For thousands of years humans have been reinventing their image with various headdresses, wigs, hair extensions and hats, for a multitude of purposes. Preserved wigs reflect the fashion and cultural expressions of societies, and reveal the everday lives of the ancients.
Ancient Egyptian Wigs
The most ancient of wigs and hairpieces dating back to early recorded history were made and worn by the Ancient Egyptians. Wigs were worn for a variety of reasons, but were a mainstay and essential part of a wardrobe—especially for the elite of society—as wearing a wig indicated high status.
It is often said the heat of the region caused people to shave their heads and faces in Ancient Egypt, and they then wore wigs to protect their heads from the sun while remaining cool. However, styles varied and heads were only sometimes shaved, whereas other times short hair was worn underneath wigs or false hair extensions. As such, wigs weren’t solely a protective headcover. They played a significant role as fashion statements and served as social signifiers.
Colossal bust of Queen Ahmes-Merytamun (Ahmose-Meritamon), wearing a Hathor-wig. 18th dynasty, circa 1550 BC. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Why Wear a Wig?
The trappings of hair had social and religions connotations in Ancient Egypt. In the early dynasties natural beards were favored, but eventually the fashion changed to a clean-shaven look, and mustaches were uncommon.
A shaved head was a sure sign of nobility, and the majority of Ancient Egyptians kept their heads covered. Head shaving later spread to the rest of the population as customs of higher society trickled down. In fact, having a hairy, unshaven face became a mark of low social status (unless one was in mourning, or was about to travel abroad).
Ancient Egyptian men were generally clean shaven, and a shaven head was a sure sign of nobility. Rahotep a Third Dynasty official, was believed to be in the minority with his moustache. (Public Domain)
The nobility shaved their heads and faces, and wigs were worn. For special occasions wigs were combined with elaborate headdresses. So tied to royalty and elite status was this practice, that Egyptian law forbade servants and slaves from shaving their heads or wearing wigs.
The Making of a Wig
Wigs and hairpieces were worn by both men and women in Ancient Egypt. For those of middling status, and who wished to retain their natural hair, wigs or extensions were held in place with sticky beeswax and resins.
Wigs and hairpieces were made of various natural materials, such as human hair, animal hair, flax or palm fibers, wools, and more. These strands were often braided or rolled into cords, and then attached to a netting skullcap. The wig ‘hair’ was stiff and full, and while often black, they could be dyed various colors using henna, a flowering plant used as a dye for 6,000 years, and other pigments.
Queen Nefertiti (1370 – 1330 BC) was known for wearing iconic, dark blue wigs, and some of her hairpieces were said to be coated in a thin gilding of shimmering gold—the richest of fashion statements.
The famous bust of Nefertiti with blue headdress. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Statue of the head of Queen Nefertiti. Made of granite. New Kingdom, Amarna period, 18th dynasty, circa 1345 B.C. Notably, the securing post at head apex, allows for different hairstyles to adorn the bust. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
False Beards – Not Just for Men
Men were generally clean shaven in the hot climate, but the beard was still an important symbol of maturity and power.
Razors were made from copper and bronze in the Middle and New Kingdoms. These softer metals were not known for having a sharp edge and therefore it’s believed shaving must have been a bit of an ordeal. Iron razors only came into use in the Late Dynastic Period. Very often barbers (the first in the world) would visit the homes of aristocrats, and offered services to commoners in public houses.
While facial hair was considered lowly and was removed, the beard was still considered to be an attribute of the gods. Remarkably, men shaved off their beards and then donned artificial beards. This was a symbol of status, but no one wore a false beard longer or more robust than the Pharaoh. The Pharaoh, believed to be as a living god, would shave clean and wear a false beard tied on with a cord.
Indeed, false hair was seen as such an emblem of prominence that Queen Hatshepsut, a female Pharaoh who ruled for 22 years, took to wearing a fake beard as well.
