In ancient Egypt, both males and females wore wigs made either from human hair, sheep’s wool or vegetable fibers, depending upon their social status. There were a number of benefits for Egyptians from shaving their heads. First it was more comfortable in the hot Egyptian climate not to have hair. Secondly, a baldhead helped avoid the danger of an infestation of lice, which was a problem at that time. However, it appears that Egyptians preferred having “hair” which resulted in the creation of wigs that gave the appearance of hair. The new wigs also protected the Egyptians’ baldheads from the brutal sun. Wigs became part of daily wear for the Egyptian people indicating a person’s status as well as their role in a society or politics. In Women’s wigs were adorned with braids and gold, hair-rings and ivory ornaments making them more stylish than men’s wigs. Ultimately, the more elaborate and involved the wig was, the higher the social rank.
Other ancient civilisations whose citizens wore wigs were the Greeks, Romans, Assyrians, and the Phoenicians. For the Romans, in particular, wigs were often made with hair from slaves. During the Roman Empire wealthy Roman women often wore elaborate hairpieces to greatly increase the volume and effect of the hairstyle.
In contrast, the people of the ancient civilisations in the Far East, including China and Japan, rarely wore wigs except by actors performing in the traditional theaters of China and Japan (Noh or Kabuki) and by certain types of female entertainers such as the Japanese geisha or the Korean Kisaeng.
The word “wigs”, itself, is taken from “periwigs” which was the name of the particular long, curly wigs that became popular after Charles II was returned to the throne in 1660. Some historian attribute popular fashion status of the periwig to Louis XIII. The periwig simulated real hair and was primarily used for adornment or to cover the loss of real hair. Having become a tradition of the English Court, the periwig is still seen today in modern British courts. The history of wigs in France stretches back to the reign of Louis Xlll who went prematurely bald. To disguise his baldness he began wearing elaborate wigs. Historical records indicate that the first independent wigmakers’ guild was created in 1673. The wig now enjoyed the most noble of pedigrees from the seventeenth-century French courts of Louis XIII and Louis XIV and it became a fashion icon that was integral to the aristocratic world of power and display. The mistress of King Louis XIV wore her hair in a signature hairstyle called the la Fontange. It was a fashion look that was copied and with the help of hairpieces and false locks worn by numerous high upper class “wantabees”. By the end of the Sun King’s reign, wigs had spread well beyond the nobility of France. Kings at royal courts across Europe wore wigs, now a most essential feature of the European noble costume.
Another memorable royal who was known for her elaborate wigs was Queen Elizabeth I of England. Wigs were so widespread that virtually all the elite wore wigs or elaborate hairstyles during this time. It is not surprising that by the end of the 18th century the number of French master wigmakers had skyrocketed from the fashion centre of Paris to other European capitols and finally to provincial cities as well. In addition to the guild master wigmakers were thousands of journeymen wig makers and artisans traveling the European countryside producing wigs clandestinely. Eventually, wigs were no longer an exclusive luxury item, an exclusive marker of high birth or a status symbol worn by the privileged few. A shorter, less elaborate wig, called the bob wig, was very popular in Colonial America at the beginning of the 18th century.
By the end of the 18th century, young men began wearing their hair in a more natural state. Although the powered look and the use of wigs continued, it was not longer a fashion look worn everyday but reserved for older, more conservative men and ladies who were being presented at court.
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