Who Invented Wigs: Why and When?

who invented wigs

Wigs are commonplace today, but have they always been this way ? W know of the powdered off-white or grey wigs we’ve seen in movies and some plays, but how common were they ? Who invented the first wig, and why were wigs invented in the first place ? It turns out wigs have a long, long history and a lot of symbolism behind them. 

The ancient Egyptians are credited as the inventors of wigs and are of the first to use them. Wigs were invented by the Egyptians to enhance beauty, cover baldness, and keep lice at bay. In 17th century Europe king Louis XIII of France was the first to wear wigs regularly, in order to hide his balding hair. Wig-making became a respectable trade once royals and noblemen made wigs fashionable.  

The very first wigs, the ancient Egyptian wigs, were initially meant to shield the wearer from the harsh desert sun, imitate hair, and also keep lice at bay. While a shaved head was easier to maintain and keep sanitized, a full head of hair was still considered beautiful so wigs became a necessary item. 

So it came to be that everyone, from everyday workers to Pharaohs, wore wigs of differing lengths and styles, but the main difference was the material used. The higher the rank in nobility, the more expensive the wig material and the more embellishments it had (such as silver beads).

Ancient Greeks and later Romans also adopted wigs and used them mostly for aesthetic reasons. After the Western Roman Empire fell, wigs fell out of fashion until in the 17th century in Europe, when the nobility started using wigs again as a mark of beauty, to cover baldness, and this quickly evolved into a status symbol. 

What are wigs made of ?

Ancient wigs were made of whatever material was available that could also imitate human hair. So the most expensive were made of actual human hair, and the rest were made of wool, yak fur, horse hair, plant fibers, with occasional embellishes like silver or gold. 

Modern wigs are made of a wide array of materials, including:

  • human hair, still the most realistic and most expensive, harder to maintain
  • synthetic fiber, cheapest and easiest to work with, less realistic

Modern wigs also come in two main base materials: 

  • a ready-made foundation (scalp) that has the hairs knotted in, and comes in a pre-defined style
  • a lace base with hair strands knotted in, with great attention around the edges and the parting area

So if you’re ever shopping for a Halloween costume and see a bright blue bob cut wig, it’s most likely a synthetic fiber wig, with a ready-made base. It looks and feels off, but these wigs aren’t meant to be the most realistic on the market. 

Meanwhile lace wigs are far more subtle, offering more detail and a faded edge. The lace can be adjusted and the excess cut off. The lace is always nude-colored to make it blend into the skin much easier. 

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Why were wigs invented ?

Wigs were initially invented to keep lice out of people’s hair, and also to cover up baldness. Head lice were unfortunately very common in older times, as hygiene was not a priority and there weren’t many options on how to rid yourself of lice, in case you got them. So, a wig that would easily be take off and washed or sanitized was a great option. 

As for baldness, this is a long-standing issue for men. Compared to women, men bald in a different, more obvious pattern and in many cases this wounds their sense of pride. So a wig that could not only hide their baldness, but make it look like they had a luscious mane was absolutely welcome. 

These two key reasons are what led to the other perks of wearing a wig, which later spurned more wigs t be made. 

Wigs were a status symbol

Perhaps the most important item on this list, wigs kept being made and worn because they quickly became a status symbol. Lice and baldness were not confined to farmers and peasants; nobility was also riddled with these issues so wigs were popular with them. And as always, the common folk always tried to emulate the nobles, which meant wig-making became a respectable trade with many orders put in.

As time went on the wigs became more extravagant, in order to impress other people and especially other nobles. Some famous examples of extraordinary wigs are France’s Marie Antionette’s elaborate pouf hair extensions, which sat high atop her head in impossible vertical designs and required hours to style, along with flowers, feathers, and so much more.

Powdered, long, curly wigs became the height of fashion among men in the 18th century. They were required for daily use, and especially at court.

Some modern examples are Dolly Parton’s extravagant blonde wigs, styled in various types of curls, Elvis’ black hairpiece, and Lady Gaga’s colorful, bright wigs in a wide array of styles. 

Wigs imitated a full head of hair

Since a full head of hair was considered the most attractive, and a sign of health, wigs were the perfect cover-up for those who started losing their hair prematurely, and for those who wanted to boost their self-confidence.

It wasn’t like people didn’t know those were wigs, it was more of a “I have the money to afford a beautiful, full, luscious wig to hide my natural hair” that was at the root of all this. 

Still, we are visual creatures and when we do see a full head of hair, we can’t help but be a little bit impressed. Especially if the wig in question looks at least decent. At the time wigs were invented, most nobles were already altering their looks in various ways, some more subtle than others, so a wig wasn’t out of the ordinary. 

Wigs were easier to style into elaborate up-dos

Wigs, either ancient ones or those from the 18th century, weren’t meant to be worn as just fake hair. They were always styled into this shape or that, and it was far easier to style a wig as it sat on a wooden model and then put that on your head, than to style your own hair.

And as the styles became more and more elaborate, a wig was a far easier way to switch between styles and sometimes colors.

Even today’s wigs come in different colors, lengths, and styles and it’s easier to go from a red pixie cut to a blonde bob by changing your wig. 

Wigs were far easier to clean and de-louse than real hair

Back to the original issue that created wigs in the first place. Lice are notoriously hard to get rid of, they have a knack for hiding in your hair and laying eggs, which quickly hatch. even today, ridding yourself of lice is difficult and takes a lot of treatment. 

So a preventative measure was to simply shave one’s head, or keep the hair extremely short, and only wear wigs instead. If the wigs became infested, the wigs could be burned, or you could attempt to de-louse them with some treatments. Overall it was far easier than working with your own hair, and the pain and itching of having lice crawling there. 

When were wigs invented ?

The exact creation date of the first wig is unknown, but some of the oldest wigs date back to ancient Egypt in the 4th Dynasty (2613 to 2494 BC). Other wigs were found, belonging to the Chinese civilization in the period of 770 to 481 BC. Roman wigs were dated to the year 80 AD, and a few Japanese wigs were also dated back to the Nara period (8th century AD). 

So while there is no clear, definitive date of creation for wigs, it’s clear that these are very old headpieces and they have been used since antiquity. 

Wigs rose and fell in popularity as the centuries went by

Wigs have always been associated with nobility, wealth, high status, etiquette, vanity, and an attempt to hide one’s aging process. For the most part, wigs were very popular, until the Western Roman Empire fell (in the 5th century AD).

As time went on Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe, and the church started viewing any sort of embellishment of the self as unnatural, and then took it far enough to claim it was a sin against God. 

So for a time, wigs were out of fashion as they were frowned upon. Hair was to be natural, and married women were to cover their heads. At some point this changed, and by the time Queen Elizabeth I of England wore her famous red wig (in the 16th century AD), these accessories were back in use and the church became far less critical. 

It got to the point where any sort of rank or nobility was wearing a form of wig, from military officers to judges to noblemen. Wigs were extremely popular then, and continued to be popular until monarchies were being overthrown and republics (or monarchy-free countries) were becoming more popular (in the 20th century AD), as a response to the abuses of the monarchy. 

Wigs fell out of fashion again, as they were regarded as a symbol of nobles and royals. Then, as time went on, wigs again rose in popularity when synthetic wigs became common, sometime in the 1960s. Since then wigs have mostly been used in the entertainment industry and have evolved into anything you like, from subtle, realistic wigs to be worn every day to full-blown drag queen wigs and party costume wigs. 

Modern wigs cater to a wide audience and seem to be here to stay.