Categories
Episodes

Wigs

Today we’re learning about hair that’s larger than life! In the past, rich and powerful folks have used their hair to show off how great they were–but all that hair power comes with a price. We talk to Emma Markiewicz about hair and big wigs on today’s episode.

Before you listen to the episode, scroll down to see some truly amazing wigs.

Guest bio: Emma Markiewicz

Emma originally trained as an archaeologist, and worked on excavations all over the world helping improve our knowledge of the past through investigating the sites and artefacts left behind by ancient civilisations. Through this work she became very interested in the material culture of past societies, and especially in thinking about how parts of the body can be turned into objects. She started researching for her PhD on Hair, Wigs and Wig Wearing in Eighteenth-Century England, which took her to archives all over England. She currently works at The National Archives (UK) in Kew, London, where she is responsible for delivering funded programmes, training and guidance to archives organisations of all shapes and sizes. Emma loves working with organisations which look after records and make them accessible to everyone, and remains fascinated by hair and what it can tell us about ideas of beauty and how people managed their health and appearance. 

Transcript

MAGGIE:
You know how every time I take a shower, my hair gets all tangley. And then you make me brush it and it hurts and it takes forever to get the tangles out.

ABBY:
Yes, I do. My mother made me do exactly the same thing. Both you and I have hair that tends to get really tangley really easily.

MAGGIE:
Wouldn’t be nice if you could just keep your hair from getting tangley or once you’ve made it look nice, it just stayed that way?

ABBY:
Well, the only way I can think of is if you didn’t use your own hair. You could wear a wig.

MAGGIE:
I don’t really think that’s something I’d like.

ABBY:
Yeah, me neither, though I do know some folks who can seriously rock a wig. But did you know that in the past, people who were wealthy or powerful sometimes wore wigs that were way bigger than their real hair? And they did it as a way to show everyone that they were wealthy and powerful.

MAGGIE:
That’s kind of weird. So I think we should talk more about this on today’s episode of

MAGGIE AND ABBY: Big if True.

MAGGIE:
Where I, Maggie,

ABBY:
and I, Abby,

MAGGIE:
explore the truth about big things. Today we’re going to learn about a lot of very strange ways to do your hair. So here’s our quiz question to test your knowledge

ABBY:
In the 16 and 1700s, which of these techniques was not used in the process of making a wig?

MAGGIE:
A. combing, B. sewing, C. baking or D. they’re all used.

ABBY:
We’ll tell you the answer near the end of the show.

MAGGIE::
Our guest today knows a lot about wigs and why people wore them. She especially studies men’s wigs. Before we start though, you should take a look at our show notes to see the pictures of the kinds of wigs we’re talking about. If you’ve never seen them before, they’re kind of hard to imagine. You can find them at bigiftrue.abbymullen.org/wigs.

MARKIEWICZ:
My name is Emma Markiewicz. And I work at the National Archives in England. I also did a PhD in history which focused on hair and wigs and wig wearing in 18th century England.

MAGGIE:
What are wigs?

MARKIEWICZ:
What are wigs, I think that wigs are really a means of replacing a whole head of hair with some false hair. So that you can try and change the shape and the style and the color of what’s on your head. They can be made from real human hair belonging to other people. Or they could actually even be made from your own hair as well. They could be made from animal hair, like horse or goat. And of course, in modern times, they can be made from synthetic materials as well like nylon.

MAGGIE:
What are wigs for?

MARKIEWICZ:
So I think really, they had several different functions; they still do. And that could be if you want to replace your own hair, because perhaps you’ve lost your hair, or it’s not the quality you would like it to be. So there’s a sort of real physical use for them there. But also to transform your appearance. So you can put a wig on and you can become somebody else very, very quickly and very, very easily. I also think from the 18th century perspective, there was another function and that was really often to make everybody feel like they belonged to the same group. So what we see quite commonly, particularly in things like the professions, so if you’re a doctor or a lawyer, or a judge, you might wear a wig to show very clearly that you’re part of that group. Similarly, politicians, so very sort of men have very high status would all wear wigs that looked strikingly similar to each other. And I think that a lot of that is to show that they were they were belonging in that group. And that was their status. And that was their place in society. And if they all look the same, then they’ve got strength in numbers. And it’s very clear what they do and what therefore they have a real purpose.

