Hairstyles of the British Court: Whigs in Wigs
A Brief Look at Wigs in Ancient History
The image of the British barrister in his white or gray wig is a familiar one to just about anyone with a pulse. But for most, understanding where the tradition came from might be a less familiar thing. What follows is a brief look at the history of the powdered wig, or, more correctly, the peruke or periwig.
The origins of the wig can be traced to Egypt as a means of protecting the head from a glaring desert sun and was primarily a practical device. Its popularity was resurrected in Rome for a time by women who wore them for fashion's sake ("Wig"). Once again they vanished as a trend, and it wasn't until the 17th century that they became commonplace again. And again, they were brought forth for practical reasons.
The advent of the wig in Europe (primarily France and England) was a prophylactic one. The straight fact was that head lice were a genuine concern in the 17th century and a thickly woven mat atop one's head worked wonders for keeping the lice out of a person's scalp, and it was much preferred over the shaving of one's head. For the most part, the early wigs were not a fashion statement at all, and they were worn for practicality. But that was destined to change.
How the Wig became the Peruke (or the Periwig)
Despite the prevalence of prophylactic periwigs, ultimately their use led to fashion by way of vanity. Wigs found cosmetic use in 1624 when the French king, Louis the XIII—known as "Louis the Bald" ("Flip Your Wig")—began wearing one to cover up his onset baldness. In the mid-1600s Louis the XIV decided the practice was an amusing one, and from there the popularity of wig-wearing by the rich and powerful took off. The fashion arrived in England in 1663 and was adopted by the court of Charles II (McLaren 242-243).
Wigs amongst the rich in England were at first natural colors, but the habit of powdering them with a white powder made from starch and plaster of Paris was popularized around 1690, evolving at some points to include colors like pink, blue and gray ("Wig"). The courts did not immediately adopt this habit, however, and it wasn't until 1705 that the bench and bar finally gave way to the force of fashion sense and began donning wigs, which eventually would be referred to as "perukes" and "periwigs."
Given that at this point in time the wigs were for fashion, they were huge, physically, and this type of wig was called the "full-bottomed wig." But in 1720, as it is wont to do, the fashion changed and the popular wigs began to grow smaller, becoming what was called the "bob wig" or "campaign wig" (McLaren 243). [Both styles are pictured below.]
Courts are generally ruled by precedent and tradition, and so, even in the matter of perukes, the stuffy old judges would not let their dignity suffer the reduction of their glorious large wigs and so, in defiance of change, the judges kept to the old fashion of large wigs and so began the custom of wearing a periwig as part of legal formality rather than as a fashion - although younger members did push for smaller versions, and ultimately, the junior barristers began wearing shorter "campaign wigs" around 1730 or so (McLaren 243). Before 1720, the wigs were just in keeping with the times; after 1720, it became a matter of strict judicial propriety. By 1750 nobody was wearing large wigs except for those in the service of the judiciary and so at that point, the tradition was locked down and become emblematic of the bar.
Two Types of Peruke: The Full Bottom Wig and the Bob-Wig
Famine, Revolution, and the Powdered Wig
The custom of wearing powdered wigs began to fall rapidly from popularity as heads began to fall from aristocratic necks. In France, the French Revolution took place (1789-1799), and as most everyone knows, it was not a good time to be rich and powerful. Wearing a powdered wig around was essentially waving a sign to the angry mob that read, "Hey, I'm over here." So the fashion plummeted in popularity. In England, the decline wasn't quite so precipitous, but still, it was a matter of not angering the general populace that brought about the periwig's eventual demise. In part, the younger folks who sympathized with the French revolution stopped wearing their wigs out of respect for the cause. But that was not the real reason for the fashion's decline.
In England the problem was food. England hovered on the brink of starvation and, given that the starch portion of the "starch and plaster of Paris" mentioned above was derived from wheat; cavorting about with a shovel full of what was essentially wasted food in your wig was simply not a good idea for the well-fed well-to-do. Even then, the haughty rich continued to do it anyway, and the flouting of it in the face of famine became such an issue that a tax was imposed on those who wore powdered wigs to the tune of a guinea each, which actually netted a hefty sum of £200,000 in just the year 1795. This gluttonous consumption of food to powder their wigs, and the elite's willingness to pay the tax rather than dispense with their vanity, got these wig-wearers the nick-name "guinea pigs" by the populace (McLaren 244).
