SNARK WEEK: White Wigs

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One of the greatest misconceptions in the depiction of historical dress — okay, specifically 18th-century dress — on-screen is the concept of white wigs. It seems to be a truism that EVERYONE (men and women) is shown wearing shiny white wigs since the earliest days of cinema. This is something I touched on in our very first Snark Week, and in SO MANY of my reviews of 18th-century-set movies and TV shows, but Trystan thought it needed a whole focused post, so here we are (Note: Trystan is our task master!).

 

The History

Some of you may know that I wrote a book on 18th-century hairstyles and wigs. It’s currently out of print, but I REALLY WILL be bringing out a second edition sometime in the next few months. I’m drawing on the research I did for that book here when I summarize:

  1. Only men wore full, obvious wigs in the 18th century

Why did wigs come into fashion? Like any new style or trend, the origins are murky. One key element was King Louis XIV of France (reigned 1643-1715), who had long, curly hair. As a style setter, much of the French aristocracy followed his lead, and for those who didn’t already have long, thick hair, a wig was the solution. As Louis himself got older, his own hair thinned, and he began to wear wigs himself. Over time, the situation changed so that instead of wearing wigs as a means of making yourself appear to have the desired style, the wigs themselves became fashionable, and by the early 18th century, men began to wear wigs very obviously. These became associated with different ranks and professions, such that men’s hairstyles often became fossilized — while the fashion might be for a new style, a doctor might continue to wear a “physical wig” styled in the short bob style of the 1730s decades after that was in fashion as a sign of his trade.

Note the obvious, artificial wig line around the face | Patrick John McMor(e)land (Scottish, 1741-circa 1809) A Cleric, wearing black cloak, white bands and powdered physical wig. | Bonhams

  1. Women could wear wigs, but if they did, they tried to hide that fact

Beauty ideals for women did not adopt the obviously artificial look of men’s wigs. Women generally wore their own hair, styled over pads and frames when needed, with false hair additions. If a woman really had thin hair, she might wear a wig, but she would work her own hair into it so that it appeared natural.

There’s no way that’s all her own hair, but notice how natural it looks around the face | Anne, Duchess of Cumberland by Thomas Gainsborough (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool UK), c. 1780 | Gogmsite.net

  1. The desired color for most of the century was grey, not white

When wigs first came into fashion, they were a luxury item. White hair was hard to come by, and so in the early 18th century there was a trend for wigs made from white hair. Most people couldn’t afford these, and so a cheaper substitute was another color with powder added to lighten the color. Powder wasn’t only about color change; it was used to degrease the hair, just like dry shampoo does today. Given that people didn’t wash and reset their hair or wigs every day, powder was an important part of wig care.

However, for most shades of hair other than blonde, white powder applied over medium to dark hair creates shades of grey, not white. You would have to have really light colored hair to be able to achieve white solely with powder. What I’ve seen, in general, is:

  • 17th century: natural hair colors
  • Early to mid-18th century: powder used to create lighter grey colors
  • Mid- to late-18th century: powder used to create darker colors
  • After c. 1789: it’s not until after the French Revolution that powdered hair/wigs start to go out of fashion

Because I have been accused previously of talking out of my ass, here’s my key secondary references for this research:

  • Kendra Van Cleave, 18th Century Hair & Wig Styling: History & Step-by-Step Techniques. Self-published, 2014.
  • Janet Arnold, Perukes & Periwigs (London: H.M.S.O., 1970).
  • Anne Buck, Dress in Eighteenth-Century England (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1979).
  • Lynn Festa, “Personal Effects: Wigs and Possessive Individualism in the Long Eighteenth Century” Eighteenth-Century Life 29, no. 2 (Spring 2005).
  • Michael Kwass, “Big Hair: A Wig History of Consumption in Eighteenth-Century France,” American Historical Review 111, no. 3 ( June 2006).
  • Marcia R. Pointon, Hanging the Head: Portraiture and Social Formation in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993).
  • John Styles, The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007).

