Bad hair centuries: wigs and powdered hair

Let’s start our survey of inexplicable English hairdos in 1660, when Charles the Sequel came back from exile. The Puritans, with their sober hair and their sober clothes and their sober sobriety, had lost power and paid for their hubris by being buried under a froth of lace and frills and ribbons. 

And that was just what the men wore. 

Among the things Charles brought with him were wigs–human hair wigs, horsehair wigs, yak hair wigs. Looking like you had a yak on your head was the height of fashion. Or just below the height. At the absolute height were the most expensive wigs, made of human hair. But a yak? That cost less. It’s easier to persuade a yak to part with its hair than it is to persuade a human.

No, I did not make up the yak hair and no, I don’t know where they got their yaks. The yak is not native to Britain and if you google “yaks in england” (it’s important not to capitalize Google searches) you’ll find wildlife parks and sites that sell livestock, but they’re all in the wrong century. I only mention them to report on the pointlessness of it all. 

Irrelevant photo: These are called, um, something. I always forget. They’re wonderful to touch, though. I do remember that, always.

You can probably figure this out for yourself, but in the seventeenth-century it was only affluent men who wore wigs. Ordinary men had to wander through life with their own sorry mops on their heads. Can you think of anything more embarrassing?

But let’s go back to the excesses and absurdities at the top of the social heap. I won’t keep repeating who it is that we’re talking about, so it’s up to you to make a note and remember. 

The men wore their–or, more accurately, someone else’s–hair long and curling. It was shoulder length or (if you happened to be the king) longer.

Women’s hair styles? By the end of the seventeenth century they were extreme enough that they needed wires to support them. After the hair itself was assembled, it was topped with lace that stood to attention on the top and might or might not droop down the sides. The whole construction looked sort of like some unrelated species had landed on the lady’s head and made a home there.

Women also wore wigs, but much less often than men. More commonly, their own hair was styled around padding, but they might have hair pieces worked in. 

In France, women powdered their hair, but in England they left that to the men.

You wouldn’t want to climb trees in any of this. Some men–soldiers and travelers show up on the list–tied their (or whoever’s) hair back in a low ponytail to make the mess more manageable.  

How did it get to this point? The blame for the men’s wig–the peruke or periwig–seems to fall on Louis XIII. That’s Louis the French King to you. Everyone who wasn’t French was convinced that the French knew whatever there was to know about fashion, so if the man put a yak on his head, everyone else had better do it too.

Although, of course, he had human, not yak, hair to work with, just not his own. 

That brings us to the question of why someone else’s hair should be better than your own, and there’s an almost sensible explanation for that. Or several, really. 

One reason is that wearing a wig was a way for the rich and powerful to show that they were different from those lowly folks who trudged through life underneath their own sorry hair. If someone has enough clout to wear your hair instead of his own, that person must be powerful indeed.

Even if the you in question turned out to be a yak.

Of course, wearing someone else’s hair also had a cost that couldn’t be measured in money: The wearers worried about who’d been walking around in their hair before they bought it. Had it been grown by a criminal? A prostitute? A dead person? Not just a dead person but a dead person who was dead because they caught the plague? Think about that too much and it could make your scalp itch under that wig.

Another reason, according to one source, was that Louis XIII was going bald, so getting everyone to wear a wig made perfect sense. 

Yet another was that people didn’t wash their hair often and head lice were a constant menace. With a wig, you could shave your head, plop someone else’s hair on it, and take it (the wig, not the head) off to disinfect it, clean it, and style it. If you had to, you could boil the sucker.

Or, given the class of people who wore wigs, you could have someone else do all of that for you. 

With your own hair, a lot of that–especially the boiling–is awkward.

Wigs could also hide some of the symptoms of syphilis–hair loss, rashes, scabs. 

Don’t you just wish you’d lived back then?

None of that explains why women didn’t do the same thing, but we’ll just shrug and move on.

So much for reasons. Let’s talk about maintenance, and stay with me, please, because wigs are about to sound even more appealing.

Hair powder originally came into the picture as a degreaser, and it was added daily. White came into style because wigs made of white hair were rare and expensive, but powder could also be brown, violet, pink or–well, the punks didn’t invent anything new when they started dying their hair green and purple. The stark white wigs we see in movies, though, seem not to be historically accurate. Put white powder on a dark wig and you get one or another shade of gray. Put it on light hair and you get a lighter blond. 

Pomade was also slathered onto both wigs and people’s own hair. Recipes for this varied but could include apples, suet, and some fragrance or other. The fragrance would cover the smell if–or maybe I should say when–the suet announced its own fragrance. The degreaser starts to make sense now, right? The pomade allowed the wig to be shaped into the frozen curls that came into fashion around 1700.

A wig would be powdered daily, and some houses had a small separate room to do this in. Ever wonder where the phrase powder room came from? It wasn’t originally about powdering your nose.

Every day, a hairdresser would comb out the old pomade and powder and put on new ones. The hairstyle itself, though, could sit undisturbed for weeks. Or so they say. How anyone combed out the pomade without disturbing the hairstyle is a mystery that we’ll sneak away from quietly.

Putting all this mess on a wig made it heavy. For the large periwigs of the 1730s, it could add as much as two pounds to your weight.

It was during this time that various professions adopted specific styles of wig–an inheritance the British legal system has yet to shake off. 

But we’ve lost track of women’s hair. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, it was worn close to the head in soft curls, but by the late eighteenth century it gained height and the tops of women’s heads had become exhibition venues, full of ribbons, jewels, flowers, and stuffed animals. The peak of the trend was a hairstyle that involved a warship riding waves of hair. 

