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, January 10, 2007

What Wigs Said About Class and Values

Fun but questionable podcasts aside, I'm still struggling with the most basic question about the elaborately coiffed white wigs worn by gentlemen in eighteenth-century western society, including those of colonial Boston. Namely:

What benefit was there in shaving one's head and wearing a hot, heavy, itchy wig? Why go to all that trouble? Or, if one chose to wear one's own hair like George Washington, why replicate the same look by wearing white powder? If wigs had any practical purpose, why was the custom basically confined to that century? And if they were a matter of fashion, why did gentlemen think a white wig made them look good?

Here are helpful remarks on wigs from Karin Calvert's essay “The Function of Fashion in Eighteenth-Century America,” published in Of Consuming Interests: The Style of Life in the Eighteenth Century, edited by Cary Carson, Ronald Hoffman, and Peter J. Albert.
Craftsmen, as men who worked with their hands, usually appeared in their own hair regardless of their social position. . . . As a general rule, a wig carried more prestige than one’s own hair, and a powdered wig more than a natural-colored one, all of which meant that the necessary grooming was a messy and tedious process.

First the hair of the wig had to be smeared with pomatum, a grease made of animal fat, then teased or curled with a hot iron and rolled in papers, rubbed with more pomatum, positioned firmly on the head of the wearer, and blown with powder from a small tube. The powder could consist of flour, white earth, kaolin, or a mixture of starch and plaster of paris. Whatever the components, the powder and pomatum solidified to the point that regrooming was not necessary for some time, though a fresh dusting of powder was applied at each wearing.

An ill-fitting wig failed one of the primary rules of gentility in the eighteenth century, which was to make artifice seem completely natural and the difficult appear effortless. . . . Any sudden movement, such as a sneeze or a jerk of the head, could send flying a shower of loose powder. A dusting of powder on the shoulders betrayed the socially inept, for a true gentleman knew how to walk, turn, and bow with fluid grace.
In other words, the whole point of a gentleman's wig was that it was hard. A good powdered wig was expensive, it required other people's labor, it needed ongoing upkeep, and it demanded graceful deployment. By wearing one, therefore, a gentleman showed that he really cared about making a good appearance and could carry it off.

Of course, wig symbolism also shifted with the fashion. Michael Kwass's article "Big Hair: A Wig History of Consumption in Eighteenth-Century France" traces how the marketing of wigs in France evolved from the reign of the prematurely bald Louis XIV to the republican Revolution. Wigmakers adapted their arguments for wearing wigs according to the values that gentlemen were supposed to espouse in each period, though the bottom line remained the same. For instance, when gentlemen were supposed to value utilitarian convenience over luxury:
eighteenth-century commentators asserted that wearing someone else's hair was far more convenient than caring for one's own. "The convenience of wigs has made wearing them a nearly universal custom," observed classicist and teacher Jean Deguerle. If Deguerle failed to mention why he thought wigs were so convenient, the Encyclopédie méthodique explained that wigs possessed several advantages over natural hair, "one of the greatest of which is to relieve men of daily cares." In an age when civility manuals prescribed the perpetual cleaning, combing, and styling of hair, it was easier to have your head shaved and don a wig than to groom your own hair, particularly when your local wigmaker could service your wig for a small fee.
Likewise, when conforming to "nature" became a buzzword, wigmakers advertised that they offered the most natural false hair.

Given all that a good wig symbolized, attacking a man's wig became a way to attack his claims to genteel status. Here's a poem that Benjamin Church Jr., the future physician, wrote about his Harvard tutor:
An ugly Monster, he in Sight appears,
Form’d so by Nature not deform’d by Years:
His matted Wig of piss-burnt horse-hair made,
Scarce covers half his greasy shining Head.

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