to meet government officials, merchants, and others at their destination ports as fellow gentlemen.

The shift away from wigs at the end of the eighteenth century, after a century in which they (or a simulation of them) were absolutely necessary for gentlemen, must have been jarring for a lot of people. One of the folks I research, Ebenezer Fox, trained as a barber during the Revolutionary War. He went into that profession expecting it to provide steady employment. But there must have been much less work for barbers by the 1790s as more and more gentlemen were letting their hair grow naturally instead of paying to have their heads shaved once a week and paying for carefully coiffed wigs. Fox ended up running a shop and serving as a postmaster, but, alas, he didn't write about that transition.