What is a Powdered Wig?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

Powdered wigs were an integral part of high fashion for both men and women during the 18th century. Sometimes employed as part of formal accessorizing for both social events and for public appearances, the powdered wig sported an elaborate design of curls and waves that was topped off with a dousing of white powder. While the use of the powdered wig declined drastically by 1800, limited use of the device remained in some countries around the world, notably as part of proper attire for barristers and members of Parliament in the United Kingdom.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

The process for creating a powdered wig often involved the use of frames. The basic materials normally included horsehair and various binding agents. The horsehair would be arranged and set into place into a finished product that would remain in place even in a strong wind. To complete the basic look, powder that was specially developed would be applied liberally to what was essentially a helmet made of horsehair.

In actual design, the style for the powdered wig often related to gender, purpose, and social standing. White wigs for women in high society were often high piles of curls that were enhanced with elements such as bows, garlands of flowers and even feathers. These types of wigs were considered ideal for presentation at a royal court, attendance at a formal ball, and other key social situations.

By contrast, a powdered wig for a man would often be a simple design. For use in social situations, the wig would include feature a design that was relatively close to the scalp and the shape of the skull, with a minimum of curls. A small amount of curl normally extended at the nape of the neck and was tied with a simple black ribbon. As with the more elaborate wigs designed for women, this simplistic design for the well dress male would be liberally powdered to achieve a white or near white appearance.

The powdered wig designed for use in the courtroom was more elaborate. Wigs worn by barristers and sometimes judges would involve rows of curls that covered the head and sometimes hung to a length around the top of the shoulders. A wig of similar design became common in government settings as well, and remains popular in some countries today.

Wig makers of the period could spend weeks or even months designing a powdered wig. Under certain conditions, a wig could become infested during the preparation. When an infestation occurred, the powdered horsehair would have to be cleaned thoroughly in order to remove the vermin.

After around 1790, the broad appeal of the powdered wig began to wane. By the middle of the 19th century, the wig had all but disappeared from use by men in social situations. Modified versions remained popular with women in polite society for a time, but by the dawn of the 20th century were virtually obsolete as a fashion accessory. Today, powdered wigs continue to be used in theatrical performances and in some legal and formal settings around the world, although advances in synthetics and coloring have replaced the traditional methods of designing and styling the wigs.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments


My late barber told me that in the days of powdered wigs, the best ones were made of prematurely grey human hair. She said that the people of Wales provided a large supply of human hair for wigs because they have the trait of greying relatively early in life and thus could provide young, high quality hair for making the best wigs.

Is this really true concerning the statistical tendency for Welsh people graying relatively early in adulthood?


Is a welsh wig the same as a powdered wig?


Actually, a barrister's wig is not powdered. When young barrister buys a new wig, which is made of horse hair, it's very light coloured. And then, as the years go by it gets darker and darker until it becomes a deep gray. The full bottomed wig is ceremonial and is not worn in court.

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