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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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

"The Fashionable Wig" from Williamsburg

The most amusing of the Colonial Williamsburg’s “Past and Present” podcasts that I’ve heard so far is “The Fashionable Wig,” Lloyd Dobyns’s interview with wigmaker Terry Lyons.

I think Dobyns tends to seek a slightly sentimental picture of the past represented in Williamsburg, perhaps reflecting the attitude of many historical tourists. And in this conversation Lyons keeps matter-of-factly blowing up his assumptions that the people of the eighteenth century shared the same tastes and priorities we have, just in a more picturesque fashion. As she should.

When you research another culture deeply, I think, you eventually find yourself wondering, “What were they thinking?” If you never ask that question, you haven’t dug deeply enough yet. And for Dobyns that query seems to arise as he realizes the full extent of the notion that the height of fashion for gentlemen—and even for some ladies and older boys—was to shave one’s head and wear an elaborately shaped wig. (Boston 1775 will explore the hair of women and children later in the week.)

Among Lyons’s remarks:

Five percent of Williamsburg—of Virginia—was wearing wigs, but of course that major concentration was in the capital city. And so there were anywhere from one to nine wigmakers there at any one time. And so business was quite brisk, but primarily in the capital city.
For a fashionable and wealthy gentleman:
You would have wigs for evening wear, for everyday wear, for business, for riding. You’d just have a range of them as you’d have a range of clothing. . . . the shaving of the head gave a better fit. And so you would go to bed at night, remove your wig, your wife would remove her wig; you’d both look the same.
And the wigs in one’s collection might vary in color:
You’ll find that chestnut was considered a fashionable color. Brown for men. But the paler hairs were used for evening wear, for formal wear. The paler hair showed better by candlelight. But if you only had a dark wig or dark hair like Mr. [George] Washington, then it could be powdered. But then, of course, you had to step from the ballroom to the powder room to have the hair re-powdered with a clothing brush; that’s what the powder room was for.
I believe that last remark is mistaken, however. A Colonial Williamsburg publication states the same derivation, but according to Merriam-Webster’s the phrase “powder room” first appeared in print in 1937, well after the heyday of the powdered wig. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the phrase from 1941. No doubt the phrase really referred to the 20th-century female habit of applying powder to one’s face—because of course we mustn’t refer to anything else that goes on in that room. (The OED does define “powder closet” as being a room where wigs are powdered—but offers no citation earlier than the 1900s.)

More from Colonial Williamsburg: a webpage with photos on the wigmaker’s shop, a booklet on the trade, and the transcript of "The Fashionable Wig" podcast. TOMORROW: What gentleman’s wigs signified.


Anonymous said...

What! Ladies with shaven heads? Hairpieces I can believe, wigs for very elderly ladies with hair loss I can believe -- but ladies of fashion with deliberately bald heads in the eighteenth century? Name one. I stand ready to be corrected.

(Unless, of course, it's the same crowd that today would be having cosmetic surgery and liposuction.)

J. L. Bell said...

I should have been more clear that I quoted the Colonial Williamsburg wigmaker, but can't confirm all that she said in this podcast. On one point, as I wrote, I think she's wrong.

I've come across no shaving women, but then I focus on New England, which wasn't like the rest of the British Empire, much less France.

This description of a 2006 teachers' conference shows that folks at CW are still telling visitors that some colonial ladies shaved their heads to wear wigs. But no names offered.