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A periwig is a style of wig popular between the 17th and 19th centuries, particularly in men’s fashions. The word is believed to be a corruption of the French term perruque, commonly called the peruke. The periwig was a vital fashion piece of upper-class French and British households, and played a part in maintaining some sort of hygienic standard. The modern term for a hairpiece, wig, is believed to have developed from periwigs.
Wigs were popular in the ancient cultures of Egypt and Greece for the protection they offered from the sun and as a status symbol. After the fall of Rome, they fell out of popularity for centuries for a variety of reasons. Many experts credit the prematurely bald King Louis XIII of France for popularizing wigs with the French court, in particular the long, curly style called the periwig.
The periwig is often seen in portraits as a long, flowing mane of curls. The styling of the wig varied with time and trend. Later fashions often dictated that the wigs be powdered with a mixture of starch to make them appear white. For the best wigs, human hair was used, although less expensive versions substituted animal hair or blended the two together. Due to the unfortunate odors associated with only bathing once a year, wigs were often scented with flowers or heavily perfumed.
Wigs were used not only to disguise baldness, but to protect from lice. Throughout the middle ages, most European countries disdained bathing as unhealthy. It was not uncommon for nobles to bathe only once a year. As a result, people often shaved their heads, as their bathing habits did nothing to prevent infestation from insects in their hair. Wigs were also often infested with lice, but were removable for comfort. The periwig became the most popular style of the 17th century for men, and many famous portraits of the era contain noble or royal men resplendent in their periwig.
After the restoration of King Charles II to the throne in England, the trend became popular among the British. Charles spent much of his exiled youth in the French court, and gained much appreciation for French styles. Between the King of England and King Louis XIV of France, periwigs became a necessity for the courts of both nations.
Wigmakers received considerable attention during this period, and were allowed many privileges as artisans. Some sources say that King Louis XIV employed more than 40 wigmakers at his palace at Versailles. By the late 17th century, guilds for wigmakers were established in both England and France.
In America, the early colonial government used the periwig as part of their uniform, to show social status in imitation of the British. By the mid-19th century, anti-British sentiment had pushed this fashion trend away, and wigs are no longer worn by American judges or US Congress members. British members of parliament and many judges still wear a variation of the periwig for official sessions. In 2007, the state of New South Wales Australia voted to discontinue use of wigs in government activity.
Leave it to the French court to start the periwig fashion. They never did anything by halves. Whatever they did, it had to be flashy, gaudy, and three times bigger than at any other court. This undoubtedly contributed to the unpleasantness associated with the French Revolution.
The Restoration-era portraits of men in fabulous periwigs are as absurd as the Tudor-era portraits of them with their elaborate codpieces.
I think there's something rather dignified about barristers in England still wearing the periwig and a robe while arguing a case. Maybe it reminds them occasionally that their duty is a solemn one, and not merely a means for accruing a lot of money.
A well-groomed periwig would certainly be preferable to see on a man as opposed to a bad comb-over!
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