Let’s take a look at how this played by looking at hair color and powdering trends from the late 17th century through the late 18th. Because there’s no way I can summarize everything, I’m going to focus on the two main style leaders of Western Europe — France and Great Britain — and primarily on their royal families, as these might be the most fashionable and definitely dressed the most formally.

France

Wig-wearing as a fashion trend appears to have begun in 17th-century France, but was it was a male style. Neither men or nor women tend to be depicted with any powder.

King Louis XIV wore his own dark brown hair color throughout his life.

Louis XIV’s wife, Queen Marie-Thérèse of Spain, rocked her natural blonde.

Françoise-Athénaïs de Rochechouart, Marquise de Montespan

Louis XIV’s mistress, Françoise-Athénaïs de Rochechouart, Marquise de Montespan, did the same.

Françoise d'Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon

Louis XIV’s second wife, Françoise d’Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon, also stuck with her natural color.

Louis XV

It’s during the reign of King Louis XV that we see first white wigs, and then powdered wigs, come into fashion. Note that three older images all depict a matte shade of grey, not stark white.

Marie Leszczynska

Louis XV’s wife, Queen Marie Leszczynska of Poland, also powdered her hair, again in shades of grey — some lighter, some darker.

Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour

Louis XV’s mistress, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour, was much more fashionable than the queen. She too wore powder and her hair is very much a medium grey (she probably had brown hair underneath).

Jeanne Bécu, Comtesse du Barry

Louis XV’s mistress, Jeanne Bécu, Comtesse du Barry, was known for her blonde hair. She appears to be wearing very little powder in the 1770s image, as you can see a lot of the warm blonde coming through. In the 1770-74 image, she’s grey around the face and blonde on top/on the ends; and in 1781, she’s all light grey.

Louis XVI

King Louis XVI’s wigs are all light grey.

Charles Philippe, Count of Artois

Louis was pretty stodgy, so let’s compare him with his younger, more fashionable brother, Charles Philippe, Count of Artois. The Comte d’Artois’s wigs are similarly light grey.

Marie-Antoinette of Austria

Louis XVI’s wife, Queen Marie-Antoinette of Austria, demonstrates a range of hair colors. She had strawberry blonde hair, so it’s interesting that nonetheless some of the images (1778) are blonder, and some (1785, 1787, 1788) are a real dark grey.

Great Britain

France and Great Britain sometimes did things differently, so let’s compare.

Anne, Queen of Great Britain

Queen Anne was no style leader, but her hair shows a range of natural, medium brown colors.

King George I

King George I wears a light grey powdered wigs on the left, and either dark grey or brown on the right.

George II

King George II again shows a range of colors. It’s interesting to note that he’s one of the few to really be wearing “white” wigs, in 1706 (with a touch of pink?) and 1727. That 1727 image is as white as wigs get.

Caroline of Ansbach

George II’s wife, Queen Caroline of Ansbach, appears to have blonde hair but she’s definitely wearing powder over it.

George II's daughters

Several of George II’s daughters, since Caroline was no fashionista. On the left, she’s got her natural dark brown color, with grey-ish white and white on the others. Again, this is as white as things get.

George III

King George III definitely preferred a lighter grey-ish white — note that none of these are really stark white. The 1754 image is interesting because of the powder you can see on his hairline, and the 1779 wig really shows the artificial wig line that was a feature of men’s wigs.

Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz

George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz had brown hair. There was a trend for natural hair colors in 1760s England, and that shows in the 1761 and 1767 images. Otherwise, she’s got a range of medium to dark grey going on here.

George III's daughters by Gainsborough, 1784

George III’s daughters by Gainsborough, 1784. All three clearly have warm hair colors (blonde?), but note the color mix and how the hair on the left is lighter around the face — all three are wearing hair powder. AND NONE ARE PAINT WHITE.

 

18th-Century Hair/Wigs on Screen

So, who’s gotten it right-ish? And who’s gotten it very, very wrong?

Decent to Good Representations of 18th-c. Hair/Wigs on Screen

Barry Lyndon (1975) is a mixed bag, hair color wise, but I thought this was a good representation of a “white” wig on screen. It’s not stark white, it’s not plasticky and shiny.

The women’s hair similarly runs the gamut, but there are times like this when Lady Lyndon is letting her own hair color show but clearly has powdered it, which works well for me.

La Révolution Française (1989) got so many things right about late 18th-century hairlines, including this light, warm greyish blonde on Marie Antoinette.

Orlando (1992) did a good job at powdering in the 18th-century scenes.

The Madness of King George (1994) gets SO MANY things right, like this light grey hair color on Queen Charlotte — but what they don’t get so right is the obvious wigline around the face.

However, the super artificial, super powdered wigs on the male characters are SPOT ON. Love the range of colors, and doctor on the right is what a “white wig” should look like.

Jefferson in Paris (1995)

Jefferson in Paris (1995) is one of my favorite 18th-century hair movies. Check out Marie-Antoinette on the left, with her blonde hair powdered around the face, and compare the style with the two period portraits on the right.

Aristocrats (1999)

Aristocrats (1999) got their mid-18th century formal court styles right: grey and matte with powder.

Aristocrats (1999)

I’ve always liked this 1780s hairstyle from the series, in which it appears she’s got some powder around the face but the bulk of her hair shows her natural color.

Aristocrats (1999)

Aaaand then there’s the red hair for informal occasions, which would have been a HUGE no-no in the era — sadly, red hair was considered hideous in this era.

mademoiselle paradis (2017)

Mademoiselle Paradis (2017) could use a higher ratio of powdered wigs to unpowdered, but those they powdered they did very well!

2018 One Nation One King

One Nation One King (2018) is UTTER AND COMPLETE wig PORN.

 

Very, Very Bad Representations of 18th-c. Hair/Wigs on Screen

1919 Madame du Barry

Madame du Barry (1919) got the matte look, but embraced the stark-white-on-everyone look.

Orphans of the Storm (1921) was totally winging it when it came to the women’s hair, and that’s a whole lot of white hair there.

Monsieur Beaucaire (1924)

Monsieur Beaucaire (1924) went only semi-shiny — compare with a real 18th-century powdered wig on the right.

1933 voltaire

Voltaire (1933) did the same. There’s just no way this is this guy’s real hair (they’ve used a lace front wig, which gives you a natural hairline but ISN’T the 18th-century look), and in particular that ringlet is far too shiny! POWDER THAT SUCKER

Marie Antoinette (1938)

Marie Antoinette (1938) has BALLS OUT gorgeous hairstyles … but all the wigs, on men and women, are too uniform white and WAY too shiny.

Scaramouche (1952)

Scaramouche (1952) has MANY DEEP-SEATED ISSUES. Shiny, plasticky white wigs are among them. Go to therapy!

1954 Madame du Barry

In Madame du Barry (1954), she starts off blonde…

1954 Madame du Barry

Then downgrades into shiny white wigs. WHY.

Start the Revolution Without Me (1970) isn’t the worst I’ve ever seen, but those wigs are far too shiny and should not look like the actors’ natural hair.

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Dangerous Liaisons (1988), I’m sorry to say, should have ALL its characters powdered UP THE WAZOO. Only in the final scene does the marquise bust out some hair powder.

Okay, but they do a relatively good job putting the vicomte into powdered wigs. I’d say it’s a wash, but he’s the only one compared to several main female characters who are sans powder.

1989 Valmont

There’s a lot that’s wrong with Valmont (1989), one element of which is the lack of any powder on anyone’s hair.

Ridicule (1996)

Despite a scene in which Fanny Ardant is stark naked in order to be powdered by her servants, she wears her own brown hair color throughout Ridicule (1996) … until these weird, two-tone wigs show up. WHAT THE ACTUAL HELL IS GOING ON HERE. Occasionally you see real 18th-century hairstyles where there’s more powder around the face, and so the hair is lighter there, but never the reverse, and NEVER this stark contrast. I may never recover.

As I outlined in my hair review of Poldark (2015-19), there’s a shocking lack of powder. Yes, things are STARTING to transition away from powder, but we’re in the country so they should be rocking more traditional looks.

Velikaya aka Catherine the Great (2015)

Then there’s productions like Velikaya aka Catherine the Great (2015), which puts it’s demonstrably dark-haired female characters into white wigs (granted, at least they’re matte) instead of powdering their hair.

2017 Maria Theresia ep1

Maria Theresia (2017-19) did the same things, sometimes with crappily styled (if matte) white wigs…

2017 Maria Theresia ep1

Sometimes with blonde, which, why? The actress is clearly shown to have light brown hair when undressed, FYI.

And now you know!

 

 

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

10 Responses

  1. Jill

    I am reminded of the “why don’t I have three heads?” scene in Amadeus. Maybe the wigs are a stretch, but it was fun seeing someone get “powdered.”

    Reply
  2. Susan Pola Staples

    And I remember theq line uttered by Donald Sutherland ‘And I shall be queen.’ from Start the Revolution.

    Reply
  3. Eset

    To play devil’s advocate for silent black and white movies I think they used stark white wigs because they showed better on the film. Kind of like blondes had to be platinum blonde in order to register blonde on camera at all.

    Reply
    • Shashwat

      I might be wrong(I know zilch about handling a camera)but didn’t they use blush pink fabrics to read matte white on camera?Pink wigs would have similarly read white.
      I don’t think wigs were ever stark white-they were shiny platinum blondes that read shiny white on camera.Colour photographs from the era show this clearly.Besides stark white had a “burning” effect on the film so it was avoided at all costs.

      Reply
      • hsc

        Black and white film stock changed over time to permit a greater range of colors to be recorded as shades of gray.

        In the earliest silent films, the orthochromatic stock was so limited in sensitivity and skewed– blues tended to come out too light, reds/yellows too dark– that the makeup on the actors had to be wildly unnatural colors, in order to get something that would read on film.

        It went beyond the stark “pale face / dark eyes and lips” contrast we associate with silent films. I’ve read accounts of actors in the early days with their faces painted yellow with blue lips (or blue faces with yellow lips, depending on the source). Blonde hair would register way too dark, and blue eyes way too light.

        By the early ’20s, panchromatic stock was introduced, and by the end of the silent era, the sensitivity of film stock had improved to the point where a greater range of grays could register and makeup could be more normal. (Also, by this point, Max Factor had developed special makeup for screen use rather than stage use.)

        However, care still had to be taken with sets and costumes. As you point out, pastel colors were used instead of white, because actual white would “blow out” in B/W, even though everything else was registering correctly.

        This was a problem that continued in color photography, where pure whites could present lighting problems and had to be used with caution, if at all. (This is likely why Glinda’s costume isn’t white sprinkled with sparkling stars, like the original Good Witch of the North, though it may have also been a choice made to flatter Billie Burke.)

        There was also the problem that two different colors could translate in B/W as an identical shade of gray and show no contrast. Because of this, Superman’s iconic red and blue costume was represented by other colors (brown and gray, IIRC) until the later seasons, when the show went to color episodes.

        One other point– you have to take any “color” promotional images from pre-’60s films with a grain of salt, because so many were actually tinted B/W photos. They don’t necessarily reflect what the costume in a B/W film “really looked like.”

        Reply
  4. hsc

    This is an incredibly informative post amidst all the fun snark! I really enjoyed this!

    A couple of questions, though:

    1) Wasn’t there a point where powdering the hair (and face) suddenly went out of fashion because the powders used were declared toxic and linked to the unexpected death of a young and previously healthy, well-liked noblewoman?

    Or is this just more “hairdo urban legend,” like “rats living in the wigs” (and the 1960s version “black widow spiders / roaches in the beehive”)?

    2) This point was brought up in the comments on the post on BRIDGERTON hairstyles, but since this post includes examples of the particular hairstyle in question, and since you’ve done a LOT of research on 18th c. hair, I’ll ask this here:

    In the comments there, it was alleged that the 1780s trend towards a rounded mass of poofed-out / frizzed hair was “culturally appropriated” from enslaved people– but with no solid evidence to establish this, apparently.

    Have you encountered anything in your research that supports this?

    On the one hand, I can see the distinct possibility this was done, because of the way “exotic” non-whites were being incorporated into decorative motifs and artworks by Europeans. This clearly documented behavior and the way the hairstyle looked certainly make appropriation seem like a given.

    But on the other hand, a good number of Europeans naturally have tightly curly to downright uncontrollably frizzy hair (e.g. Elsa Lanchester, Art Garfunkel), so it doesn’t necessarily have to be something appropriated from enslaved sub-Saharan Africans’ “natural hairstyles.”

    (Furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be evidence put forth by those making the claim that enslaved people were even wearing “Afro”-type hairstyles at this time.)

    And I’d think that the hairstyle would have been more obviously named (like “blackamoor” ornamentation) by a dominant group appropriating from a subjugated group, if that was what was going on here.

    Also, wasn’t there a progression to this style from the “Pouf” to an earlier, more vertical version of the “Hedgehog” (with a sort of evenly-trimmed “flat-top” effect to the hair ends) to the fully blown-out rounded shape of the 1780s?

    Thanks for any input you can give!

    Reply
  5. Anna

    Anyone else flashing back to the extra-shiny wigs in Singin’ in the Rain, where Lina Lamont complains about how heavy her wig is?

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      That movie is one of my guilty pleasures. Jean Hagan is basically my spiritual twin sister.

      Reply
  6. Damnitz

    There are some examples of original white wigs in the book “Lockenpracht und Herrschermacht” and the materials are sometimes surprising. But they are just not looking like poorly produced plastic wigs.

    I have to say, that I don’t like the wig on your example from “One nation, one king” as it is looking too much simplified with these long hairs pushed back. That’s more looking like an “ordinary” modern long hair wig used for the job and not like a wig especially made for the film.

    I’m very often looking on old photos from events in the past of our reenactors and it’s remarkable that at least for the women more are thinking about the right hairstyle which should correspond with their clothing. Maybe that’s the same in the world of cinema. Good wigs are not expensive compared with locations, actors etc. and can even help when the costumes are poorly made (as many costumes are in “Licht” for example).

    “Dangerous Liasions” has some very fine aspects (like locations, actors etc.) but I’m not in all cases happy with the costumes (it seems to me, that the coats of Valmont for example can’t be closed at the front, which would have been a major issue during the 1760s). No powder on the ladies and on Danceny for example are somehow a nitpick. We find the same in the otherwise very nice “Lady J” (F, 2018). But there are beards too and maybe they never had the intention to care about hairstyle.

    I never managed to get a wig which is perfect from a 18th century point of view, although I payed a lot of money and therefore I hope that my hair will do as long as I need 18th century hairstyle.

    I love to see nice wigs in movies. But that’s rare. We very often have reasonably good costumes but no care about haircut. I would love to see more of the complicated different styles of men’s wigs in cinema.

    Reply
  7. Miss Sphinx

    First off, thanks for the awesome article. Those shiny white plastic nightmares are a particular pet peeve of mine.

    Now, I’ve a somewhat odd question related to the acclaimed “One Nation, One King” and am hoping perhaps ye learned ladies of Frock Flicks or a particularly savvy reader might be able to help me. Since the comment section on the post on the movie’s costumes has been long closed, I thought I might give it a try here. It’s a very long shot, but who knows, I might be lucky…

    Having first read about “One Nation, One King” in this post, I immediately checked your costume anaysis out and was surprised to find that my favourite kitchen apron (or rather, the same fabric) stars as a working-class gown on an extra.

    Does anybody know where/if the yellow, floral-patterened printed cotton is still being made/sold?

    I’ve always looked at my apron, imagining how great an anglaise made of this fabric would look. Now that I know the fabric appears to still be around (and have seen my dream gown), I’m quite desperate to find it.

    Any suggestion, however tiny it may be, would be hugely, immensely appreciated.

    Reply

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