How Were Colonial Wigs Made?

by James Holloway

By the middle of the 18th century, short wigs, such as the one shown here worn by Alexandre de Beauharnais, were common.

Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images

In the 18th century, wigs were a vital part of upper-class men's fashion and were seen as a mark of social standing. According to tradition, the fashion of men wearing wigs originated with Louis XIII, King of France, who wanted to disguise the fact that he had gone prematurely bald. Seventeenth century wigs were large and heavy, but by the middle of the 18th century a smaller wig was the norm.

Materials

In the Colonial period, wigs were made from a range of different materials, from horsehair to goat hair. Light-colored horsehair was prized for its natural color, since light white or off-white wigs were fashionable. The most expensive wigs were made with human hair, which young women sold to barbers once it was long enough to cut short. Cotton or silk served as the inner layer that held the strands together.

Making the Wig

Making a wig was a time-consuming process. Teams of wigmakers worked for days to complete their products. First, the wigmaker spread out a network of ribbons and netting called a caul and formed the inner part of the wig. The caul was secured to a wooden dummy head called a blockhead in order to give it the correct shape. The wigmaker then wove strands of hair together before stitching them in rows to the caul.

Finishing

Once all the hair was attached to the caul, the wigmaker painstakingly curled the rows of hair by wrapping them around curling rods. The hairs were then clipped to the correct length with scissors. Finally, a coat of powder was applied to give the wig its white color, which the wearer would periodically reapply. In addition to white and off-white, powders in other colors such as blue and lilac were also sometimes used.

Use

After the wig was complete and delivered to the customer, the wigmaker's involvement did not end. A wig could last for several years, but it required periodic maintenance. Long-term wear could loosen hair or weaken the wig's curl. Hairdressers, some of whom were also wigmakers, would clean, recurl and trim wigs for their clients, keeping them neat for continued use. The continuing expense for wigs was another reason they were worn mainly by the wealthy or on formal occasions.

Photo Credits

  • Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images

About the Author

Dr James Holloway has been writing about games, geek culture and whisky since 1995. A former editor of "Archaeological Review from Cambridge," he has also written for Fortean Times, Fantasy Flight Games and The Unspeakable Oath. A graduate of Cambridge University, Holloway runs the blog Gonzo History Gaming.