By the 1820s almost nobody else in England was still wearing perukes other than the bench and bar, and even there the attorneys and solicitors had given up the practice for themselves. Only the upper echelons of the court continued with the practice after that. The dividing line was the difference between the solicitors and the barristers—the solicitors being those attorneys who had to muck about and rub elbows with the commoners. There were no official rules about it, and they were not compelled to do so, but the legal institution maintained the practice simply because wearing a wig had become a tradition that was too long-standing to let go. It was an emblem of their dignity. (Although by the 1840s the full-bottomed wig was largely abandoned in favor of the more manageable bob-wig style.)
Monty Python Having Some Fun in Powdered Wigs (and Other Things)
Attempts to Get Rid of the “Judge’s Wig”
Anyone who's ever snickered at the sight of an English judge wearing a powdered wig would not be alone by any stretch. Even as early as 1762 these things were drawing criticism as evidence of excess and of silliness. Oliver Goldsmith wrote in The Citizen of the World, "To appear wise, nothing more is requisite here, than for a man to borrow hair from the heads of all his neighbors, and clap it, like a bush on his own," (McLaren 246). Thomas Jefferson is quoted as having said of English judges that they "look like mice peeping out of oakum" (Yablon). And in 1853 the famed Russian socialist and writer Alexander Herzen "was struck by the comicality of the medieval ‘mise-en-scene'" when he looked upon the English barristers (McLaren 246).
But not everyone was laughing. Some of the complaints were purely practical. Given the lack of easily available and perhaps suitably not disgusting human hair, the wigs were often made of horse or goat hair, and they were hot. In 1868 Sir Robert Collier and Sir James Wilde tried to set in motion a campaign to be done with the "obsolete institution" when Collier left his wig off over the course of two particularly hot days (McLaren 246). The hope was that people would recognize the pragmatism of this action and let go the grip on outdated fashion. Their campaign was not successful.
In addition to the heat, perukes are heavy, awkward, expensive, and tend to stink.
As recently as the 1990s, attempts were still being made to be rid of perukes as well, but the populace at large was unwilling to let the tradition go. In a complete reversal of popular opinion from the famine years of the 1790s, the British citizens of modern times like the tradition and feel when asked their opinion on the abolishment idea that the wigs give dignity and gravitas to the judges.
In fact, in perhaps a paradoxical attempt to procure rights to wear the wigs for themselves, some solicitors who'd been allowed to argue cases in the higher courts started arguing for the right to wear the emblematic wigs as well, still reserved at this time for barristers only. They complained that not being allowed to wear the wigs made them "look like second-class lawyers to clients and juries" (Pressley). Given the nature of the public demanding the tradition remain, it seems that perhaps the solicitors had a point. Nonetheless, the tradition was left to remain as it had been for centuries past and the solicitors were reminded of their unique role in the larger legal history.
The Powdered Wig Remains
For now, it appears that tradition and iconographic status has the peruke set firmly in place upon the heads of Britain's courts. With so many years of history behind it, it seems unlikely that the periwig will be dislodged. While technically out-dated, clearly uncomfortable, expensive - costing as much as £1,000 (Yablon) - and cumbersome, this is a tradition whose roots have grown very deep. But who knows, they may yet come back into style. Fashion has brought back stranger things from the past, and one can never be sure when the next plague of head lice is going to strike. Until then, balding leaders beyond the British courts will have to suffice themselves with the short-haired cousin of the peruke, the toupee, or with a bottle of Rogaine.
For the rest of us, the "judge's wig" is a great source of entertainment, and perhaps even national pride, and they are easily found for use in costumes, whether for a play, a Renaissance Fair or for Halloween. Unless a new trend develops or the head lice come back, that's just going to have to do.
"Flip Your Wig." American Heritage 52.2 (Apr. 2001): 20. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. California State University of Sacramento, Sacramento, CA. 8 Sep. 2008. <http://proxy.lib.csus.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy.lib.csus.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=4227108&site=ehost-live>.
McLaren, James G. "A brief history of wigs in the legal profession." International Journal of the Legal Profession 6.2 (July 1999): 241. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. California State University of Sacramento, Sacramento, CA. 8 Sep. 2008 <http://proxy.lib.csus.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy.lib.csus.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=6679724&site=ehost-live>.
Pressley, James. "Los Angeles court studies hairs in cap, but here the issue is wigs. " Wall Street Journal [New York, N.Y.] 19 Apr. 1995, Eastern edition: B1. ABI/INFORM Global. ProQuest. California State University of Sacramento, Sacramento, CA. 8 Sep. 2008 <http://www.proquest.com/>.
"Wig." Infoplease. 9 Sep. 2008. http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/society/A0852220.html.
Yablon, Charles M. "Wigs, Coifs, and Other Idiosyncrasies of English Judicial Attire." Cordoza Life. 5d3 1000, Spring 1999. 9 Sep. 2008. http://www.cardozo.yu.edu/life/spring1999/wigs/.