The ancient Egyptians wore wigs to shield their shaved, hairless heads from the sun. They also wore the wigs on top of their hair using beeswax and resin to keep the wigs in place. Other ancient cultures, including the Assyrians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, also used wigs as an everyday fashion.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the use of wigs fell into disuse in the West for a thousand years until they were revived in the 16th century as a means of compensating for hair loss or improving one’s personal appearance. They also served a practical purpose: the unhygienic conditions of the time meant that hair attracted head lice, a problem that could be much reduced if natural hair were shaved and replaced with a more easily de-loused artificial hairpiece. Fur hoods were also used in a similar preventative fashion.
Royal patronage was crucial to the revival of the wig. Queen Elizabeth I of England famously wore a red wig, tightly and elaborately curled in a “Roman” style, while among men King Louis XIII of France (1601–1643) started to pioneer wig-wearing in 1624 when he had prematurely begun to bald. This fashion was largely promoted by his son and successor Louis XIV of France (1638–1715) that contributed to its spread in European and European-influenced countries.
Perukes or periwigs for men were introduced into the English-speaking world with other French styles when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, following a lengthy exile in France. These wigs were shoulder-length or longer, imitating the long hair that had become fashionable among men since the 1620s. Their use soon became popular in the English court. The London diarist Samuel Pepys recorded the day in 1665 that a barber had shaved his head and that he tried on his new periwig for the first time, but in a year of plague he was uneasy about wearing it:
“3rd September 1665: Up, and put on my coloured silk suit, very fine, and my new periwig, bought a good while since, but darst not wear it because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it. And it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwigs, for nobody will dare to buy any haire for fear of the infection? That it had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague.”
Wigs were not without other drawbacks, as Pepys noted on March 27, 1663:
“I did go to the Swan; and there sent for Jervas my old periwig-maker and he did bring me a periwig; but it was full of nits, so as I was troubled to see it (it being his old fault) and did send him to make it clean.”
With wigs virtually obligatory garb for men with social rank, wigmakers gained considerable prestige. A wigmakers’ guild was established in France in 1665, a development soon copied elsewhere in Europe. Their job was a skilled one as 17th century wigs were extraordinarily elaborate, covering the back and shoulders and flowing down the chest; not surprisingly, they were also extremely heavy and often uncomfortable to wear. Such wigs were expensive to produce. The best examples were made from natural human hair. The hair of horses and goats was often used as a cheaper alternative.