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Fake Hair That Made Real History
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Starting in ancient Egypt and ending on the red carpet of the Met Gala, Wigging Out features capsule fashion histories set alongside spectacular images of real and synthetic wigs worn by everyone from Roman emperors and nineteenth-century Gibson Girls to twenty-first-century drag queens and London street punks. Including interviews with modern wigmakers, stylists, and braiders, Wigging Out is a revelatory mash-up of styles, stories, and personalities that takes readers on a joyful romp through fake-hair history.
In opulent color, the wigs for Fendi’s spring 2019 couture collection transformed models into a unified fashion force for bowl bobs. The appeal of an on-theme army of girls has inspired wigs on the fashion runway again and again during the accessory’s twentieth-century history. For this look, key hairstylist Sam McKnight cut wigs for each model and had them dyed to echo both the marble architecture that inspired the collection and the clothes themselves. Dyeing a wig to match the dress on the fashion runway dates back to a collection by the House of Lucile in the early twentieth century, but this Fendi collection connects back to an earlier point in wig history as well. Held in front of the Temple of Venus and Roma, the models were wearing their wigs in front of a monument built by Roman Emperor Hadrian in the year AD 121. Hadrian was a wig man himself, as he famously took up a toupee upon going bald. Though the clothes in the collection evoke Roman mosaic tile and Renaissance sensuality by way of an extremely posh disco, the wigs offer a more specific precedent. The straight, face-framing bob revivifies the wig styling of Vidal Sassoon. Best known for his geometric haircuts, Sassoon’s style lent itself well to wigs, since they typically did not have a pronounced parting, which was always the telltale sign of fake hair. Of course, the coloration obliterates any naturalism, but the theme was the striated color of clay, moss, stone, and marble of a Roman ruin, so some green had to be in play.
From the luxury industry of three thousand years ago, this cosmetics container provides a peek at the earliest wigs. This little swimming girl wears a wig as she is towed through the water by her pet gazelle. The high style and craftsmanship of this girl and her little wig reflects the value assigned to self-devotion in Ancient Egypt where wigs were a common accessory to the beauty regime, stored in women’s private chambers alongside perfumed oils, lip color, rouge, and kohl for painting the eyes. A small container like this could contain any kind of makeup, while serving as a reminder that one is always fully dressed in a wig. As a sidebar, a wig one could swim in was something of a holy grail in twentieth-century wig making, not achieved until the 1970s. Though this figure is shown to be swimming, her wig probably represented the ubiquity of fake hair at the time, rather than a water-tight construction technology lost to history.
Periods of unabashed and widespread wig wearing are fairly rare in fashion history. Though secretive uses of fake hair are a constant, out-and-proud wigs like this late seventeenth-century number have to find their moment. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were such a moment for men, especially in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, when the full-bottomed wig reigned in all its glory. Some of these wigs were made on a base of skin, but some were proto-lace fronts set on a net base. The growing universality of wig wear is embodied in this depiction by Baroque carver C. Lacroix, who captures the uncanny valley of the wig: the slightly-too-low hairline. Since this wig’s “tell” is literally carved into stone, this author assumes it is no accident. Wigs were supposed to look like wigs in 1700, and they were treated in portraiture like the luxury objects they were. That was why artist C. Lacroix gave the low forehead and curls equal time and consideration as the profusion of lace tied at this unnamed gentleman’s neck. These were equally needful things in an era when men’s luxury outstripped women’s by a mile.
For the tighter and tidier wigs in the mid-eighteenth century, the hairline issue was solved by blending of the wig with the natural hairline at the front. Using matte white paint, artist Louis Tocqué has captured this technique, along with the generous application of white powder to the hair of fashionable young jeweler Arnoldus van Rijneveld. The procedure, which was handled by a valet, was to use a waxy pomade to integrate the natural hair into the hair of the wig. The pomade doubled as adhesive for the wig powder as well. The lush curls would have also been set with pomade and powder, though likely by a hairdresser in advance of putting the wig on for an occasion. The length of the wig, as compared to the swashbuckling full-bottomed wig, was subdued and tied in the back, which emerged as the proper choice for formal occasions in 1730.