MAGGIE:
When were wigs fashionable?

MARKIEWICZ:
I mean, wigs, really, they come in and out of fashion, all through history. And even today, we see people still wearing wigs. Often we also see people wearing hair pieces or hair extensions. So for the whole of time, I think people have worn false hair in some way or another. For the period that I studied in particular, that was the 18th century. So that really went from the time when King Charles II came on to the throne in England around about 1660. And it said that he spent a lot of his younger years in France where it was very fashionable in the court in the court of the French King to wear great big wigs to show your power and your status. And he came back to take the throne of England and he brought them with him. And they got picked up quite quickly by the upper echelons of society. And then they became very, very popular, particularly amongst men for the first part of that century, and perhaps started to fall out of fashion in the later part. So around about 1760, perhaps around them, finally sort of really coming to an end at the very end of the century, roundabout 1795.

ABBY:
Charles, the second is the one who had like, like two pronged wigs, right, and then really long.

MARKIEWICZ:
Yeah, that is, that was the height of it really the height of the big wigs, they were called periwigs. And they did, they had these big prongs at the front, and then two pieces down the front and a piece at the back very curly, a lot of hair, a lot of time and money goes into those. And it really does show that you are a very wealthy person, and you have a lot of time to look after your appearance.

MAGGIE:
How heavy are some of the big wigs?

MARKIEWICZ:
I mean, it’s hard to say. I can see from accounts of people who were buying and selling wigs that they would often be sold, the hair itself in its raw form would be sold by the pound. So that’s pretty heavy. I don’t know how much of a pound would go into making one particular wig. It’s very difficult to say, but I think we can say that some of those big ones would have been very heavy.

MAGGIE:
How tall were the tall wigs?

MARKIEWICZ:
So height was important for these in this in this early stage of the fashion. The taller the better, the bigger, the better. The bigger, the more expensive, the more time and effort goes goes into making and preparing the wig. We have to be a bit careful because there’s a lot of caricatures from that period. So a lot of cartoons that were deliberately produced to make fun out of people who put all that time and effort into frivolous fashions like wig wearing. So in some of those, you can see a hairdresser, literally up a ladder to get to the top of somebody’s wig to work on it. And we have to be a little bit careful about that it probably wasn’t quite that crazy. But there were certainly some areas of the fashion that did have very tall wigs. So a group called the macaroni who were young tended to be young men who really pushed the boundaries of fashion. A little bit like maybe punk rockers were, you know, in modern times they did, they wanted to look very different. And they wanted to look very out there. And one of the ways that they did that was through wearing very tall wigs.

MAGGIE:
How do you put a wig on?

MARKIEWICZ:
It’s attached to a piece of netting, or in those days it was attached to a piece of netting. So you would attach it, you would, it would sit on top of your head. In some cases, they would be tied behind the ears and around the back of the neck with a ribbon. And I always love I found one account if somebody have an older gentleman who would be able to tie have his wig tied on with the ribbon so tightly that it almost acted in the same way as giving him a bit of a facelift. He had it so tight it could pull pull back his skin at the temples and make him look younger.

MAGGIE:
How do you make a wig?

MARKIEWICZ:
Well, in those days, it was a very long process. It took a lot of time, it took a lot of expertise, hence why wigs initially anyway were very expensive. So it was there were lots of different processes that went into it. So first of all, they of course they had to find the hair. And I’d like I said that could be human hair. But some wig makers were a bit unscrupulous and would mix it with animal hair, and then sell it as though it was 100% human hair. So they did have to be a little bit careful about where the hair came from and how real it was. But what they would do is they would take packets of the hair and sort it by length and bind it together. And then that would be cleaned and processed. They would use a comb and iron comb attached to a stand to comb through the clumps of hair to make sure that there were no knots and try and get as much of the grease out as possible. Then they would curl the hair into wooden curlers or ceramic curlers. And in order to set that to make the curl stayed and they would bake it in an oven for a few hours. So quite often we can find accounts of wig makers who went into partnerships with local bakers and use their ovens at night. To cook the hair sometimes they would cook the hair in dough as well. And then once that was done, then it would be set up on a silk loom and woven together. And then you have the sort of strands of clean curled hair, which you can then attach to a net, using a mount in the shape of a head with with a needle and scissors, with needle and thread, and literally so each one on individually around the net. So it took a long time. Very painstaking process. And once that was done, and it was attached securely, using a ribbon, then around the edge of the netting, they could style the wig and cut it and shape it as they wanted. throughout that process, they would have to be working with the person that the wick was for. So they’d have to keep going back and checking the measurements and checking the style and having different fittings through the process.

