For over a century, European men refused to go outside without first donning an enormous wig. At the time, the headpiece was better known as a peruke or periwig, and just like other bizarre fashion trends, the peruke wig has a fascinating history. It turns out that powdered wigs weren't as innocent as they look - there's a surprising secret hidden in peruke history.
Why did men wear wigs? It wasn't just to show off their manly hair-growing powers. In fact, many donned wigs to cover up a sexually transmitted disease. Syphilis ravaged Europe for centuries, and one common side effect was patchy hair loss. And that's only the beginning when it comes to powdered wigs and syphilis. The enormous wigs could also cover open sores and a multitude of other sins.
But wigs weren't just enormous flashing signs pointing out STDs. They became fashionable in large part because of vanity. Similarly, America's first president George Washington, who styled his hair to look like a wig, bought teeth from his slaves to hide the fact that all his own teeth had fallen out. Vanity makes one do odd things. Wigs were also popular for the ladies, who never shied away from scandalous fashion trends. But aristocrats, who spent huge sums to pile their heads with human hair, were furious when commoners tried to adopt their fashion trend. That lasted until the French Revolution, which subsequently didn't go great for the aristocrats.
Syphilis began to spread in Europe in the 1490s. Known as the pox or the French disease, syphilis was spread by sexual contact, and before the development of antibiotics, there was no cure. The more minor symptoms included patchy hair loss and open sores, but during the late stages of the disease, the afflicted could lose eyes, noses, and hands, and syphilis also attacked the brain, causing insanity.
But Europeans devised a new way to hide evidence of their venereal diseases: wigs. Long hair was a status symbol, and rather than show off a bald head, wealthy Europeans turned to wigs to hide the symptoms of syphilis.
Bald patches and bloody sores were among the most visible proof of a syphilis infection. The rise of the STD, which rivaled the Black Plague in how quickly it spread across Europe, drove a major change in fashion. Suddenly everyone was clamoring for wigs to hide their bald heads and sores.
Wigs became big business. Originally made from horse, goat, or human hair, wigs were expensive accessories. Inexpensive versions might be made from wool. In 1673, France created an independent wigmakers' guild for master wigmakers. A century later, in 1771, there were nearly one thousand wigmakers in the country.
An insecure monarch turned wigs into a major fashion statement. France's Louis XIV became king when he was only five years old, and he was still a teenager when he started balding. Louis was obsessed with his reputation, hiring artists to paint his portraits, sculpt statues in his honor, and create coins commemorating his greatness. But being bald didn't fit with the proper image of the Sun King.
So the king naturally hired 48 wigmakers. Louis wasn't shy about piling on the hair - any of the wigs added several inches to the king's height. But even though the wigs covered up Louis's baldness, they couldn't hide the rumor that the king had syphilis.
During an era when long hair was a status symbol, syphilis was more than just an incurable STD - it was also a social disaster. Diarist Samuel Pepys summed up that attitude when he learned that his brother had syphilis: "If [my brother] lives," Pepys wrote in his diary, "he will not be able to show his head - which will be a very great shame to me."
Baldness was a black eye on any man's reputation, and men went to great lengths to hide their hair loss, even turning to expensive powdered wigs.