While wigs were inarguably luxury objects in the eighteenth century, they were also the focus of satire and moral disapprobation. At their height, wigs were spectacular and performative, and their proper wear required at least a modicum of narcissism, qualities that were beginning to be judged as dubious in men. The social circle of the Macaronis inspired particular anxiety with their ostentatious wigs. Thus, there is a lot to unpack in this anonymous print from the late eighteenth century of a man and his absurdly tall wig, and this author fears that none of it reflects well on the gentleman. The lascivious dog, the servant shining his shoes, and the leering man with a pickax notwithstanding, the extreme style of this Macaroni’s hair is shown in high contrast to the other men in the image, and it seems to be the central story of this print. It reveals this moment in men’s wig wearing as having a highly specific group of participants. The key elements of the Macaroni hairstyle, graciously highlighted here by the artist’s exaggeration, were the padded height and the cadogan, or club queue, where the length of the braid was folded back on itself and wrapped in fabric. This was likely a way to reassert the extreme (and extremely expensive) volume of seventeenth-century big wig hair, but in a very different configuration. The man in the wig is set apart, but maybe not in a complimentary way.
Hair in the late 1770s got so big that there was room for political discourse on top, a fact that drew illustrators like Matthew and Mary Darly to frame satire as hairstyle. While the size of the hair is exaggerated in this Darly print (above), the intent is not. Some women wore their politics on their heads instead of their sleeves in this period. These hairdos so perversely enjoyed by satirists like the Darlys weren’t necessarily wigs. The ideal of the 1770s was to wear one’s own hair. Still, for what the author would call special event hair, a lot of extra was bound to be required.
While satirists took some dramatic license with eighteenth-century women’s hair, fashion plates from the period support that the extreme was ideal, and those had their own conventions for the illustration of 1770s big hair. If seventeenth-century men’s portraits had a subgenre of wigs-n-armor, then eighteenth-century women’s portraits could claim big hair and small dog as a consistent cliché. This fashion plate (right) is especially exemplary because the dog seems to have shared in the attentions of the hairdresser, along with its mistress (it is from a group of prints devoted to fashionable women and their “small masters”). The shape of this style required a huge hair pad underneath and the addition of proto-extensions of “false hair” (which is to say, natural hair acquired by the hairdresser to complete and perfect a massive coiffure). Once the false hair was applied, all the ribbon and jewel decor on the hairdo would serve to hide the seams where false hair extensions had been plastered over natural hair.
Big hair for women fell at the end of the eighteenth century but rose again in the 1820s. Flowers in the headdress were clearly in fashion in 1830, as this woman’s head echoes the still life flower arrangement that she’s attempting to paint a version of. To make a hair vase that could support an arrangement of flowers, pre-made braided hairpieces would be required (unless the woman in question was an exceptionally committed cultivator of extra-long locks). Fortunately, a burgeoning hair industry was making just those very things to sell at hairdressers and, before the century’s end, by mail.
While the fashionability of wigs ebbed and flowed, the high-style tradition of fancy dress meant that hairdressing and wig history always retained a place within the fashionable milieu. The style of eighteenth-century coiffure was dead for obvious reasons (see the French Revolution), but it could be, and often was, revived for fancy dress parties, which circulated wig styles through the fashionable world and wig technique through fashionable hairdressing salons.
The second coming of wigtopia after the eighteenth century came in the 1960s, when all women were advised to build a “wig wardrobe.” The hairdresser Kenneth—one name only—used multiple hairpieces in subtly varied shades in an expression of haute hair for the women of style contemplating whether to build a wig room onto their closets. Here, his hairpiece serves to subtly repeat the ombre transition of the feather bodice worn by the model. Credited with creating Jacqueline Kennedy’s bouffant, Kenneth was one of the titans of the New York City hair scene, having headed up the salons for beauty maven Helena Rubinstein and milliner Lilly Daché before opening an eponymous salon with the support of a beauty supply firm. His skills and long shadow still inform fashion editorial and runway hair today. The Kenneth look was not one easily copied by women looking to re-create a hairstyle at home, or to simply plop on a wig and head out the door. Kenneth’s big hair was hair that required a hairdresser to look good, no matter how cheap synthetic hair would become in later years.
