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One of the greatest misconceptions in the depiction of historical dress — okay, specifically 18th-century dress — on-screen is the concept of white wigs. It seems to be a truism that EVERYONE (men and women) is shown wearing shiny white wigs since the earliest days of cinema. This is something I touched on in our very first Snark Week, and in SO MANY of my reviews of 18th-century-set movies and TV shows, but Trystan thought it needed a whole focused post, so here we are (Note: Trystan is our task master!).
Some of you may know that I wrote a book on 18th-century hairstyles and wigs. It’s currently out of print, but I REALLY WILL be bringing out a second edition sometime in the next few months. I’m drawing on the research I did for that book here when I summarize:
- Only men wore full, obvious wigs in the 18th century
Why did wigs come into fashion? Like any new style or trend, the origins are murky. One key element was King Louis XIV of France (reigned 1643-1715), who had long, curly hair. As a style setter, much of the French aristocracy followed his lead, and for those who didn’t already have long, thick hair, a wig was the solution. As Louis himself got older, his own hair thinned, and he began to wear wigs himself. Over time, the situation changed so that instead of wearing wigs as a means of making yourself appear to have the desired style, the wigs themselves became fashionable, and by the early 18th century, men began to wear wigs very obviously. These became associated with different ranks and professions, such that men’s hairstyles often became fossilized — while the fashion might be for a new style, a doctor might continue to wear a “physical wig” styled in the short bob style of the 1730s decades after that was in fashion as a sign of his trade.
- Women could wear wigs, but if they did, they tried to hide that fact
Beauty ideals for women did not adopt the obviously artificial look of men’s wigs. Women generally wore their own hair, styled over pads and frames when needed, with false hair additions. If a woman really had thin hair, she might wear a wig, but she would work her own hair into it so that it appeared natural.
- The desired color for most of the century was grey, not white
When wigs first came into fashion, they were a luxury item. White hair was hard to come by, and so in the early 18th century there was a trend for wigs made from white hair. Most people couldn’t afford these, and so a cheaper substitute was another color with powder added to lighten the color. Powder wasn’t only about color change; it was used to degrease the hair, just like dry shampoo does today. Given that people didn’t wash and reset their hair or wigs every day, powder was an important part of wig care.
However, for most shades of hair other than blonde, white powder applied over medium to dark hair creates shades of grey, not white. You would have to have really light colored hair to be able to achieve white solely with powder. What I’ve seen, in general, is:
- 17th century: natural hair colors
- Early to mid-18th century: powder used to create lighter grey colors
- Mid- to late-18th century: powder used to create darker colors
- After c. 1789: it’s not until after the French Revolution that powdered hair/wigs start to go out of fashion
Because I have been accused previously of talking out of my ass, here’s my key secondary references for this research:
- Kendra Van Cleave, 18th Century Hair & Wig Styling: History & Step-by-Step Techniques. Self-published, 2014.
- Janet Arnold, Perukes & Periwigs (London: H.M.S.O., 1970).
- Anne Buck, Dress in Eighteenth-Century England (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1979).
- Lynn Festa, “Personal Effects: Wigs and Possessive Individualism in the Long Eighteenth Century” Eighteenth-Century Life 29, no. 2 (Spring 2005).
- Michael Kwass, “Big Hair: A Wig History of Consumption in Eighteenth-Century France,” American Historical Review 111, no. 3 ( June 2006).
- Marcia R. Pointon, Hanging the Head: Portraiture and Social Formation in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993).
- John Styles, The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007).
Let’s take a look at how this played by looking at hair color and powdering trends from the late 17th century through the late 18th. Because there’s no way I can summarize everything, I’m going to focus on the two main style leaders of Western Europe — France and Great Britain — and primarily on their royal families, as these might be the most fashionable and definitely dressed the most formally.
Wig-wearing as a fashion trend appears to have begun in 17th-century France, but was it was a male style. Neither men or nor women tend to be depicted with any powder.
France and Great Britain sometimes did things differently, so let’s compare.
18th-Century Hair/Wigs on Screen
So, who’s gotten it right-ish? And who’s gotten it very, very wrong?
Decent to Good Representations of 18th-c. Hair/Wigs on Screen
Very, Very Bad Representations of 18th-c. Hair/Wigs on Screen
And now you know!