Follow the Bigwigs

Between the years of 1673 and 1765, the city of Paris saw more than a 400% increase in its number of wig makers. Largely that is because King Louis XIV, standing in heels at the pinnacle of fashion, had started to go a little bit bald and decided to take a page from his father’s book.

Previously, Louis XIII had dealt with hair problems of his own. Probably suffering from syphilis, which was all the rage in Europe at the time, Louis XIII lost his hair in patches and suffered with sores on his scalp. And so, he donned a wig.

Yes, there were also many prominent Americans who wore wigs, but George Washington was not among them. I cannot tell a lie, these powdered curls are his own luscious locks. Gilbert Stuart, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Wearing a wig wasn’t exactly a brand-new fashion trend. Ancient Egyptians had worn them. Later, some powerful Romans, too. And bald Europeans or those unfortunate enough to be cursed with red hair occasionally wore wigs. Of course, when the king decides to do it, people tend to sit up and notice. Also, a lot of them had syphilis, too.

Wearing a wig became a pretty sensible thing to do. It protected your dome from the air while irritating your festering sores, added a couple pounds to your already cumbersome attire, and made your scalp sweat profusely. It also harbored grime and lice and layers and layers of scented powders that made you smell…well…actually that’s it. They just made you smell. I suppose maybe that kept people from wanting to get within six feet of you, and so it may actually have offered pretty effective protection from syphilis.

I mean, there’s wearing a wig. And then there’s this. Philip Dawe, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But wigs really took off in France, and soon all across Europe, when the next generation of French royalty started to wear them. Louis XIV allegedly owned a thousand wigs that he could coordinate with each of his outfits for any occasion, whether an intimate family dinner at home, a sparsely attended press conference, a private walk alone in his gardens, or a jolly Zoom call with foreign dignitaries.

No one would have ever questioned the king’s dedication to wearing wigs, and by his example, probably preventing the spread of syphilis. In fact, because of such noble dedication to looking ridiculous, a hundred years after the end of the reign of Louis XIV, there were still incredibly health-conscious people dedicated to wearing wigs, some of them so elaborate and so big they could have been layers of two or even three wigs stacked on top of one another.  

Of course, in late 18th century France, it became somewhat less healthful to associate oneself with the aristocracy, and wig-wearing finally fell out of fashion there. This development was followed closely by a fairly hefty English tax on wig powder, which convinced the British population that it, too, didn’t care that much for wigs.

I guess maybe there’s an alarming rate of syphilis among English barristers? Someone ought to look into that. Sounds like a public health crisis. Image by Michael Dodd from Pixabay

Today we know a lot more about syphilis, both how it can be avoided and how it can be treated. It’s still a dangerous disease that needs to be taken seriously, and cases have actually been on the rise in recent years, particularly in Europe. It’s also true that wig-makers have gotten better at making natural-looking, more hygienic hair-pieces for those who need them because they have red hair or something.

But I think today everyone, with the exception of English barristers, has come to accept that wearing a poofy wig isn’t often really all that necessary. Still, it sure is funny to look back at the fashion trends of the past and the lengths people would go to imitate and demonstrate support for a particular leader or set of ideas. Thank goodness we know better now.