Contemporary wigs and hairpieces encompass the whole history of the art form and live in the everyday as well as in the fantasy of the runway. The power of transformation that a wig supplies can still draw intense criticism when its use highlights differences of race, class, and power. There was a cautionary tale in the furor unleashed when Marc Jacobs and key hairstylist Guido Palau got inspired by 1990s candy ravers and decided to dress the models for Jacobs’s spring 2017 collection in brightly colored, wool dreadlocks acquired from an artist Palau found on Etsy named Jena Counts, who hand-dyed the locs. While Vogue.com reviewer Nicole Phelps merely noted the height added by the dramatic hair and said some of the clothes might be “much too precious to wear to a rave or whatever the kids are calling their all-night parties these days,” social media went supernova with rage about the appropriation of a hairstyle associated primarily with Black hair. Jacobs responded with a defensive non-apology at first, which only extended the outrage before the designer responded again with more contrition.
For many critics, the issue came down to proper credit for the style, which would have acknowledged the dreadlock hairstyle’s origins in the Rastafari movement, which originated in Jamaica in the 1930s, and to the overall lack of diversity on fashion runways. The controversy was also another flare-up in a long history of dubiously conceived dress-up games of which wigs and hairpieces were a crucial part. The transformation of identity that wigs, extensions, and hairpieces allow remains fraught with power, as it was from the very origins of the wig in Ancient Egypt.
The story of the wig begins on the continent of Africa, along with the earliest cultivation of cosmetics and self-care as an expression of luxury and status. Things like eyeliner, lip color, and skin creams were both spiritual and self-expressive in their use in Ancient Egypt, and the wherewithal to engage in the cultivation of beauty was one of the earliest forms of wealth. In this context, the wig was the highest expression of that culture of self-beautification. It is in Ancient Egypt that the wig first takes on its role as an icon of status. Egyptian wigs were worn and cultivated for courtly life, and that would continue to be the case when wigs were later worn in Rome and in palaces of Europe. It seems that the idea that the higher the hair, the closer to God, has deep roots in the history of civilization.
EGYPTIAN BURIAL PRACTICES have preserved the earliest wigs as well as provided images of the elaborate hairstyles they offered to gods, kings, queens, and ultimately to the larger society. Images of wigs can be found as early as 2700 BC in the Old Kingdom, with the first written record of wigs found during the Fourth Dynasty, which lasted from 2613 to 2494 BC.
Evidence of the process of wig making abounds in Ancient Egypt. Tombs were provided with shaving sets of razors, made in copper or bronze, and tweezers, along with mugs of obsidian—all necessary to prepare a well-shaved head for donning a full wig. A cache of materials at the Ancient Egyptian temple and tomb complex of Deir el-Bahari contained a wig mount—the head-shaped wood block used to create a well-fitted wig—with pattern markings still visible on it. Hair ornaments and jewelry for wigs have also been found, as have wig baskets and wig boxes with wig stands.
In some cases, the wigs themselves have survived. Human hair was used to make braids and curls into complex configurations that varied according to a person’s status and role in the court, and in Ancient Egyptian society at large. The hair was set with beeswax and infused with other unguents made with animal fats and perfumed oils. Wool and palm-leaf fiber were also used to make hair. The wigs were commonly black, but also showed evidence of the use of henna and indigo to render them in decorative colors. Hairpieces, rather than full wigs, were also in use. Braids were kept on hand to augment and vary the hairstyle. In Ancient Egypt, there was not one wig to rule them all, but rather the evolution of the wig in a fashion system. This era serves as the origin story of hair as a central accessory.
The “why” of the wig in Ancient Egypt is an open question. In a society that heavily engaged with the shaving of body hair, the wig could have served a protective function, even though that function could also be (and at times was) fulfilled by a simple piece of cloth. The wig may have served to cover and disguise diseases of the scalp (a use of the wig that persists into the present). The wig, and the oils and perfumes used to dress it, may have served to deter illness-transmitting parasites like lice. But there is ample evidence that Ancient Egyptians celebrated great hair as beautiful, sensual, and indicative of status. The Egyptian goddess Hathor was particularly associated with beautiful hair, and her wig and her acolytes in wigs provide some of the earliest and most elegant records of ancient hair.
