16. King Charles II’s vanity made wigs the must-have fashion item of 17th century London
At some point in the 1650s, King Charles II started losing his hair. Even though he was still in his 20s, it’s possible that he was just balding prematurely. However, it’s far more likely that he was actually suffering from syphilis. Afraid that he would be mocked, he tasked his courtiers to find him the best wigs money could buy. Satisfied with what they brought him, Charles started wearing a wig every day – and a new trend was born in England.
However, Charles was not the first monarch to inspire his subjects to start wearing wigs. Across the sea, King Louis XIV of France had done so a few years before. He too suffered from syphilis and wanted to cover up some of the most obvious symptoms. The Sun King as he was known reputedly hired 48 wigmakers and kept a huge collection of hair pieces. Eager to win his favor, French nobles started wearing wigs, too, even spending large sums of money on pieces made by the same specialists that supplied the court.
In England, as soon as Charles stared sporting a hairpiece, aristocrats started following suit. It even became fashionable among the wealthier members of the middle classes, despite the fact that a new wig cost the equivalent of a week’s wages. Unsurprisingly, people used the fashion craze to show off. Over time, wigs became bigger, more flamboyant and more perfumed. The term âbigwig’ was coined to describe someone who was able – and indeed willing – to spend a large sum of money on a wig they didn’t even really need.
Even when both Louis and Charles died, the fashion for wigs refused to go away. In fact, it endured for another 100 years. This is because many people realised that, as well as being trendy, wigs were practical, too. Unlike real hair, they could be taken off and deloused – a big advantage in a time when almost everyone was infected with headlice.