Head of a Sphinx of Hatshepsut, Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt, c. 1503-1482 BC. Patches of blue paint on the false beard are still visible, as are traces of yellow and blue on the nemes royal headdress. (Postdlf / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The shape and sizes of these goat-hair false beards varied by Pharaoh. They could be thick and short, wider at the bottom. They could be long and narrow, braided all the way down and curved at the end, like the one presented on Tutanhkamun’s gold mask.
Tutankhamun’s mask with beard and headdress represented. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Influential Egyptian Style
Wealthy women used elaborately carved combs, and hairpins, and sometimes decorated hair and wigs with flowers or linen ribbons. Ancient mummies and burials have revealed various items to style or secure hair and hairpieces, such as diadems (a headband-like crown) fashioned of gold, and featuring beads and semi-precious stones.
Piece representing an 19th Dynasty Egyptian wig with diadem. (Public Domain)
Wigs and artificial extensions were costly, and quality reflected status. The more realistic the hair appeared, the more valuable the piece was. Due to the expense, wigs were meticulously cared for using vegetable oils or animal fats. To ensure longevity, these items were also handled with care, and stored in special boxes or chests. Such boxes have been recovered in ancient tombs, as they were buried with their owners to make the final trip into the afterlife.
In 2014 archaeologists found a number of human remains at Tell el-Amarna in Egypt, sporting elaborate and well-preserved hairstyles, including a woman who had more than 70 false hair extensions. Dyed red with henna, the extensions were attached to her head in various layers and heights around her head. Her complex hairstyle was typical of wigs and extensions used in everyday life, now a very rare find in ancient burials.
Braided hair prepared or wig making. (CC BY 2.0)
Other hairpieces revealed from the remains in Egypt included a woman who had extensions made of human hair of varying colors, suggesting to archaeologists they came from multiple people.
The iconic Nubian wig was worn in what was thought as an imitation of the ideally thick and luxurious hairstyles of the regional Nubian people (modern Sudan). The wig style, popular during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten and most associated with one of his wives, Kiya, in many ways resembles the modern ‘Afro’ hairstyle, and was made of a layer upon layer of tightly wound braids.
Close-up of an Egyptian alabaster canopic jar depicting a likeness of Amarna-era Queen Kiya wearing a Nubian wig. (CC BY-SA 2.5)
These iconic wig styles are now seen as symbols in themselves of ancient Egyptian culture.
However, from 305 BC to 30 BC, the Macedonian Greek Ptolemaic dynasty ruled in Egypt, and hairstyles changed. People wore fewer wigs and shifted away from the Egyptian styles of big, heavy, braided hairpieces, into a blend of Greek and Egyptian features, and natural hair was worn increasingly.
Greek and Roman Wigs – For Art and Style
Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle (Oecon. 4.14), suggested that wigs were introduced from Persia, and were in use in Asia Minor (present day Turkey).
Wigs were used in ancient Greek theater. Historical texts point to the hair color and style matching the archetypal characters. Black hair and beard represented a tyrant; Fair colored curls suggested a youthful hero; Red hair symbolically indicated a dishonest slave in comedy.
Mosaic, shown Gargoyles in form of Theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy. Roman artwork, 2nd century CE. (Public Domain)
There remains some debate on whether the elaborately braided (and sometimes towering) hairstyles of ancient Rome and Greece were natural hair styles, intricately sewn in place with needle or thread, or were indeed wigs, but it is believed that blonde wigs came into favor in ancient Rome, originating from Nordic slaves. It is said that Roman prostitutes were carefully restricted and organized, taxed, and law-bound to wear blonde wigs to indicate status. Eventually, these lighter shades of hair became fashionable in higher Roman womens’ circles, seen as racy and provocative, and as such elaborate, multicolored wigs became the height of fashion, and blonde hair seemed to become the desired hair color for the Greeks.
Archaeologist Elizabeth Barman writes in “Hair and the Artifice of Roman Female Adornment”:
“Ample literary sources document women's (as well as men's) use of wigs and hairpieces, and the extensive vocabulary they employ suggests a wide range of options. Capillamentum, corymbium, galerum and τρίχωμα are favorite, but by no means the only, terms attested.