The role of wigmaker and/or hairdresser is documented in Ancient Egypt starting before 2500 BC, in images as well as text. The terms were somewhat interchangeable, which suggests that hairdressers could make wigs and wigmakers could dress natural hair. Egyptologist Amy Joann Fletcher points out in her research on ancient hair that “[a] considerable number of wigs and false braids exist alongside mummies with abundant natural hair, and whilst medical texts give formulae to make hair grow, demonstrating a real concern with the condition of the natural hair, a close inspection of artistic representations will reveal not a few balding heads.” Wig wearing wasn’t universal in Ancient Egypt, but a commitment to varied fashionable expression through hair was. This lack of a clear line between the wig, hairpieces, and “natural” hair that was baked into the headdress of Ancient Egypt is one that persists throughout the history of the wig. What is certain is that in Ancient Egypt, the wearing of wigs was unabashed. Wigs were not disguised or read as “false hair,” but rather intentionally stylized in their construction and appearance (an effect that is intensified in the stylized nature of the Ancient Egyptian art that serves as part of our record of the wig). The typical wig was built from braids of human hair that were stitched onto a woven foundation. The “hairline” was often a simple straight line stitched from the forehead to the crown point of the wearer. Different treatments of hair, such as various sizes and construction of braids, or curled or crimped hair, could be added to an overall wig to create the final product. Wax would be used to set the curls and care for the braids as well as to maintain the wig during the owner’s use of it. Other construction elements like a browband or another headdress element might be used over the top of the wig, and gold rings and jewelry could be used to decorate the final headdress.
Ancient Egypt’s origination of the wig was lost for a period of time (and not acknowledged at all in Diderot’s Encyclopédie entry on wig making), but knowledge of these origins came roaring back by the twentieth century. The wide circulation of discoveries from tomb excavations during the late Victorian age and the 1920s fueled periods of “Egyptomania,” with the wig being used as an easy evocation of several millennia of the kingdom’s fashion culture. Shorthand histories of the wig in fashion magazines typically referenced “the days of Cleopatra,” as she was surely the most well-known Egyptian queen in European and American history lessons. During her reign from 51 to 30 BC, Cleopatra wore wigs at times, but she also presided over the decline of the wig in Ancient Egypt (as well as the decline of Egypt itself as an ancient world power). A descendant of Alexander the Great and native speaker of Greek, Cleopatra wore a wig, or abstained from wearing one, in a masterful display of political code shifting as she tried to retain ruling power. She was portrayed in wigs when depicted in Egyptian temple art but shown in simply dressed hair by Roman sculptors who depicted her over the course of her career. After her death, Egypt became a province of Rome, and the wigs of Egypt receded in favor of Roman hairstyles.
Though it has the evocative rendering of a portrait, this queen and her alabaster wig were designed and destined for the tomb. The head was intended to function as the lid of a canopic jar, which was used in sets of four to store the viscera (stomach, intestines, lungs, and liver) removed during the mummification process. This particular woman was known only as one of the royal women of the Eighteenth Dynasty until scholars discovered a faint hieroglyph identifying her as Kiya, a secondary wife of Akhenaten. Her wig was a factor used in her identification, since Kiya was known to favor the Nubian style of wig. Based on the hairstyle of Nubian soldiers in the Ancient Egyptian army, the Nubian wig was short at the back with the neck exposed, and massive around the face, framing the wearer with curls and braids that were worked into the headdress. The Nubian wig was fashionable among the women of the Eighteenth Dynasty who could afford it; its size meant that it was extremely labor-intensive to construct. And therefore, quite expensive.
Among a secret cache of jewelry found at the Pyramid complex of Senusret II was a collection of 1,251 gold rings meant to decorate the wig of a woman called Sithathoryunet in the afterlife. The wigs themselves had rotted away, along with the wooden boxes that held them, but the rings survived to be dressed on this modern wig in the style of an arrangement seen in a wooden statue also dating from the Middle Kingdom era of Ancient Egypt. Sithathoryunet was likely the daughter of Senusret II, a pharaoh of the Twelfth Dynasty, making her a princess at the origins of a long tradition of royal wig wear. The name Sithathoryunet has a reference to the goddess Hathor embedded within it. Hathor was depicted in antiquity with special emphasis paid to her beautiful wigs, and her acolytes were similarly devoted to a well-tended and dramatic coiffure. Options for a complete ensemble of accessories that were found among the princess’s jewelry included a gold leopard-head girdle with amethyst beads, lion bracelets, and gold claw anklets, which were used to create an overall fierce ceremonial look.
