Wigs are almost as old as civilization itself. The lace front wigs human hair earliest recorded use of wigs comes from the days of ancient Egypt, dating back to about the 4th century BC. Shaved heads were the norm in ancient Egypt in order to protect from lice; however bald heads were very susceptible to the hot Egyptian sun. Wigs were developed to provide protection from the sun.
These early Egyptian wigs were made from various materials: palm fibers, sheep’s wool, animal hair and even precious metals such as gold and silver would be used in the production of wigs. Human hair was also used, particularly among wealthy Egyptians. As with anything dealing with appearance wigs quickly became a sign of status: the greater a person’s wealth and the higher their position in society the more elaborate their wig.
Egypt was not the only ancient civilization which had wigs. The Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Assyrians and the Romans all also had wigs. The ancient Romans would often make their wigs from the hair of slaves.
For reasons not known, wigs were and continue to be primarily a western phenomenon. Outside of some traditional theatrical use in China and Japan wigs have very little history in the Far East. Certain varieties of female entertainers (Geisha in Japan and Kisaeng in Korea) also traditionally wear wigs, known as katsura and gache respectively.
Despite its ancient use, wigs virtually disappeared following the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD. It was a thousand years before wigs began to come back into fashion. During the Renaissance, classical culture made a comeback in Europe, and among women especially wigs began to become common again. Wigs could be used to compensate for hair loss. It also allowed wearers to shave their heads to protect from vermin such as lice while still allowing themselves to have a full head of hair to wear while in public. One famous wig-wearer was Queen Elizabeth I wore a red wig which she wore in the Roman style.
In France King Louis XIII was among the first men to wear a wig in modern times. Louis XIII went bald at an early age and used wigs to hide his baldness. The practice soon came into fashion among other Frenchmen of rank, and his son King Louis XIV continued the practice. The style of the day was to wear wigs which were shoulder-length or longer and these hairpieces were known as periwigs (from which the word wig comes). Periwigs later traveled to England when Charles II, who had long been exiled in France, returned to the English throne.
Because of their use among royalty, wigs quickly became an important sign of status in 17th century Europe both for men and for women. Wig makers suddenly became a vital part of European society. In 1673 the first independent wig maker’s guild was formed in France. As a sign of status it was important to make the wigs as elaborate and showy as possible, thus wig-making was a very skilled trade.
With the 18th century came a new trend: powdered wigs. Wig powder, made from ground starch, gave wigs their famous white or off-white color. Throughout Europe and in early America powdered wigs remained the fashion through most of the 18th century.
Towards the latter part of the 18th century, however, wigs began to fall out of favor. Natural hairstyles became more common, especially among the young. Some began powdering their natural hair to still give the wig appearance, although even this would ultimately stop in favor of purely natural hairstyles. Wigs were worn only by older, more conservative people and for official use.
It was not until the 20th century that wigs and hairpieces began to make a resurgence. They have never regained their previous prominence or importance, but remain common today to enhance hairstyles and to cover baldness and thinning hair.