Wigs have been worn by both men and women since ancient times. Wigs are worn for a variety of different reasons, including protection, adornment, disguise, ritual, social or professional status, health or hygiene, and religious strictures. Wigs can be used to change hair color as well as make dramatic shifts in hairstyle from short to long and vice versa. The word wig is a shortening of the 17th century word periwig, which in the Anglicized version of the older French word perruque. The function of a wig is to cover the head with natural or synthetic hair fibers in an approximation of hair that grows out of the scalp. The intention might be to approximate or augment a natural head of hair or to create a completely new and fantastical look.
Wigs in ancient Egypt were worn at first for hygienic reasons. Heads of men, women, and children were shaved to protect against lice and other insect infestations. Wigs made from human or animal hair were also worn as adornment and as protection from the sun. The ancient peoples of Greece, Japan, China, and the Americas wore wigs for ritual or theatrical purposes. In Rome, a fondness for blonde and red hair created a fashion for wigs of these colors that continued through the Renaissance. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, wigs were a mark of status for both men and women, often created as towering confections powdered white and heavily decorated. Although wig size and interest declined in the 19th century, some members of British society still wore wigs into the 21st century, most notably attorneys and judges.
In today’s fashion, wigs are not necessarily seen as a mark of rank or profession, but as an ordinary part of fashion. Women and men of all ages and backgrounds wear wigs for fun, to liven up their looks. Others require wigs to cover baldness or thinning hair caused by disease or genetics. Patients undergoing chemotherapy usually lose their hair and wigs can bring a sense of normalcy back into their lives. This is especially important for children who have lost their hair, and many charities specialize in making wigs to fit their small heads.
Styles and Materials
Wigs for all sizes can be made in a variety of ways. The most natural-looking method is to use real human hair attached individually or in small groups onto a mesh base. These wigs are also the most costly. Human hair can also be sewn to strips called wefts and arranged in horizontal rows around a mesh cap. This gives the appearance of a balanced head of hair, but the style cannot be altered easily as the gaps between each row would show through. Human hair wigs require a great deal of attention and special cleaning and care to retain their natural look. Wigs meant to be worn daily must be cleaned at least once every two weeks. Hair that is removed from the head will start to dry out and break down, and although human hair wigs have a long life, they must be replaced after long-term wearing.
Hair of European origin is the most expensive and most prized for wig making because of the wide range of colors and textures available. Hair from India is one of the leading types available today because it is plentiful and relatively inexpensive, but there are limits to the color and texture and it can be difficult to work with.
Synthetic hair dominates the wig market today. Nylon and acetate are used to create realistic-looking hair fibers, as is Dynel, a synthetic fiber developed specifically for wig making. Occasionally, animal hair such as horse, sheep, or yak is blended with synthetic fibers to create a more realistic look. Synthetic wigs are much less expensive and easier to care for than natural hair wigs, but they have their drawbacks. Synthetic hair is much more difficult to style, as certain hair care products might cause a chemical reaction that can damage the color or texture of the wig. Synthetic hair is also flammable and much less tolerant of heat than natural hair; it can easily be melted with a curling iron or blow-dryer.
The wig market also includes a wide variety of smaller hairpieces such as wiglets, falls, pastiches, and novelty add-ons connected to combs or clips. Wigs for men are also quite common and known toupees. Regardless of their availability, wigs and toupees remain largely taboo, and individuals attempting to cover up hair loss are often ridiculed.