Most wigs in antiquity were made of human hair and fashioned with a level of beauty and craftsmanship largely unobtainable today. (In modern times synthetic hair has replaced natural human hair in all but the most expensive wigs.) Although no Roman wigs have survived, evidence from pharaonic Egypt attests to the high quality of ancient hairpieces.
The blond hair of Germans and jet black of Indians was preferred for artificial attachments, but it is unclear whether their desirability stemmed from their color or texture. While black Indian hair, documented in a late source, was no doubt obtained through trade, the blond hair of Germans was one of the spoils of war, at least in the early Imperial period. Both Ovid and Martial refer to ‘captured’ hair (captivos crines), making an explicit link between the commodification of hair and Roman power.”
Both men and women wore wigs to hide illness or undesirable balding, as disguise, for fashion or as social signifier. Statuary now showcases the myriad examples of hairstyle and wigs worn by ancient Greeks and Romans.
Portrait of a woman of the Flavian period, marble. The portrait bust of a young woman (Julia, daughter of Titus?). Marble. 80s—90s AD. Shows ultra-elaborate hair styles worn by upper-class Roman women of the time. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Not everyone was on board with wigs and hairpieces. The ancient Christian church forbade the wearing of any artificial hair in 672 AD, but as we can see with their continued popularity today, that sanction did not slow down the use of wigs.
Asian Wigs Reserved for Professions
Wigs are repeatedly mentioned in the ancient “Book of Songs”, the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry, but were rarely used in everyday life.
To show they were unmarried, young Chinese women would wear their natural hair down, a sign of health and beauty. It was very seldom cut or covered, as Confucian values held that hair was a parental gift to be preserved with utmost respect. Married women wore their hair up more frequently, but people of ancient civilizations of the far east reserved wigs and artificial hair for male actors performing traditional theaters, such as Noh or Kabuki, and for female entertainers or artists such as the Korean Kisaeng or Japanese geisha.
Geisha/geiko Kimiha in a nihongami wig and a somber black kimono. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Ceremonial Headdresses and Wigs for the Dead
Wigs have been found in archaeological and burial sites throughout cultures, showing that people intended to look as good in the afterlife as they did in the living realms.
Long, heavy wigs were worn in the ancient South American Wari culture from the south coast of Peru, although they’re often categorized as headdresses rather than hair extensions. These were made of cotton, alpaca wool, human hair, and plant fiber.
Wig/Ceremonial Headdress of the Wari People, 600-1000 C.E (Brooklyn Museum / CC BY)
Human hair was used to fashion the thin, long braids which hung from a cap made of wool or plant material. The ends of the braids were decorated with wool strips dyed in various colors, including blue, red, white and yellow or gold.
Wig headdresses have been found with ancient preserved Wari mummies. Headpieces are typically found with mummies that are believed to have been elite Wari state representatives. After the body was prepared for burial in a bundle, a false head representing the deceased was added, and a wig was placed atop it.
Museum installation featuring Chinchorro mummy exhibit, south coast of Peru or north coast of Chile, 5000-2000 BC. (Public Domain)
European Style – Bigger and Bolder is Better
When Rome fell so too did wigs. It was not until a thousand years later that wigs or artificial hairpieces came back into use in Europe. During the 16th and 17th centuries, unhygienic conditions and head lice were dealt with by shaving off natural hair and replacing it with a wig which could be de-loused more easily.
England’s Queen Elizabeth I’s (1158-1603) red wig became a signature of sorts. It was a brilliant hue, tightly curled in a "Roman" style. She is said to have had a collection of more than 80 wigs to not only make a strong impression, but to cover thinning hair as she aged. The symbol was of such importance that when Elizabeth died, a traditional effigy was placed atop her coffin for the funeral procession, and it wore one of her wigs.
Queen Elizabeth I with signature red wig and headdress. The "Rainbow Portrait", c. 1600. (Public Domain)
However, we probably would not be wearing wigs today if it were not for King Louis XIII of France.
In the early 17th century, men’s wigs became fashionable, but only after King Louis (1601 - 1643) started losing his hair prematurely during his early 20’s. To cover his embarassment, he took to wearing wigs. In support, as well as to mimic the power of a monarch, or simply to demonstrate high fashion sense, French nobility began wearing similar wigs, whether they were balding or not. Soon, it became a social signifier, and men, if they wanted to move upwards in society, had to wear one.
Detail; Men’s wigs of the 17th century. (Public Domain)
Men’s wigs were long and richly styled, sometimes with bows and braids. Some came to shoulder length and were parted in the middle, with bangs or fringe. They could be curled or crimped. Later, the style was to have thick curls at the forehead, while the sides were arranged in horizontal rows along the sides of the face. These outrageous styles of wigs (perukes or periwigs) spread to the rest of Europe, and the trend to go bigger and bolder resulted. It became obvious that the higher your social status, the more extravagant the wig, hence the expression “bigwig”—now indicating an important person.
Illustration, Five Orders of Periwigs, 1761. (Public Domain)
Women wore elaborate extensions on their natural hair, sometimes dyed into pastel colors such as pink, purple or blue, featuring intricate or fanciful hairpieces and ornaments.
Detail; Portrait of Marie-Antoinette of Austria wearing the distinctive pouf style: her own natural hair is extended on the top with an artificial hairpiece with feathers, ribbon and jewelry. 1775. (Public Domain)
An entire culture evolved around European wigs and wig care. Special rooms were designated as ‘powder rooms’ (we still use the term today). In these wig closets or powder closets, wigs were thoroughly dusted with orris-root powder, starch, or cyprus powder to remove the smell (and sometimes the presence) of vermin. Bear grease was used by the less well-off, and the richer men and women used Pomatum, which was a scented cement typically composed of mutton suet and lard. As fatty pastes were used to secure the wigs, mice or rats were attracted to the hairpieces, and could sometimes be found burrowed inside. British sailors were said to use tar to secure their false hair.
To powder the wig, a special, protective dressing gown was worn over the clothing, and the wig (and wig wearer) would be thoroughly dusted.
In certain countries judges or lawyers/barristers still today wear these ceremonial false wigs as part of the official dress.
Legal wigs today - wigs as court dress. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
In the modern age we continue to wear wigs for many purposes in a vast myriad of styles, continuing a very ancient tradition of cultural, aesthetic and societal expression.
Featured image: Deriv; Egyptian couple wearing formal wigs of the 4th of 5th dynasties (CC BY-SA 3.0) and Bust of a Roman woman wearing a "diadem" wig, circa 80 CE. (Public Domain)
"Wigs." Fashion, Costume, and Culture: Clothing, Headwear, Body Decorations, and Footwear through the Ages. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. 11 Dec. 2015 [Online] Available at: http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Wigs.aspx
Abigail Pesta, 2014. On Pins and Needles: Stylist Turns Ancient Hairdo Debate on Its Head. 2013. WSJ.com [Online] Available here.
wig. (2015). In Encyclopædia Britannica. [Online] Available at: http://www.britannica.com/topic/wig
Jimmy Dunn. Facial Hair (specifically beards) in Ancient Egypt. 2013. TourEgypt.net [Online] Available at: http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/beards.htm
Hill, J. Royal Emblems: Scepters and Staffs. 2010. AncientEgyptOnline.co.uk [Online] Available at: http://www.ancientegyptonline.co.uk/royalemblems.html
Bartman, Elizabeth. "Hair and the Artifice of Roman Female Adornment". Am J Archaeol, 2001. [Online] Available here.
Brooklyn Museum. “Wig Headdress: Arts of the Americas”. BrooklynMusuem.org 2015. [Online] Available at: https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/51694/Wig_Headdress
Sherrow, Victoria. “Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History”. Published by Greenwood (Feb. 28 2006)