Again, all this had to be held in place by something, and lard was commonly that thing–or at least part of the thing–which made rats a real hazard. More than one source says, casually, that they made homes in the hairstyles. Which, as far as I can find out, didn’t keep anyone from slathering lard on their hair the next time. 

Is some element of exaggeration creeping in here? I’ve begun to wonder, but I’ve done my best to avoid the total nutburger websites. The rat reference came from an archeologist writing for whoever it is that maintains and runs George Washington’s farm. She was writing about (among other things) his hair. 

For eighteenth-century men, wigs were for formal occasions. For an informal occasion, they’d powder their own hair and tie it low on the neck with a black ribbon in a kind of ponytail. Some men–George Washington is an example, even if he’s on the wrong continent–styled their own hair to look like a wig. 

By the end of the century, both wigs and powder were going out of fashion. Older, more conservative men would still wear them, but younger men showed off their own hair. Then in 1795 the government put a tax of one guinea per year on hair powder. Exactly how you enforce a yearly tax on something people wear is beyond me, but the goernment must’ve had it figured out because people stopped using powder.

If you’re inclined to think that all taxes are always bad, consider that this one brought something like sanity to the outside, if not necessarily the inside, of people’s heads. 

96 thoughts on “Bad hair centuries: wigs and powdered hair

  1. I follow the podcast of a couple of people who, amongst other things, have done a lot of research into 18th century hairstyles and have made up recipes for pomade and powder. They say that pomade doesn’t smell and is good for the hair. They also say that stories about rats and mice getting into the wigs are apocryphal. SInce. as you say, George Washington didn’t wear a wig, how would a rat get close to his hair without him noticing and beating it off?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I remember the subject of these women’s amazing early bee-hive hair dos came up when I was at school (I was maybe 11 or 12) and the teacher said that they lay down and slept with their hair like that. According to her some of them had mice and bugs in them too. That’s stuck with me. Don’t you love fashion?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I’ve heard about the rat thing before, from historical sources that are generally trustworthy. I’m a fan of rats, but even I’m not keen on the idea of a rat making itself at home in my hair. Also, for them not to notice the rat in there, they must have been even better at ignoring things than your average teenager when asked to do housework. I’ve had a rat try and climb on my head before – when we had pet rats a couple of years ago – and can safely say it’s something you’re going to notice, and that’s without ribbons and other things potentially being tugged and nibbled on while the rat’s making itself at home.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Not long before I gave up any attempt at fashion forever, I ran for a bus and ran right up the inside leg of some wide-legged trousers. It was–well, it was memorable. Whatever a yak-hair wig looked like, it would be preferable.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Recently I decided that perhaps I should stop dying my hair and go gray. I took myself to a local wig shop and asked to try on gray wigs just to get an idea of how I’d look. After helping me try this gray, that gray, and another dozen grays (who’d have thought there were so many shades of gray?) the clerk looked at me and in all seriousness said, “Whatever you do, don’t stop dying your hair.”
    I might need to look at powdered wigs, though.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Ellen, you always have such interesting posts and I love reading them! You paint the history of the time very well with your words and now all I can think about is lice :) . Another historically informative post and I must admit to loving your irrelevant photo placement along the way :) Click and Run! Thanks for the fun read.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Being a ‘Wash and Go’ sort of person ( yes that is a make of shampoo which I do actually use ) I certainly could not have been bothered with all that, but as I would have been a peasant I expect, no worries.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Ah, the powder room, always wondered where that came from :) Well, the the rich and powerful might have used wigs to show that they were different from the lowly folks BUT they looked ridiculous!! The British judges and barristers of today also look ridiculous!!! How can they expect anyone to take them as being serious with such things on their heads?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well, yes, but ridiculous is all in what we accept as the norm. I’m willing to bet that if some man had turned up in an aristocrats drawing room wearing his own natural hair, the consensus would’ve been that he looked absurd.

      Having said that, I do agree with you.

      Liked by 1 person

    • That sounds dramatic and actually quite wonderful.

      I tried a wig on once, at a shopping mall kiosk, and almost knocked the display over I laughed so hard. We left before we were thrown out.

      I hadn’t been thinking about lead in cosmetics in this context, but you’re right. Eliz. I wore white lead on her face–starting after she had smallpox, I
      think. I wonder if in the future (if the culture survives long enough for this) people will think with horror over the ways we use the ingredients our world makes available.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Do you have anything about rodents in wigs? I am a 6th grade teacher and was talking with some of my student the other day about the term “rats nest” and I made a comment about how those old really big wigs could get rats in them. Well the parent took it that I was telling the child that their race had rats living in their hair and now wants me to provide research where I learned that these wigs from the 1770s could have rodents. Honestly, I don’t know where but as I am not being accused of being racist because the student thought I said afro when I said Victorian I now have homework.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your best bet might be here,, although unfortunately it wants readers to subscribe (I didn’t). But a summary hints at rodents being likely to use a stored wig as a nest (all that pomade would’ve been tempting) but being unlikely passengers when it was being worn. A person would notice something shifting around up there, and nibbling.

      A quick Google search of “powdered wigs, rats and mice” will give you lots of illustrations, which should deflect any misunderstanding over who you were talking about.

      You’ll also find lots of other sources (including mine), but they’re less authoritative than History Extra.

      Best of luck straightening that out. If you’re in the mood to let me know how it goes, I’d be interested.


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