Hairstory: A Brief History of Wigs

In pop culture, the word “wig” has become synonymous with musical icons like Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj, who frequently harness its power to don new, extravagant hairstyles. 

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It’s also become an unlikely compliment— comparable to the likes of “knocked my socks off” — that has recently taken social media by storm (Ex: “Beyonce dropped an album shading Jay-z? My wig is snatched!”, “OMG did you see the plot twist on Game of Thrones last night? Wig flew!”).

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But the wig’s social impact predates celebrity fashion — and, indeed, the internet — by centuries. Since its emergence in ancient Egypt, it has evolved from a necessary tool, to a symbol of status, and, finally, a source of both artistic expression and pop cultural fascination. 

BORN - Ancient Egypt (2700 b.c.e)

Ancient civilization was no (Egyptian) walk in the park. The hot, dry climate made it almost impossible for people to let their hair grow without getting overheated or attracting lice. So men and women kept their heads shaved, and donned wigs to protect their scalps from the sun. 

But they weren’t just practical accessories. Wigs also became a way denote social status, wealth, and even religious piety. The most expensive models were made with human hair, beeswax, and animal hair, and decorated with gold pleats, beads, and ribbon. Men and women alike were buried with their wigs, in hopes of appearing wealthy and beautiful in the afterlife.

In short, people were wigging out all over Egypt.

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By Anonymous - Guillaume Blanchard, Juillet 2004, Fujifilm S6900., CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

EUROPE GETS WIGGY WITH IT - 16th-18th Centuries

Despite the Egyptians’ ornate hair creations, wig fashion had become more or less obsolete in Europe until the middle of the 16th century, when the syphilis epidemic terrorized the continent and, in many cases, stripped the hair of those infected. In the face of widespread baldness, Europeans finally embraced the wig.

Necessity kept false hair relevant through the 17th century, providing King Louis XIV with a way to hide his thinning follicles (while preserving his public image, of course). Frenchmen of all classes were keen to replicate Louis’s new ‘do, and voila—Europe’s newest superfluous fashion trend was born. 

In the years that followed, men of high status sported long, fluffed curls, while women experimented with elaborate hairpieces. 

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Meanwhile, in England, hair became the favored way for upper class Brits to showcase their wealth and power. Following the reign of King Charles II (1630-1685) — who went nowhere without his fabulously long hairpiece — wigs became a staple of English polite society, and a part of mandatory dress codes for court officials and other high ranking professionals. 

The 18th century marks the peak of wig history. Once it was embraced by the rich and famous, the wig became a must-have accessory for European and Colonial American men looking to show off their status. Different sizes, shapes, and styles emerged (like the classic powdered wig or peruke) to meet growing demands. Those in the lower class made do with cheap hairpieces, or by fixing their own hair to look more wig-like.  

HAIR TODAY, GONE TOMORROW

Of course, the fad wouldn’t last. In the wake of the French Revolution, ornate hair became associated with the newly despised aristocracy, and the masses embraced more natural-looking locks. By time the 19th century rolled around, the wig’s function as a status symbol had been almost completely abandoned. 

...At least, temporarily.

INTRODUCING WEAVES, THE WIG’S DISTANT COUSIN

In 15th century Africa, wigs weren’t used much. But hairstyles were still an indication of marital status, age, religion, and rank. 

When slavery began in the United States in 1619, those sold were stripped of their identities, and forced to take on whatever appearance their captors deemed fit. For some, that meant wearing wigs resembling those donned by their owners, and, for others, it meant cutting their hair off completely. 

Even when slavery was abolished in 1865, African Americans remained under pressure to fit in with white society. “Neat” (read: straightened) hair became a requirement for most schools, churches, and social groups. Many African Americans adjusted their hairstyles accordingly, using hot combs, oils, and hairsprays. 

In 1951, African American hairdresser and wig manufacturer Christina Jenkins invented the "hairweeve," by sewing synthetic hair into her clients’ own follicles. The weave, as it’s now known, became a revolutionary tool for African American women. Sewing in hair, rather than simply letting it sit on one’s head, allowed the weave to stay in place for extended amounts of time. And the endless variations in color, style, and length gave wearers unlimited creative freedom.

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The rise of the weave soon led to hair extensions, clip-on hairpieces, and other accessories that are now used by people of all ages, races, and genders. The weave also figures heavily into drag culture, where it allows drag artists to transform themselves with particularly elaborate hairstyles (more on that later).

SNATCHED - Wigs in the 21st century

Today, the wig has taken on a more artistic and theatrical function, adding pizzazz to Halloween costumes, fan conventions, and stage productions. Actors, musicians, and celebrities—from Cher to Lady Gaga to The Kardashians—wear wigs as fashion statements, to signify new personas, or simply to show how magnificent they are (much like the aristocrats of the 18th century). 

The historical significance of wigs isn’t lost in pop culture, either. Savvy viewers can identify the approximate time a movie or TV show takes place just by looking at the type of wig being worn (think of “period pieces” such as Hairspray, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Game of Thrones, to name a few). 

More recently, some folks have taken the once horrifying idea of a wig being snatched off and turned it into a high compliment. Originating from fans of TV shows like RuPaul's Drag Race, where wigs and weaves take center stage, variations on the phrase “wig snatching” are now used as expressions of awe. Many social media users, especially on Twitter, have embraced the term.

So, no matter its function—practical, artistic, or just for show—the wig continues to play a pivotal role in our lives. The real question is: what’s the next step for this highly adaptable accessory? Matching colored hairpieces worn by servers at chain restaurants? Hologram wigs, that can be switched on and off with the click of a button? A subscription wig-by-mail service, a la Netflix? We can’t wait to find out.