We look back on the paintings of French aristocrats – the mountains of curls and puff so tall that we wonder how the wearer didn’t fall over when they walked. It might be an iconic symbol of wealth and status, but what most people don’t know is that main reason was to hide some shameful secrets.
Men dreaded going bald. Shaving it off to be a sexy Vin Disel wasn’t an option.
So, men would often wear wigs (called “perukes” back then) to covering their patches. A basic wig would cost a week’s salary (for someone with moderate employment). These were usually made of animal hair.
While the lower classes couldn’t do as much about it, the higher levels of wealth could cover it up.
King Louis XIV suffered from premature balding (from family genetics) at the young age of 17 and was desperate to keep a youthful appearance as well as protect his reputation. His were made from human hair … and he had no problem shaving the entire population if it meant the crown rested on a handsome head. His cousin Charles II of England did the same thing five years later as he turned grey.
While styles can emerge from creativeness, necessity, or reinvention, the biggest reason for wigs was because of the rampant spread of illnesses. During the 15th century, a rival to the Black Plague emerged … syphilis.
There was plenty of sex going on but no protection or antibiotics back then, so it spread to disturbing levels. Some of the visible signs were sores, bad rashes, blindness, dementia, and patchy hair loss. So, not only did baldness come with one stigma, disease now hitched its cart to the horse.
WHAT ABOUT THE POWDER?
This also served a function.
The popular back then (rich or poor) were not great on hygiene. In fact, anyone now would probably wretch at the conditions and smells (you wonder why there were snuff boxes). There would be stenches from lack of cleanliness as well as other funky odours from their diseases.
Wig makers and wearers would coat the wig in a layer of scented powder – usually orange and lavender. This was mean to cover up the scent. It also meant a lot of powder.
It wasn’t just illness. The unsanitary conditions bread an apocalypse level infection of lice. There were everywhere.
Not only that, but people also didn’t wash their wigs … ever. It’s not surprising since the water back then was disgusting. Still, ew. So, wig makers had to comb out huge amounts of lice from people’s hair pieces. They also tried to wipe out the sweat but it really did nothing to help.
MORE WEIRD FACTS
- Wigs were popular for over two centuries
- There were wig guilds that made the rules
- The fad ended around the time of the revolution. War made extravagant purchases harder, and they were an unwanted symbol of the aristocracy.
- The nail in the wig coffin came when a “powder tax” was introduced
- Some wigs were only worn once and left for months
- The term “big-wig” comes from this period
So, next time you watch a period piece, imagine ulcers under their falsies and a vile smell oozing from their bodies. Royal and romantic, yeah?