Wigs and hair

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Get yer hair, er, grown


By Simon Frame


This was sparked by my reading about the purchase of wigs by Ralph and Tom Verney in a book about the papers of the Verneys of Claydon.

Wig is short for periwig, which derives from the French word perruque (anglicised to Peruke or Periwig), which itself comes from an old French word for a wig. I’d always assumed mens wigs appeared in use in Britain after the Restoration (boo!), use of wigs by Elizabeth I notwithstanding. I was therefore surprised to read in the Claydon book the following:

Sir Ralph Verney, whilst in exile in France from late 1645 onwards (when he was 32) is ordering wigs which match his own hair colour (he sends a pattern lock of hair); 'Let it be well curled in great rings and not frizzled, and see that he makes it handsomely and fashionably, and with two locks, and let them be tyed with black ribbon...'. This wig cost 12 livres. Hair powder appears to have been used, as Sir John Cooke sends him '...a small phiole of white Cyprus powder...' (dried oak moss or tree moss, fumigated with burning resin, also Arum root, which was used as a starch) '...which must be mixed with other powder, else it will bring the headache...'

In 1650, aged 35, Ralph’s broke brother Tom enlists in 'Collonell Ingolsby’s regiment, and to trayle a pike in his one company...' (he later refers to asking ‘his ensigne’ to match up a missing shoe so I presume he was an officer) which requires a great deal of equipment, including something not to be found in Dover, where he was presumably to be bound for Scotland, which is '...perewiggs.therefore I must crave to have that with me: and if you pleas to speak to Mr. Lloyd to goe to the three Perewiggs and 3 Crownes, in the strand by Suffolk hous... he being a Frenchman, and knoweth the bigness of my head and what borders I usually weare, he will by Tuesday morning next make mee one for ten shillings that shall doe me service...'.

In October, after much idling back in London and not actually going to Scotland, he asks his brother for more money for '...a border to keep mee warme which will cost mee tenn shillings... being a great foggy mist, I received some little prejudice by it in my head, my haire being very thin...'

Wigs weren’t confined to the Parliamentarians; the royalist Adjutant-General, Richard Atkyns, in his Vindication says that whilst in Oxford (it appears to be mid 1645), he was provoked by a ‘Knight’; '...and being very angry, I took his periwig off from his head and trampled it under my feet...' - this nearly led to a mounted duel.

What these exactly look like is unclear, but since the first quarter of the C17th, fashionable men's hair had been worn long – even on campaign according to Atkyns, who describes a Major Thomas Sheldon at Bath after the Lansdown battle (5th June 1643) as having '...as long a flaxen head of hair as ever I saw...' although older men and professionals wore theirs short. (Interestingly, the infamous ‘Van Dyke’ moustache usually associated with our period is almost absent from ECW era portraits on those aged under 30 or so).

A French fashion had one plaited strand of hair even longer and tied at the end with a small ribbon or bow, the lovelock or cadenet. The history of wigs in that driver of fashion, France, stretches back to the reign of Louis XIII (who went prematurely bald around 1624, aged c. 23). In 1620 the abbe La Riviere had appeared at Louis’ court in a wig made to simulate long fair hair, and four years later, Louis, losing his own hair, adopted a periwig and thus set the fashion.

The wearing of wigs did not become general until about 1660, but false additions to the hair may have been commonplace aids. A portrait of James as Duke of York, with Anne Hyde (1660) shows what looks like suspiciously long and luxuriant hair, although it is not styled or curled like later wigs. Pepys' diary states for 2nd November 1663; '...I heard the Duke say that he was going to wear a periwig, and says the King also will. I never till this day observed that the King is mighty gray...'. Pepys paid £3 but parted with his own hair which was going to make another wig for him, so it may have been part-exchanged.

Louis XIV appointed 48 royal wigmakers in 1655 and one year later there was a foundation of the first Parisian wig maker guild. The form of the wig was still quite natural around the middle of the 17th century, but soon curls were amassed both at the back and the front, until the exaggeratedly long and full curls covered the back often down to the waist, as well as both sides of the chest – the ‘full-bottomed’ wig.

Not all were happy. William Prynne, writing in The Unloveliness of Lovelockes (1628), which was given the strapline of 'A Summarie Discourse, prooving: The wearing, and nourishing of a Locke, or Love-Locke, to be altogether unseemly, and unlawfull unto Christians. In which there are likewise some passages collected out of Fathers, Councells, and sundry Authors, and Historians, against Face-painting; the wearing of Supposititous, Poudred, Frizled, or extraordinary long Haire; the inordinate affectation of corporall Beautie: and Womens Mannish, Unatural, Impudent, and unchristian cutting of their Haire; the Epidemicall Vanities, and Vices of our Age'. In this diatribe he added: '...Men who weare false Haire, or Periwigs doe commonly affirme and sweare them to be their owne, (perhaps, upon this occasion, that they have paid well for them) and would have all men deeme them for their naturall. And native Haire...'

In an often reprinted anthology entitled Wit's Recreations, a 1640 (one of the first) edition contains Our Monsieur Powder-wig:

Oh, doe but marke yon crisped sir, you meet! How like a pageant he doth walk the street! See how his perfumed head is powdered ore; 'Twou'd stink else, for it wanted salt before.

In 1654 another edition contained a little ditty entitled Wits Recreations for ingenious head-peeces.

In the series Musarum Deliciæ, (the Muses Recreation) by John Mennes or Mennis, 1655/6, we read: '...At the devill's shopps you buy A dresse of powdered hayre...'.


From the pen of R. Younge, in 1656, appeared The Impartial Monitor. The author rants about women’s foibles and ends with: '...It were a good deed to tell men also of mealing their heads and shoulders...'. This guy seems to have been a party-pooper. He also wrote a pamphlet (1658) addressed to 'His Highness the Lord Protector' which wanted ‘drunkards’ kept alone so they didn’t infect others, and also wrote about keeping his wife’s spending under control.

Rumour was that some wigs were made from the hair of the dead, which in plague years didn’t help business much. Shakespeare writes in Sonnet 68 (pub 1609):

Before the golden tresses of the dead, The right of sepulchres, were shorn away, To live a second life on second head; Ere beauty's dead fleece made another gay.

Wigs get a similarly themed blast in the Merchant of Venice. But then he was bald...

I’m not sure what the £3 Pepys paid in 1663 equates to during the ECW period, but a certain Marie-Therese Lebeau, the manager of a French wigmaker, writing in an interview in 2006, said it will take one woman more than a week to finish a single handmade wig made from human hair. These are professionals working ‘furiously’.

This doesn’t say much about how widespread wigs were, but they were well-known enough to attract the attention of the satirists. Quite possibly their foreign origin alone left them open to ridicule, but given that they originally imitated normal hairstyles, many may have gone unremarked.