Why Seventeenth-Century French Noblemen All Looked Like Grandmas
Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!, Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
Anyone looking through the history of portraiture is in for a shock when they get to the sixteenth century. Suddenly, the relatively normal-looking people are replaced with horrifically hirsute mushroom-headed individuals, dressed in reams of lace and velvet, covered in moles and sneering down at the peasantry presumably clamoring to look at these gigantic oil-on-canvases (oils-on-canvases? oils-ons-canvases?). Even some of the American Founding Fathers sported the ridiculous mushroom hair—though the style was on the way out by the time the United States was founded—meaning this bizarre fad lasted nearly two hundred years.
There are certainly some who shrug off this bizarre change in style as just one of those weird things people used to do, but the whole thing is bizarre when you think about it. Giant, poofy white hair—something those of us alive today all associate with grandmas—somehow, for nearly a dozen generations, became a symbol of male power and virility. How did this happen? Why did this happen? How did anyone survive such dark times?
Well. Let me tell you.
The story of the Giant White Wig—technically called a “peruke,” which I assume is a portmanteau of “error” and “puke”—begins the same way all world-changing stories begin: with rape and venereal disease. When Columbus—yeah, that guy—came back from the New World, he brought back all sorts of amazing things, including gold, newly discovered plants and animals, and pants full of pestilence—the latter of which will surprise no one who has read his crewmens’ atrocious gleeful accounts of raping native women.
Syphilis was first identified in Europe shortly after Columbus’s second voyage to the New World, strongly implying he or someone with him had picked it up there—which seems sort of fair, since Columbus’s arrival (and the greater Age of Exploration it helped launch) ravaged the New World with a horrific wave of plagues that are estimated to have killed ninety percent or more of the indigenous population. Syphilis wasn’t quite that, but it was at least a bit of a kick in the groin (so to speak) to the plague bringers.Wig-wearing spread far and wide, presumably, because it had the two main characteristics that every widespread fad does: (1) It was a good way to advertise that you had sex, and (2) it was a good way to advertise that you had money.
In case you slept through health class or (more likely, given our readership) were homeschooled and never learned anything about STIs, the symptoms of syphilis are (potentially) horrific. Early on, it manifests as a simple, painless sore; following this, it can turn into a rash or a fever, sometimes accompanied by hair loss. If it goes untreated (which, in an era when both the disease and antibiotics were unknown, it literally always did), it can eventually develop into “tertiary syphilis,” in which your entire body and mind pretty much just fall apart entirely. So, y’know, don’t sleep around, kids.
It’s that second stage that’s relevant to the sudden prevalence of wigs in Europe, though. By 1580, the hospitals in London were overflowing with people suffering from late-stage syphilis, but their problems barely even ranked compared to the syphilis sufferers who were going bald. At the time, baldness was seen as a mark of great shame, and not just a mark of being a basketball pro or a hack-comedian-turned-game-show-host. Obviously, when you’re going bald, there are only two potential solutions: (1) get some bears to murder a bunch of kids, or (2) wear a wig.
So, then, wigs were adopted by the licentious class, often dusted with spiced or citrusy powders to mask the odor of their open sores. Still, while they were necessities (“necessities”), it wasn’t like people were lining up to advertise the fact that they carried venereal disease under their poofy head rugs.
That all changed, of course, when the king of France started to go bald.
Louis XIV was only four when he ascended to the French throne, but by the time he was seventeen he had apparently discovered it was good to be the king and begun to lose his hair due to a syphilitic infection. There was, of course, only one thing to be done: he needed a powdered wig, and he needed one now.
At this point, the French government had been experimenting for a couple of decades with mercantilism—an economic system designed to minimize imports and maximize exports—and had poured enormous effort into persuading Europeans that everything the French king did was just the height of fashion. And when everyone is convinced that aping French royalty is the thing to do, and the French king is wearing wigs—well, you can see where this is going. All of the noblemen and courtiers began wearing wigs, and the style trickled down from there to the wealthy and the middle class. Soon, everyone was shaving their heads and upholstering them.
Wig-wearing spread far and wide, presumably, because it had the two main characteristics that every widespread fad does: (1) It was a good way to advertise that you had sex, and (2) it was a good way to advertise that you had money. A halfway decent wig would sell for as much as a week’s pay, but a really big, elaborate one would cost nearly a year’s wages for a commoner. This came particularly in handy when the wig trend took the exact same trajectory all of these trends take: the upper-middle-class started doing it in the biggest, most elaborate ways they could imagine, in order to make themselves look richer and more important. Before long, wigs got so elaborate that they reached both the ceiling and the floor—often simultaneously. And anyway, now you know where the expression “bigwig” comes from.
And then the French Revolution happened.
You can probably see where this is going—basically everything about the French Revolution was openly hostile to displays of wealth (it being an uprising of the poor against the monied classes and all that), and it quickly developed a habit of head-chopping. The upshot was that if you wanted to keep your head attached to your body, you removed the wig from it posthaste. America retired wigs around the same time, for similar (though admittedly less head-choppy) reasons, and wigs eventually disappeared from England shortly thereafter, when Prime Minister William Pitt introduced a tax on hair powder, proving once again that rich people will do anything at all in the name of flaunting their wealth, except for paying taxes.
And that’s how—for the umpteenth time—the fashion world was turned upside-down so that rich people could flaunt their financial and sexual excesses. And we wonder what all those Old Testament prophets were so upset about.