Of all the fashions of the 1700s, perhaps the wig most resembles “character of that period, embodying the artificiality, the mixture of dignity and affectation, and the pompous conventionality.” The wig did not suddenly appear over night but rather grew into popularity until at one point wigs were so fashionable, if you wore your own hair you tried to make it appear as if it were a wig. During Louis XIV’s reign big flowing wigs were popular, but towards the end of Louis XV’s reign in 1774, smaller wigs became fashionable, until even they disappeared.
Many of the wigs gentlemen wore were created from real human hair, and it was common for fashionable beaus to keep their wig looking perfect by carrying in their side pocket, “a tortoiseshell wig-comb…for constant use.” It also became common for people to sell their hair to earn extra money. In fact, at one point, real hair became worth so much, people who had long flowing locks were sometimes threatened or attacked for their hair.
In the 1700s, all sorts of wigs came in and out of fashion. Among the fashionable wigs of the times were three: the tie-wig, also known as the Ramillies (sometimes spelled Ramilies) wig, the bob-wig, and the bag-wig.
Tie-wigs, also sometimes known as the Ramillies wig, became popular during Queen Anne’s reign, but they were not a wig at first considered full dress. They acquired their name because the wig’s curls were tied up or the wig itself was tied to the head. Lord Bolingbroke, an English politician, government official, and leader of the Tories, was among the first to wear and popularize the wig in England. He created a great scandal, when after being hastily summoned to see the Queen, he appeared in his tie wig. “This wig had a plaited tail, tied at the top with a large ribbon bow, and at the bottom with a smaller one. The Queen remarked that she supposed next time Lord Bolingbroke would come in his night-cap.”
Besides the tie-wig, the bob-wig (minor and major) also became popular in the 1700s. It arrived on the scene during George II’s reign. What made this wig popular was it “was a direct imitation of the natural hair, and was used chiefly by the commonalty. The ‘prentice minor bob was close and short; the citizen’s bob major, or Sunday buckle, had several rows of curls.” The macaronis similarly introduced a toupee that was supposed to be natural. It had “a large queue, which required the hair to be very long to be fashionable. The wig, having been made to imitate natural hair, became in its turn the model, and the natural hair was [soon] arranged to imitate the wig.”
In France, bag wigs were called Peruqes à la Regencé. They came into fashion when the Duke of Orléans was serving as regent (1715-1723) to King Louis XV. In England, bag wigs came into vogue around 1730, and when they first appeared there, they were not as popular as other style of wigs. These wigs were claimed to have originated with French servants, “who tied up their hair in a black leather bag as a speedy way of dressing it, and keep it out of the way, flowing curls being thought out of place for a man waiting at table.” Bag wigs got their name because they were exactly that, a bagged wig. In England, the long hair at the back of the wig was placed in a black silk bag. Then the ribbons attached to the bag were pulled to the front and tied in a bow, known as a “solitaire.”
Those who wore wigs also powdered them. In fact, at universities, there were rooms set aside to accomplish this powdering. Powder was initially created from “flour, starch, alabaster, or plaster of Paris,” although eventually just starch was used. Powders came in a variety of colors too, with coal dust being used to create black hair powder. Hair powder was also perfumed, and among the popular scents were “musk, civet, ambergris, bergamot, rose, violet, almond, and orange-flower perfumes, and many more of differing qualities.” Additionally, perfumers quickly became experts in coloring the hair, and, for a time, it was quite fashionable to shade the hair to match the degree of mourning a person was undergoing.
Because everyone was wearing a wig, the cost for them was high. Costs “sometimes amount[ed] to thirty, forty, and fifty guineas…[but] wigs could be had at all prices, being worn by every class of the community.” In fact, wigs were so popular, even thieving of wigs became a profitable enterprise in England.
A wig thief, known as chiving lay, would position himself “behind hackney coaches, which were generally compelled to go at a slow pace owning to the narrowness of the streets and the absence of proper paving, and [the chiving lay] would cut out the back and snatch a gentleman’s wig from his head…ladies lost their head-dresses [similarly, and]…sometimes a gentleman would find himself suddenly denuded of his head covering in the street.” It seems, small boys were also trained to be wig thieves: They would hide in baskets and snatch wigs off people’s heads as they passed by.
Various wigs remained popular throughout the 1700s, and almost every profession had their own peculiar wig, with “the oddest appellations…given to them.” One author noted that “each calling seemed to settle at first into the periwig most expressive of its function.” This resulted in “the caricatures of the period represent[ed by] full-fledged lawyers with a towering frontlet and a long bag at the back tied in the middle; while students of the University…[sported] a wig flat on the top, to accommodate their stiff cornered hats, and a great bag like a lawyer’s at the back.”
Yet, for all the wig’s popularity, the French Revolution and England’s 1795 hair powder tax—an annual tax costing one guinea and imposed under William Pitt—put an end to wig wearing. French revolutionaries revolted against anything that reminded them of nobility or the monarchy, and, in England, when the tax was enacted, Whig leaders were said to have cut off their queues, thereby heralding in the wigless and natural hairstyles embraced during the French Directory and Regency era.
- Fenton, Richard, etal., Memoirs of an Old Wig, 1815
- Hill, Georgiana, A History of English Dress from the Saxon Period to the Present Day, Vol. 2, 1893
- Sydney, William Connor, England and the English in the Eighteenth Century, Vol. 1, 1892
- The Living Age, Vol. 109, 1871
- The Monthly Mirror, Volume 20, 1805