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Powdered Wigs Have a Decidedly Unglamorous Origin Story

Photo Credit: bilbo / Sony Pictures, Columbia Pictures / MovieStillsDB / Cropped
Photo Credit: bilbo / Sony Pictures, Columbia Pictures / MovieStillsDB / Cropped

It seems that most good period dramas have a cast who wears powdered wigs, and there’s a reason for it. Historically, they really were quite popular. The Founding Fathers wore them, French royals wore them, and British officers wore them, but why? As it turns out, wigs became a staple of many wardrobes for a specific medical reason.

The powdered wig

What these period dramas don’t include is the far less elegant truth: by the 16th century, many countries were fighting off a syphilis epidemic. In fact, this was the worst epidemic since the Black Death. The disease ran rampant throughout cities, with no antibiotics or other treatments for the condition. All that could be managed were the symptoms, one of which was baldness. Wigs certainly existed before this, but this enormous problem called for a modern solution.

Group of women in regal gown and wearing powdered wigs stand around another woman who is seated.
Golda Rosheuvel as Queen Charlotte wearing a powdered wig in a publicity still from Bridgerton. (Photo Credit: Netflix / michaella92 / MovieStillsDB)

The answer was the powdered wig. Made from human, horse, or goat hair, they were then coated with a scented powder. Not only did this help cover up the baldness those with syphilis experienced, it also helped cover up the smell coming from open sores that often appeared on the head. Ironically, the powder also covered up the smell of the wigs, which after lengthy wear, was far from appealing.

They became popular

While there was now a solution, the powdered wig still wouldn’t become a fashion staple for high-class society for over a century. Around the same time, King of France Louis XIV and King of England Charles II started losing their hair and going gray. Historians believe that both men were experiencing the same symptoms of syphilis that so many of their subjects before them had.

Group of actors dressed as British Navy officers in powdered wigs and elaborate jackets.
Jonathan Pryce as Weatherby Swann and Jack Davenport as James Norrington, both wearing powdered wigs in a publicity still for Pirates of the Caribbean. (Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures / MovieStillsDB)

The kings lived in a society where it was highly shameful to be bald, so they jumped to action quickly to save their image, commissioning elaborate wigs to hide their shame. Now that the powdered wig was worn by royalty, it was soon copied by their courtiers and other nobles. Middle-class people then started copying this royal fad, and the powdered wig became an essential part of 18th-century fashion.

Simply practical

Even when both kings died, the powdered wig didn’t go anywhere. While it became a way for the rich to flaunt their wealth, it was also a practical accessory. Not only did it hide the evidence of syphilis, but it also prevented people from getting lice. In order for men to fit into a powdered wig, they had to shave their hair. No hair, no lice. Even if the bugs managed to latch onto someone’s wig, all they had to do was boil it.

Jason Schwartzman, in a powdered wig, and Kirsten Dunst, both seated in regal period costumes.
Jason Schwartzman as Louis XVI of France and Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette, both wearing powdered wigs in a publicity still for Marie Antoinette. (Photo Credit: michaella92/ Sony Pictures, Columbia Pictures/ MovieStillsDB)

As with all fashion, the powdered wig eventually fell out of favor. For the French, it was a symbol of the monarchy and people were quick to get rid of it during the Revolution at the end of the 18th century. The British, on the other hand, stopped wearing it around the same time the powder used on the wigs became heavily taxed.

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Although powdered wigs disappeared, a modern version of it is still worn in some places. During the 18th century, it became part of the “official” uniform of many professions. British lawyers, for example, still wear them.

Were you aware of the history behind these powdered wigs? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.