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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!).
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:
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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.
Louis XIV’s mistress, Françoise-Athénaïs de Rochechouart, Marquise de Montespan, did the same.
Louis XIV’s second wife, Françoise d’Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon, also stuck with her natural color.
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.
Louis XV’s wife, Queen Marie Leszczynska of Poland, also powdered her hair, again in shades of grey — some lighter, some darker.
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).
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.
King Louis XVI’s wigs are all light grey.
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.
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.
France and Great Britain sometimes did things differently, so let’s compare.
Queen Anne was no style leader, but her hair shows a range of natural, medium brown colors.
King George I wears a light grey powdered wigs on the left, and either dark grey or brown on the right.
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.
George II’s wife, Queen Caroline of Ansbach, appears to have blonde hair but she’s definitely wearing powder over it.
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.
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.
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. 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) 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) got their mid-18th century formal court styles right: grey and matte with powder.
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.
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) could use a higher ratio of powdered wigs to unpowdered, but those they powdered they did very well!
Very, Very Bad Representations of 18th-c. Hair/Wigs on Screen
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) went only semi-shiny — compare with a real 18th-century powdered wig on the right.
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) has BALLS OUT gorgeous hairstyles … but all the wigs, on men and women, are too uniform white and WAY too shiny.
Scaramouche (1952) has MANY DEEP-SEATED ISSUES. Shiny, plasticky white wigs are among them. Go to therapy!
Then downgrades into shiny white wigs. WHY.
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.
There’s a lot that’s wrong with Valmont (1989), one element of which is the lack of any powder on anyone’s hair.
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.
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.
Maria Theresia (2017-19) did the same things, sometimes with crappily styled (if matte) white wigs…
Sometimes with blonde, which, why? The actress is clearly shown to have light brown hair when undressed, FYI.
And now you know!