The use of hair pieces started in ancient Egypt. The earliest known use of a toupee was found in a tomb near the ancient Predynastic Capital of Egypt, Hierakonpolis. The tomb and its contents date to 3200-3100 B.C.E.
It has been stated in history books that the ancient Egyptians wore wigs to shield their hairless heads from the sun, and also to protect their hair from the bleaching effects of the sun. They used beeswax and resin to keep their wigs in place. Wigs were also used as an everyday fashion in other ancient cultures including the Asyrians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans. For the Romans, in particular, wigs were often made with hair from slaves.
The use of human hair in wigs dates back to 2700 B.C.E in the Egyptian wigs. These were rare, however, and substitutes using palm leaf fibers and wool were much more commonly used. Wigs in ancient Egypt were worn by both males and females. They were used to protect their heads from the sun, and from vermin. The styles of wigs, and materials they were made of, were used to denote rank, social status, and religious piety. Women’s wigs were adorned with braids and gold, hair rings and ivory ornaments to make them more stylish than men’s wigs. The Egyptians who had wigs that were more elaborate and involved had the highest social status.
After the Roman Empire fell, the use of wigs was diminished. When the Christian influences emerged during the mid-evil era, fashion became more plain. By the Middle Ages (1200-1400 C.E.), the difficult times said goodbye to the use of wigs. Women were required to have their heads covered, and beauty became irrelevant. The feminine hair style once again regained importance as women again started showing their heads at the start of the Renaissance period. (1400-1600) Instead of covering their heads, women took pride in their appearance, and adorned their hairstyles and coiffures (wig fixtures on the tops of their heads) with lustrous veils and sparking jewels. Once again, society saw the importance in women’s wigs and fashion. In the 16th Century, wigs were brought back into use, and were used to compensate for hair loss, or to improve personal appearance. The biggest reason, however, for bringing wigs back, was because people were very unhygienic, and they had a problem with head lice. They would shave their heads to keep lice away, and wear wigs which were much more easily de-loused.
Among the reasons of the common people, the revival of the wig was largely influenced by Royalty. Queen Elizabeth I of England wore a red wig, which was worn in a “Roman” Style of tight elaborate curls. King Louis XIII of France who reigned from 1601 – 1643, started wearing wigs in 1624 when he began to prematurely bald. Thus was the start of wearing wigs for hair loss. His son and successor, Louis XIV of France (1638-1715) largely promoted his fathers wig wearing, which contributed to its spread in European and European-influenced countries.
In 1660, periwigs for men were introduced into the English-speaking world. These wigs were shoulder length or longer, and imitated the long hair that had become fashionable among men since the 1620’s. The English court quickly picked up the use of periwigs and it became increasingly popular.
With the arrival of the 17th century, the wig once again became the height of fashion for both men and women. Many of whom would shave their head underneath for comfort and fit. Hair historian Richard Corson says that the ascendance of King Louis XIV to the French throne was a pivotal point in the full return of the wig. The king had thinning hair, and would supplement it with false pieces until eventually he agreed to have his head shaved and to wear a wig.
The eighteenth century brought wigs to a whole new level. Wigs were once again viewed as a symbol of class. Those who had high finances would purchase large wigs for formal occasions. The larger or more “full bottomed” the wig was, the more expensive. This was a mark of class and income. If someone could not afford a wig, they would make their own natural hair look as “wig-like” as possible.
The mid-eighteenth century brought the term “hair dressing” into terminology. White was the favored color for wigs at this point. Trades were constructed around the care and maintenance of wigs, called hair dressing. The trade was so named, because the hair was dressed instead of being cut. The wigs were greased and then powdered with flour, or a special mixture of starch and plaster. Women did not wear wigs, but wore coiffures which were piled high with artificial hair, powdered and placed with jewels. Women mainly powdered their hair grey or blue-ish grey. From the 1770’s onward, women’s hair was never found bright white like men. At this point, wig powder was made from finely ground starch that was scented with orange flower, lavender, or orris root. Wig powder was most often used as off-white, but it was occasionally colored violet, blue, pink or yellow.
Men’s powdered wigs, and women’s powdered coiffures eventually became essential for formal wear occasions. This continued until almost the end of the 18th century.
At the end of the 18th century, the development of the naturally white or off-white powder-less wig for men, which was made from horsehair, became the new fashion, as powdering wigs was messy and inconvenient.
By the 1780’s, young men started lightly powdering their natural hair just as women had been doing since the 1770’s. After 1790, both wigs and powder were used only for older and more conservative men, and ladies being presented in court. At this point, English women seldom powdered their hair anymore. In 1795, the fashion for wigs and powder disappeared when the British government levied a tax on hair powder.
By the start of the 19th century, the wearing of wigs as a symbol of social status was largely abandoned. In the United States, only the first five presidents, from George Washington to James Monroe wore powdered wigs. In the 19th century, women hardly wore wigs anymore. Full wigs were only worn by older women who had lost their hair.
Today, wigs, referred to in today’s society as hair pieces, are worn by many people on a daily basis in everyday life. They are mostly worn by individuals who are experiencing hair loss due male pattern baldness, or to medical reasons, Most commonly from cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, or those who are suffering from alopecia. When faced with the troubling idea of hair loss, many individuals will search to see what is the right answer for them. Hair pieces have been around for so long, and are used everyday, going unnoticed by millions of people.