NEW YORK - First cropping up in the mid-seventeenth century, the wig became the essential male accessory, sticking to the fashion scene like toupee glue for the next hundred years. Fashion shifts were slower back in the day, but if we look at a portrait of King Charles I next to one of his son, Charles II below, you can witness for yourself the dawn of the hair revolution. Charles Senior (painted below by Sir Anthony van Dyck) sports beach-ready, natural waves, while Charles Junior is wearing a spectacular curled periwig. We’ve switched from Wash-n-Go-King to Brian-May-Queen in just one, short generation.
William Hogarth, The Five Orders of Perriwigs, 1761, British Museum, London.
Charles Junior most likely encountered the wig vogue at court in France, where he lived in exile after his father lost his head and the hair attached to it in 1649. He didn’t adopt the wig on his own turf though until about 1664. People had been wearing wigs long beforehand (think of Queen Elizabeth I’s flame-red curly weaves) but it was Charles II who drove the fashion to ubiquity, regardless of Britain’s balding status.
(left) Sir Anthony van Dyck, Portrait of King Charles I, 1635/1636, Royal Collection, London. (right) Follower of Godfrey Kneller, Portrait of King Charles II, sold at Sotheby’s on 28 January 2011.
A gentleman’s choice of wig style was telling of his position in society. The Ramillies wig for example, which was curled at the sides with a long queue at the back, was favoured by military types. You can see a fine example of a Ramillies in Nicholas Largilliere’s portrait of André François Alloys de Theys d'Herculais from 1727. The short and voluminous bob wig, like those in the top row of William Hogarth’s satirical etching above, were preferred by professionals. The long, curled full bottomed wig was worn by doctors and lawyers and bestowed an air of authority, hence the term “bigwig.”
Nicolas de Largillierre, Portrait of André François Alloys de Theys d'Herculais, 1727, Metropolitan Museum, New York.
Why wear a wig at all? Well, in the mid-seventeenth century, hairstyles for men were growing ever bigger and more elaborate. The average aristocrat could sit with their hairdresser for a couple of hours each day, combing, curling and setting, before they were fit to be seen in public. On top of all that, it would take vast amounts of grease, pomade and powdered starch to keep the coiffured creation in place. A wig, on the other hand, wouldn’t be crushed and messed up as you slept at night; it was ready to be whipped on, bouffant intact, at a moment’s notice. It could be sent off to the local barber to be washed, de-loused, re-curled and set, all in your absence, avoiding inevitably awkward hairdresser conversations about whether you have been anywhere nice lately. There were all sorts of handy deals you could work out with your barber for returning custom. Better still, if you were a first timer shaving in favour of a wig, he might even offer you cash in hand for your leftover locks and weave them into a peruke for the next customer.
While you could get a budget rug made of horsehair, the best wigs were naturally made from human tresses. But with superior quality came the responsibility of appropriate sourcing. Sure, we’ve all seen Les Miz, but I’m not talking about the mere shearing of poverty stricken wenches. Oh no, worse than that, a slip up in wig selection could be a matter of life and (black) death. The famous politician and diarist, Samuel Pepys (1633 - 1703) long hesitated in acquiring a periwig because he feared people were harvesting hair from perished plague victims and selling it on to wigmakers for profit. Lucrative and resourceful, I’ll grant them, if somewhat lacking in moral integrity. Regardless, realising he looked pretty snappy in them, he put his qualms aside and eventually bought two wigs. But this is also a man who buried wine and parmesan cheese in his garden to save them from the flames in the Great Fire of London, so his priorities are not ones I would deign to question.
Jonquil O’Reilly is Associate Specialist of Old Master Paintings in New York.