MAGGIE:
What can go on a wig?

MARKIEWICZ:
Certainly I think for women’s fashions, things like fruit and flowers were quite common at that time and embellishing wigs or hairpieces was a big part of it. Less so for men, I think with men’s wigs, what they would tend to do is produce a particular style of wig that might celebrate something so particularly around battles and war. So if a particular campaign had gone well, somewhere, they would produce a wig with the name of that campaign that they people could then wear to be seen to be celebrating great battles and so on. But yes, embellishments definitely part of it for women, at least anyway. Although again, I think we have to be a bit careful though, again, some of the character chores do show some absolutely crazy over the top styles and boats and you know what, and somebody up a ladder trying to fit them all in. Possibly that was exceptional rather than the rule.

MAGGIE:
Why were some wigs powdered? doesn’t that get messy?

MARKIEWICZ:
It does seem a bit a bit revolting doesn’t it to us these days? I think we’re very used to our shampoos and conditioners and, and feeling our hair to be silky and smooth and not free. I think it was unlikely to be like that. In those days, I think they had a bit of a different idea about what clean hair looked like and felt like. So the powder was really to get rid of grease. So you could comb it through to get rid of grease, make the hair just a bit more manageable. That that’s how they would clean their hair really a lot of the time, they would also use powder for scent. So on the market, you can see in different advertisements for hairdressers that they would be selling an amazing range of powders with with all sorts of different citrus and fruit and flower smells. So something about making it smell nice as well. And yeah, I think it would definitely have got a bit messy. But you also see, particularly in the grand houses and in the hairdressing salons, those masks that they would put over their face. So when the powder is squirted on, their face is covered. So they don’t get it all over their, their clothes and in their eyes. And of course, people did use powder in their own hair as well, that became really quite common as a way to shape it and style it and keep it clean. So it was used completely across the board almost I suppose it’s as the equivalent of shampoo would be today. Of course, what happened gradually over the course of the century was that style changed. And so it became less acceptable to have this crazy over the top style and styles just did big generally start to become more simple, and a bit less formal and a bit less heavy. And I think that made it quite difficult then to keep up with wearing as part of that overall look. So it all started to become a lot more about being natural. And that meant, of course part of that is wearing your own natural hair and being a bit more in touch with nature than those very rigid structured styles that had been present earlier in the century.

MAGGIE:
Emma, thank you so much for talking to us today. I learned a lot, including the fact that I really don’t ever want to wear these kinds of wigs.

ABBY:
Totally agree.

MAGGIE:
Also, listeners, did you remember our quiz question choices: combing, sewing, and baking were all used in the construction of wigs.

ABBY:
So even though Emma told us that the most outlandish wigs we see in pictures are probably a little bit exaggerated, you can still design your own completely outlandish wig. The Victoria and Albert Museum in England has a little web app where you can build your own, including decorations like feathers, flowers and ships. Not kidding, you can really put a ship in your hair. There’s a link to this site in our show notes. That’s bigiftrue.abbymullen.org/wigs.

MAGGIE:
And that’s our show for today. Join us next time for another episode of Big If True!

ABBY:
Big if True is produced by me, Abby, and Maggie. Special thanks to our expert guest Emma Markiewicz. Our theme music is by Andrew Cote. Did you know you can buy a Big if True t shirt? The link is on our website. One more time that’s bigiftrue.abbymullen.org. Thanks everybody for listening

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Show notes

  • Incidental music in today’s episode was:
  • Play around with making your own wig at the Victoria and Albert Museum!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *