from Diderot’s Encyclopedie
Ah! The glorious periwigg! Also known as a peruke (from the old French perruque) and now simply a wig.
It was in King Charles II‘s reign when a man began to feel naked if he sauntered out without a periwigg on his bonce. In 1663 the diarist Samuel Pepys records a few tentative visits to periwigg makers, and, after much soul-searching, finally submits to the fashion:
Tuesday 3 November 1663
By and by comes Chapman, the periwigg-maker, and upon my liking it, without more ado I went up, and there he cut off my haire, which went a little to my heart at present to part with it; but, it being over, and my periwigg on, I paid him 3l. for it; and away went he with my owne haire to make up another of, and I by and by, after I had caused all my mayds to look upon it; and they conclude it do become me… I went abroad to the Coffeehouse… Sir W. Pen observed mightily, and discoursed much upon my cutting off my haire, as he do of every thing that concerns me, but it is over, and so I perceive after a day or two it will be no great matter.
Pepys in his periwigg, image by Wikipedia Commons
The most expensive wigs were indeed made out of real human hair, but other fibres such as wool were also used. Pepys’ wore periwiggs of human hair, but two years later a certain squeamishness creeps into his diary:
Sunday 3 September 1665
(Lord’s day). Up; and put on my coloured silk suit very fine, and my new periwigg, bought a good while since, but durst not wear, because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it; and it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done, as to periwiggs, for nobody will dare to buy any haire, for fear of the infection, that it had been cut off of the heads of people dead of the plague…
A century later, in 1761 William Hogarth’s engraving The Five Orders of Periwigs was published, and contains several levels of satire:
Most clearly it lampoons the fashion for outlandish wigs. As a parallel to the five orders of classical architecture identified by Palladio (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Composite and Tuscan), the engraving postulates five “orders” of periwig, from the relatively simple “Episcopal” (for the clergy) to the more ornate “Composite or Half Natural”, and finally the effete “Queerinthian or Queue de Reynard”. Hogarth created the engraving a few weeks after the coronation of King George III and Queen Charlotte, inspired by the elaborate costume work by those who attended. Horace Walpole wrote: “Some of the peeresses were dressed over night, slept in armchairs, and were waked if they tumbled their heads”.
Beau Brummel, noted Georgian style guru, shunned periwiggs, and his fashion influence and the fact that the English government put a tax of one guinea per year on hair powder in 1795 caused both expensive wigs and powder to go out of style by 1800. (It may be that wigs also denoted a class and profession hierarchy that was beginning post French Revolution in Europe to be outdated and even a little dangerous…)
(Should the fashion for periwiggs return, or should you ever become a barrister, the site Ehow (which claims to tell you how to do just about anything) has a page on how to groom your periwig. Wisdom indeed.)