Throughout the 1700s, wigs were commonplace as headdresses for men and women of prestige and position. A reflection of the life of excess and extravagance led by those of power, prestige and wealth, powdered wigs were an expense only the very wealthy could afford. Families often had rooms dedicated to getting dressed, as well as special dressing gowns and paper cones to cover their clothes and face while their wigs were powdered.
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The Beginnings of Powdering
Women of high birth have, throughout history, created elaborately decorated and styled hairdos. It wasn't until the 1700s, however, that the styled natural hair (plus the occasional extension) of European and American women gave way to wigs that were powdered. Men's wigs were the inspiration. However, as the century progressed, the wigs of men became simpler and more imitative of natural hairstyles, while the wigs worn by women became increasingly fanciful and outlandish. Powdering a wig white signified high rank or birth, while adding a masking perfume that was reinforced by the powdering of the face and neck.
A style icon of her day (just as Princess Diana was a late 20th century icon), Marie Antoinette set the bar for outlandishly tall, elaborately decorated wigs in the late 1700s. Her hairdressers used tons of pomade and padding to create skyscraping hairdos that often weighed 5 or more pounds and stood up to 3 feet high. Her powdered wigs contained jewels, feathers and hair extensions and were imitated by other members of the French court and soon ladies of fashion throughout Europe and in the American colonies. Sofia Coppola's 2006 movie "Marie Antoinette" offers multiple images of these outlandish wigs.
Colonial American Women
Many colonial women of the early 1700s in America were hardworking wives who did not have much occasion for elaborate coifs or wigs. However, as the century developed, families grew in wealth and prosperity, and American woman turned up at balls and celebrations in the most up-to-date fashions of the time, including powdered wigs. Ladies of high rank and social privilege began to dress in the European fashion as they visited each other and attended the balls and family weddings of their social class. Unlike men, women of the 18th century reserved their wearing of powdered, high-fashion wigs for special occasions, as they still spent much of their daily life overseeing households and raising children.
Hats and Decorative Additions
The extravagant explosion of powdered wigs in the latter part of the 1700s included a variety of hats and decorative touches. Most women's powdered wigs of this time featured ribbons, jewels and feathers. However, many powdered wigs were taken to more outlandish extremes, adding objects such as miniature ships, flags, and replicas of plants, animals and insects. Not only were these massive wigs decorated, they were often adorned with hats as well, creating a sort of "leaning tower of wig" with the wig standing over 2 feet tall and capped with a height-adding hat or the hood of a cloak.
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