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The Flat Cap on ... Wigs

Earlier today The Flat Cap paid a visit to his local barbers. Despite the onset of middle age he’s always retained a good head of hair and it regularly needs cutting. The man in front of The Flat Cap hadn’t been quite so fortunate and he was just there, or so it seemed, to have what little hair he had shaved back down to the wood. This is the look popularised by actor Ross Kemp and it makes him look proper tough when he’s presenting programmes on gang culture, or visiting war zones. In days gone by he’d probably have had a Bobby Charlton comb over, or if he was really concerned he might have invested in a wig; or to give it its proper name a toupée. Nowadays going bald is a fashion statement and wig sales are probably struggling as a result. Thinking about wigs prompted The Flat Cap to find out a bit more about them and their origins.

Some wigs look really obvious; even though they’re not meant to. Other wigs, like those worn by women on hen parties, are meant to look obvious. And some people’s hair is so awful that it just looks like a cheap wig. Wigs weren’t always available cheaply though. In ancient Egypt only rich people were allowed to wear wigs. If you were a slave or a servant you were forbidden by law to either shave your head, or wear a wig. It’s a good job Ross Kemp wasn’t born until thousands of years later, or born in Egypt, because he’d likely have been in one of the prisons that he visits as part of his television documentaries. To keep their wigs in place the Egyptians would use beeswax or resin. The wigs stopped the top of heads from getting sunburnt. Ross Kemp would have needed a wide brimmed hat, or a baseball cap.

As well as the Egyptians other civilisations like the Greeks and the Romans wore wigs. However wig wearing sort of died out with the fall of the Roman Empire. Look at your Vikings and your Anglo Saxons for example and they’ve all got their own hair. This unkempt look made marauding gangs appear more fearsome and decent people tended to shy away from them whenever they went rampaging, or pillaging, or looting. In pretty much the same way people now tend to avoid Ozzy Osbourne and the likes of the Hairy Bikers after they’ve been drinking wine. So it wasn’t until the sixteenth century that wig making underwent a resurgence. Fed up with visits from the nit nurse Queen Elizabeth I decided it would just be easier if she shaved her head and wore a wig. History records that she owned over one hundred and fifty wigs and had to have a special room set aside to house them all. This royal patronage was the much needed boost that the struggling wig makers needed and it revived their industry. By 1665 a wig makers’ guild had been established in France. They would swap stories of famous bald people and brag how ornate their wigs were. If people couldn’t afford human hair the wig makers would visit the nearest farm and grab some horse or goat hair and use that.

In the eighteenth century it was customary for men to powder their wigs. Powder was available in a variety of colours - mainly violet, blue, pink, yellow and off white - and the wig wearing elite were the punk rockers of their day. They would dress up in their coloured hair and romantic clothes and dance the night away to the sounds of Beethoven and Haydyn. In 1795 the British government realised there was money to be made from these crazy guys and introduced a tax of one guinea per annum for anyone wishing to wear hair powder. Go out without your certificate and you could find yourself in big trouble. By 1869 hair powder had had its heyday and the Duty on Hair Powder Act was repealed. Wigs still survive in the legal profession as barristers and judges love dressing up. The practice also helps to distinguish them from defendants and other people not used to being in court a lot.

Toupées are a special type of hairpiece in that they are designed to cover up bald patches. Unlike a wig they are meant to fool the viewer into thinking that the wearer has got a decent head of hair. Loads of people wear them and it’s fun to see if you can spot who has them, and who doesn’t; especially if the person is famous. Go online and you can get lists of people who have tried to cover up. Julius Caesar was an early celebrity toupée wearer, and when that didn’t work he would don a ceremonial wreath to cover up his thinning pate. He fooled nobody and it just annoyed his mates; so much so that they killed him. There were so many conspirators who were keen to attack Caesar that they even ended up wounding one another. Nowadays it’s very rare to be attacked for wearing a wig and the worst you are likely to endure is a few odd looks from unsympathetic folk.

The Flat Cap visited a shop selling wigs and hairpieces and learned some very useful facts from Derek, one the assistants:

  • The word “wig” is a shortened version of the word “periwig”

  • French king Louis XIV wouldn’t let anyone except his barber see him without his wig on

  • A decent hairpiece today costs around £3,800

  • The second Lord of the Rings film, The Two Towers had more wigs made for it than any other film

  • In 1715 in Caen, France people rioted because flour that was needed to make bread was being squandered by wealthy aristocrats who wanted to powder their wigs. The “bigwigs” didn’t expect that

  • People who agonise over buying a hairpiece are said to ask themselves “toupée or not toupée”. Shakespeare adapted this saying when he wrote the line, “to be or not to be, that is the question” for his best selling play Hamlet. It’s also the most searched for quote on the internet. The Hamlet one, not the wig one

  • There are more wig wearers in Wigan, Lancashire (population over 300,000) than there are in Wigton, Cumbria (population about 6,000)

  • Syrup of figs, or syrup is cockney rhyming slang for wig. You are very likely to hear actor Danny Dyer shout, “Oi, look at that geezer over there, he’s definitely wearin’ a syrup” in reference to the sighting of a gentleman sporting an all too obvious hairpiece

  • Wigs were so expensive that specialist wig thieves emerged in the late seventeenth century

  • The arrival of the Beatles in 1964 set off a Beatles-wig craze as eager followers attempted to look like their musical heroes

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