Why Did the Founding Fathers Wear Wigs?

wigs worn by the founding fathersWith 4th of July comes images of and movies about the Revolutionary War, showcasing the powdered hair and powdered wigs worn by the men of the time. Even the musical Hamilton featured the title character wearing a traditional 18th century male hairstyle, the queue, which is a French term for a ponytail (though without powdered hair) and a character in a powdered wig. The wig, however, was worn by King George III – who isn’t terribly popular in the musical or in that time period.

So, let’s look back at male hair trends at the time of the Revolutionary War.

What Is a Powdered Wig?

Powdered wigs began with men wanting to cover up hair loss… which wasn’t a new habit. Wigs of various types had been used by men for thousands of years. The need for it increased in late 16th century when a syphilis outbreak was so extensive that it led to an unprecedented amount of hair loss. Wigs were used to cover syphilis sores and hair loss.

However, wigs became fashionable when the stylish King Louis XIV of France began to lose his hair. The image-conscious monarch began wearing long, elaborately curled wigs to maintain his appearance, turning it into a fashion trend. Then King Louis royal cousin, King Charles II of England, did the same.

It is believed both men had syphilis, but regardless of the reason, the royals set the trend. The style lasted until the late 18th century because the wigs became a practical and fashionable way to deal with head lice – which was a common problem at the time.

Why Were Wigs Powdered?

The wigs were powdered because many wigs of the time were made from goat hair. The source material combined with infrequent washing and the head lice issue combined to make wigs smelly. Powdering them, especially with the scented hair powders, helped to counter the smell.

Even though historical movies usually show white powdered wigs, they were often powdered a variety of colors. Snowy white powdered wigs were uncommon. A grayish white or even bluish white was more common since powder was usually applied to a darker wig. For women’s powdered wigs, pastel shades (with or without scents) were also popular.

What Were Powdered Wigs Called?

Wigs got their name from the French term, periwig. The term was later shortened to just wig. But that’s not the only term, though. The powdered wigs of the 1700s were also referred to as perukes.

What Did Powdered Wigs Symbolize?

As with most fashion and style trends, powdered wigs conveyed wealth and status. It’s where the slang term “bigwig” comes from. While the paintings of the founding fathers depict relatively modest wigs, in Europe the nobility wore elaborate wigs, some with incredible decorations. One French noblewoman wore the model of a ship in her tall wig.

Even without such outlandish styles, powdered wigs or perukes were not cheap. An everyday wig for men was the equivalent of a week’s wages for a typical London resident. Wigs for special occasions or to show off cost substantially more with one source calculating an 800-shilling cost in 1700 for a British noble’s wig being the equivalent today of more than $10,000 when adjusted for inflation.

Why Did Men Stop Wearing Wigs?

As with most trends, powdered wigs fell out of fashion. While powdered hair and powdered wigs were shown in portraits of the first six presidents of the United States, during and after the Revolutionary War both habits became viewed as a British fashion, which made it increasingly unpopular to residents of the new country.

Similarly, the French Revolution spelled the end of the trend in France. Marie Antoinette, King Louis XVI, and the nobles of the French court were known for the money they spent on wigs and fashion while much of the nation was in severe poverty.

Wigs for men dealing with hair loss never completely disappeared, of course, but they became smaller and as natural looking as possible to conceal their use instead of the obvious powdered wig style.

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