The history of false hair is not just that of the wig. Extensions were also used to build up and vary the hairstyles of Ancient Egypt, both in life and in death. Extra braids and curls were crucial to the high-style Egyptian toilette, much as they are today. This much is apparent in tomb discoveries like this one, showing dark brown human hair braids set inside a woven basket. A jar and applicator for kohl eye makeup and a small box for jewelry were also found among the braids, suggesting that the woman who owned them was ready to create a total look for her afterlife, just as she had in life.
The texture of the braids of the Egyptian wig are crisply rendered on this funerary mask (opposite page, left) along with the fillet band used to secure it. For a funerary mask, the most elaborate wig in the wearer’s collection would have been depicted, but multiple wigs would have been taken along to the afterlife. Researchers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where this woman’s afterlife is still under way, believe she was probably the wife of an administrator in charge of builders, which is to say, not a royal. Builders were of the upper-level administrative class in Ancient Egypt and of a class to whom royal beauty practices trickled down. Our history of wigs comes mostly from gods and royals, but they were more widespread in the world of Ancient Egypt.
A fabulous wig dominates the ensemble worn by a high-ranking woman who served the Egyptian queen Tiye (above right). The heavily defined “parting,” the textured braids, and the finial spiral curls all mark it as an expensive and elaborate hairstyle, dwarfing the woman’s necklace of real gold and semi-precious stones, and her decidedly minimalist draped garment (although that garment was likely a bright Egyptian blue). Tiye was wife to Amenhotep III and grandmother to Tutankhamun, more popularly known as King Tut. The discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 fueled nearly a decade of Egyptomania in popular culture and in haute couture. This statuette was discovered alongside cosmetic objects in Tiye’s tomb, suggesting this glamour girl was meant to attend to Tiye’s looks in the afterlife.
- On Sale
- Apr 18, 2023
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Black Dog & Leventhal
Q&A with Jessica Glasscock, author of Wigging Out
Where did the idea for this book come from?
I’ve always been into the idea of fashion as a total work of art – it’s more than just dress and “genius” designers. After Making a Spectacle (on eyewear), my editor suggested wigs. I jumped on it because there is such an array of great creatives who have been devoted to the fabulous coif. I knew I could write an expansive history, since the story runs from Egypt to the Paris runway.
How did wigs ascend to fashion royalty?
When I talk about wigs, I have this tendency to use a word that gets worn out: iconic. But it very much applies! The key to wig use by royalty and other socially spectacular figures was the ability to create an increased profile (literally!).
What’s the greatest wig trend in the 21st century?
There are two seemingly opposite trends in tandem: increased realness combined with obvious artificiality – like the integration of a seamlessly applied lace front for maximum realism on a wig with color that nature could never execute.
Also by Jessica Glasscock
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While variations of that glasses-shaming sentiment appeared at regular intervals over the next 100 years or so, eyeglasses continued to evolve into an endless array of shapes, colors, purposes, and personalities. Once sunglasses took off in the 1930s, the magazine editorial made glasses a conspicuous part of the fashion narrative. Eyeglasses went to the ski slopes, the stables, the beach, the Havana hotel. Plastic innovations made a candy-colored rainbow of cat-eyes and "starlet" styles possible. Suddenly, everyone had the opportunity to look like Jackie O on vacation in Capri.
Making a Spectacle traces contemporary high fashion frames back to their origins: the military aviator, the glam cat eye, the nerdly Oxford, the high-tech shield, the fanciful butterfly, the lowly rimless, and other styles all make an appearance. Featuring interviews with influential designers, makers, and purveyors of glasses including Adam Selman, Kerin Rose Gold, and l.a. Eyeworks, Making a Spectacle also takes a look at today's most cutting edge eyewear, showing the reader the latest and most innovative ways to see and be seen.