“Customs are sometimes absurd is less important than that the individual follows” -Lynne Festa.
Wig wearing, a necessary custom in the eighteenth-century, was widespread throughout the revolutionary Atlantic. According to Michael Kwass, author of the article, “Big Hair: A Wig History of Consumption in Eighteenth-Century France” wigs had a long history, “its origins stretching back to the seventeenth-century French courts of Louis XIII and Louis XIV, where fashion had become part of an aristocratic world of power and display” (634). Wigs have been around for a long time, but unlike the seventeenth-century, during the eighteenth they were no longer the exclusive domain of the wealthy. With the consumer revolution, which was a boom in consumption starting in England in the eighteenth-century, more and more middle class types were able to buy items once thought of as luxuries now as necessities. As each class tried to emulate the dress and manners of that above it, a concept known as emulation theory, wigs trickled down through the royal courts, gracing the heads of nearly all men.
Wig fashion, rarely reasonable but purposeful, was used in its simplest, form to cover up heads of thin or no hair. More important, however, was the wig’s symbolic meaning, yet the danger of the wig was that while it conveyed meaning it also undermined it. Wigs exemplified the types of anxieties becoming increasingly common in the eighteenth-century. No single item better demonstrates the increasing anxieties about gender, class and virtue at this time then the wig. This image of a woman having her wig powdered explores the importance of wigs in the eighteenth-century and the often multi-dimensional aspects ascribed to them by the people who wore them.
“The English Lady in Paris” created in England in 1754 as a satire on the preposterousness of wig wearing, portrays an elderly woman having her wig powdered. Her posture and face depict surprise as the powder flies from its sprayer onto her wig and face. Her hands are up in an astonished and defensive manner, which is contrasted by the assertive posture and positioning of the man powdering her wig. Shabbily clothed in patchy fabric filled with holes; the man leans forward spraying powder onto her wig. In the background, a ridiculous portrait of wig powdering monkeys is hung.
Often worn by men, wigs were masculine, authoritative and regular. However, their composition of the hair of poor females undermined this austere purpose, enabling wigs to be seen as both feminine and masculine. A female depicted wearing a wig, as in our image, is unique. Often women wore high rolls, the appropriate female version of the wig. According to Kate Haulman author of “Fashion and the Culture Wars of Revolutionary Philadelphia” who writes more extensively on women’s hair, says, “high rolls made her head ‘itch & ach & burn like anything,’ probably because such rolls often weighed more than a pound” (639). Heavy, hot, smelly and inconvenient high rolls were meant to convey femininity and high class. No wilting flower, our lady forgoes the high roll and commandeers the masculine attributes associated with the wig for herself.
Our image includes another wig wearer; our shabby hairstylist represents the inferior sorts of people who now wear wigs. Originally the domain of the wealthy, wigs were meant to signify high class, station and prestige. With more people being able to afford wigs, the high-class lifestyle it was meant to represent was increasingly compromised.
Personal characteristics could also be displayed through wigs. The danger, however, was that not all persons who purchased a wig necessarily embraced the virtues they represented. Wigs increased anxieties between what one was and what one appeared to be, because though not all could possess the qualifications of rank or title, anyone who could afford a wig could display those qualifications as their own. The ridiculousness of monkeys in the picture using a wig mirrors the beliefs of people who bought wigs hoping to express qualities and virtues they did not possess.
While society had ascribed meanings of masculinity, class and personality to the wig, its composition, availability and removability garbled this message. The end of the wig, however, would not be brought on by its difficulties; rather it would come in the form of a tax on hair powder.
A guinea on every powdered head proved too high a cost to sustain its use. In the article “Cursory Remarks on Mr. Pitt’s New Tax of Imposing a Guinea Per Head on Every Person Who Wears Hair-Powder” Henry Mackenzie, writing under the pseudonym Brutus, warns, “farewell to those neatly powdered heads, which we have so often seen, and so often admired … Soon then shall we be disgusted with the sight of greasy locks, and heads of every hue shade, and colour… that may possibly be denied even the polish of a comb!” (14). Mackenzie envisions England’s future without powder or wigs, rendering society dirty within and without itself. The absence of visual markers of standards and values leaves no assurance of the obligation to even comb one’s hair.
Brutus. “Cursory Remarks on Mr. Pitt’s New Tax of Imposing a Guinea per Head on Every Person Who wWears Hair-Powder” (1795): 4-19. Print.
Debucourt, Philibert Louis. “The Toilet of the Attorney’s Clerk”. 1755-1832. Engraving. The Bridgeman Art Library, New York.
“The English Lady in Paris”. January 2, 1754. Hulton Archive. Ghettyimages.com. Web. March 2, 2014.
Festa, Lynn. “Personal Effects: Wigs and Possessive Individualism in the Long Eighteenth Century” Duke University Press (November 2005): 47-83. Print.
Haulman, Kate. “Fashion and the Culture Wars of Revolutionary Philadelphia,” The William and Mary Quarterly 62.4 (October 2005): 625-62. Print.
Koscak, Stephanie. “Lecture: Enlightened Dress,” 2-15-14.
Kwass, Michael. “Big Hair: A Wig History of Consumption in Eighteenth Century France” American Historical Review (2006): 631-59. Print.
“The Preposterous Head Dress, or The Featherd Lady”. March 20, 1776. Etching and engraving. The Lewis Walpole Library, Connecticut.