If you ever look closely at paintings featuring our founding fathers, you’ll notice the fashion at the time included some unique items — white woolen or silk stockings to their knees, a long frock coat, and a wig.

These might seem strange choices today, but wigs were quite the fashion statement back then. They were also a sign that you were part of an elite group of them that could afford them.

We Owe Historical Fashion Wigs to a King

Wigs go back to ancient times (the Greeks and Romans sometimes wore them), but their popularity ebbed and flowed throughout the centuries. By the mid-1600s, they were much in vogue again, however — and it was in great part thanks to Louis XIV.

Known as “the dancing Sun King,” Louis XIV was considered a fashion setter. During his youth, he wore his own hair long, but as his hair began to thin, he turned to wigs — he even had his very own royal wigmakers and personal barbers to create the perfect, well-fitting hairpieces.

The wedding of Louis of France, Duke of Burgundy, to Marie-Adélaide of Savoy in 1697.

The wedding of Louis of France in 1697. The wedding of Louis of France, Duke of Burgundy, to Marie-Adélaide of Savoy in 1697. Credit: Antoine Dieu Via Wikimedia Commons.

Soon, wigs became the norm all across royal courts in Europe and eventually moved to America as colonies were established on the East Coast. By the 1700s, wigs were considered “a symbol of wealth, status, authority, even occupation.” The wealthier somebody was, the better the quality of their wig. The truly rich had wigs made with human hair, while those on a tighter budget would have something with horse hair or, even cheaper, goat or yak hair.

There Was Another Reason Wigs Were Popular

And it was a much less fashionable one.

The 1600s brought a major rise in cases of syphilis in Europe — and some of the most obvious signs of the disease were skin sores, rashes, and patchy hair loss. Bald patches were considered “undignified” and wigs soon became a very practical way of hiding those issues. England’s King Charles II, who was a cousin of Louis XIV, was showing common symptoms of syphilis when he started to wear a wig.

Almost by accident, wigs also solved another common 17th-century problem: lice. Head lice were everywhere in the middle ages and not only did they cause a lot of discomfort but also transmitted a number of diseases (including typhus). But in order for the wig to fit properly, people needed to have their heads shaved off, eliminating the lice problem in the process.

What’s With the “Powdered” Part, Though?

Well, this is where things get a bit icky.

King Louis XIV had his own “wig room” at the palace, so he had many wigs available. This gave him a chance to let some “air out” from time to time. Or he could have his personal wigmaker clean them while he wore another one. But most people didn’t have that option, which meant they wore the same one over and over and things often got smelly.

Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Caroline A. L. Pratt Fund, 1974

This was the result of many things — including hygiene not being top-notch at the time and the animal fats used to set the wings going rancid over time. Wigs couldn’t be washed either, so the result just wasn’t pretty.

To fight the smell, wigmakers came up with a plan, flour mixed with chalk and kaolin (a type of soft clay) and perfumed with lavender and other essences like cinnamon and amber. As a bonus, the powder would make white wigs (the most expensive kind) even whiter, so they looked brighter and renewed after every “powdering.”

By Diana Bocco, contributor for Ripleys.com


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