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HAHN: The origins of that thing called a wig

June 13, 2011

Did you ever have a wig? If you lived through the ‘70s, and are female, you probably did. My oldest daughter called me the other evening and the subject of wigs came up. “Where did we get those things?” she asked.
Wigs were a very popular fashion accessory then; you could buy them just about everywhere but the post office for a few dollars. Every beauty shop in existence had them for sale, as did Pfieffer’s and Gus Blass (remember them?), J. C. Penney’s, and Woolworth’s.
We got ours at the bank. Yes, you read it right ­— Benton State Bank. The bank gave one free to every customer who bought a CD; those who just deposited money in a savings account paid a bit for them. The bank even had a wig boutique inside where customers could see all the wigs that were available. “Most successful promotion we ever had,” observed Larry Whitley, retired president of the bank.
Most the faculty of the high school had at least one wig. Some of the more fashion-conscious teachers had several. I was thrilled with mine. It was one of the “frosted” ones. That was a stylish term that meant “greyed.” It was one of the short models.
We all remarked about how “real” they looked and how they saved us so much time. (Never mind that we would have to send them to the beauty shop for “styling” frequently.)
It was not important for wigs to look like your real hair; you could have any color you wanted. Those of you who know Brenda Johnson will have trouble imagining her with blonde curls and a headband.
I soon tired of my wig — it was hot, my head itched and my real hair would sneak out from under the lining.
I got to thinking about wigs and their colorful history after we hung up. It was the ancient Egyptians who probably invented the things. They needed to shield their hairless heads from the hot desert sun.
Europeans began wearing them during the 16th and 17th centuries to improve their appearance, but more importantly, to protect their heads from lice. It was easier to keep one’s head clean if he kept it shaved and covered. Both men and women wore them. (Men’s wigs were called perukes or periwigs.)
During the plague, Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist, mentioned the fear people had that it was dangerous to buy wigs as they might have belonged to someone who died from the disease. He also described a particular wigmaker whose wigs were infested with nits.
During this time, wigs were made from a variety of hair. The most prized, of course, were made from human hair, but the hair of horses and goats was used for cheaper wigs.
The 18th Century was the time of those intricate white wigs we see in the portraits of the fashionable aristocracy. Men’s wigs were more intricate than women’s. (Women were more likely just to powder their hair with white or light blue powder, which was also scented with orange flowers, lavender or orris root.)
In 1785 the crown levied a tax on hair powder. This effectively put a damper on wig-wearing and the practice fell out of favor. Barristers and other members of the legal profession continued to wear them for ceremonial occasions, and the practice continued as America was settled.
In the 19th and 20th centuries women were reluctant to wear a full wig; only bald women wore them. They did wear small, curly hairpieces and buns called postiches. For many years military men wore wigs on certain occasions. Today wigs are still big in the entertainment business.
Some wig-wearers today might surprise you. They include Miley Cyrus, Elton John, tennis great Andre Agassi, Soledad O’Brien, the CNN reporter, and Borislav Mikhailov, the hockey star.

Alma Joyce Hahn taught in the Benton schools for more than 30 years. Her column appears each Monday.

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