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Why'd They Wear That?: Fashion as the Mirror of History

Written by Sarah Albee with a forward by Tim Gunn.

Why’d They Wear That Excerpt

Wigged Out

France and England 1600s

When the French king Louis XIV began losing his hair, wigs became fashionable at the French court. In 1660 the English king Charles II introduced wigs to his court, and few men would be seen in public without one. “Periwigs” as they were known in England, were masses of curls, which often cascaded below the shoulders. The style went through several variations until by the end of the 1600s the hair (still below shoulder length) was swept upwards into two peaks at either side of a center part. Luckily ruff collars had gone out of fashion—they would have severely impeded that seventeenth-century flow.

                        The fashion for wearing wigs spread, and men of nearly every social class wore them, even though wigs could be very expensive. Poorer men wore wigs of goat’s hair or wool. If a man couldn’t afford a wig, he arranged his natural hair so that it looked like one.

            They also had to be powdered white for formal occasions. This meant sitting in your powder room draped in a cape, with a cone to your face, and getting billows of wheat starch pumped onto your oiled wig by your servant. If you had no powder room, your wig could be sent out to the wig-maker to be powdered—but you’d better have a back up.

                        Wig stealing became a common street crime. One tactic of a wig thief was to approach the wig-wearer from behind while carrying a basket on one shoulder. Inside the basket, a small child would be crouching. As the thief approached the victim, the child would snatch the wig from the wearer’s head and then crouch back down into the basket. Because the wigs itched, men who wore wigs often shaved their heads, and so were left embarrassingly bald when their wigs were snatched. (This may have been why so many people wore nightcaps to bed—to keep shaved heads warm.)

            Wigs went out of fashion for a while when plague struck London in 1665. Men took to wearing their natural hair, as people feared—often correctly—that the hair of the wigs had been snipped from the heads of dead plague victims. But the fashion for wigs returned after the plague had passed.

            By the beginning of the eighteenth century, wigs for men throughout much of Europe transformed from the “full-bottom” wig to a lighter, easier style. It’s the one we associate with the Founding Fathers—a sausage-roll of curls over each ear, and a short ponytail in the back. By the middle of the eighteenth century, even servants could afford wigs.

Why'd They Wear That?: Fashion as the Mirror of History
by Written by Sarah Albee with a forward by Tim Gunn.