Wigs became popular because unhygienic conditions at the time meant that hair attacted a lot of head lice. Artificial headpieces could be more easily de-loused. In England, Queen Elizabeth I wore a red wig.
Periwigs, like the one shown above, became popular for men in England after King Charles II came to the Throne in 1660 after being in exile in France, where they were already popular, during the years of the English Republic.
Their use soon became popular in the English court. The London diarist Samuel Pepys recorded the day in 1665 that a barber had shaved his head and that he tried on his new periwig for the first time, but in a year of plague he was uneasy about wearing it:
"3rd September 1665: Up, and put on my coloured silk suit, very fine, and my new periwig, bought a good while since, but darst not wear it because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it. And it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwigs, for nobody will dare to buy any haire for fear of the infection? that it had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague."
Wigs were not without other drawbacks, as Pepys noted on 27 March 1663:
"I did go to the Swan; and there sent for Jervas my old periwig-maker and he did bring me a periwig; but it was full of nits, so as I was troubled to see it (it being his old fault) and did send him to make it clean."
Men's wigs were very popular in the 18th century and were an essential part of full-dress occasion right up to the last decade of that century. Most men powdered their wigs to give them a white or off-white colour, although sometimes men used coloured powder to make their wigs look violet, blue, pink or yellow. Wig powder was made from finely ground starch that was scented with orange flower, lavender, or orris root.
During the coronation of King George III in 1761 (above), the many forms of periwigs, some outlandish, that were worn by many of those attending were lampooned by British artist William Hogarth in his "Five Orders of Periwigs."
In his drawing he classifies wigs in the same way that classical architecture is classified into five orders: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Composite and Tuscan.
In his engraving, Hogarth postulates five "orders" of periwig, from the relatively simple "Episcopal" (for the clergy), through the "Old Peerian or Aldermanic" (for lords and council officials) and "Lexonic" (for lawyers) to the more ornate "Composite or Half Natural", and finally the effete "Queerinthian or Queue de Reynard" (a pun on the French for "foxtail"). Many of the faces in Hogarth's "Five Orders of Periwigs" (1761) are of real people. The woman in the bottom left corner is Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III.
In 1795, the British government levied a tax on hair powder of one guinea (21 shillings, or about £60 in today's money) per year. This tax effectively caused the demise of both the fashion for wigs and powder. Granville Leveson-Gower, in Paris during the winter of 1796, noted "The word citoyen seemed but very little in use, and hair powder being very common, the appearance of the people was less democratic than in England."
Today, despite almost now being extinct throughout the world, the wearing of periwigs does still survive in Britain, many other Commonwealth nations, and the Republic of Ireland. In those countries, periwigs are still worn by barristers, judges, and certain parliamentary and municipal or civic officials as a symbol of the office. A British judge