A wig is a head of hair made from horse-hair, human hair, wool, feathers, buffalo hair, or synthetic, worn on the head for fashion or various other aesthetic and stylistic reasons, including cultural and religious observance. The word wig is short for periwig and first appeared in the English language around 1675.
Wigs have seemingly been worn throughout history, even on the genitals (see merkin); the ancient Egyptians, for instance, wore them to shield their hairless heads from the sun. Other ancient peoples, including the Assyrians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, also used wigs. Curiously, they are principally a Western form of dress — in the Far East they have rarely been used except in the traditional theatre of China and Japan. Some East Asian entertainers (Japanese Geisha, Korean Kisaeng) wore wigs (Katsura and gache respectively) as part of their traditional costumes.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the use of wigs fell into abeyance in the West for a thousand years until revived in the 16th century as a means of compensating for hair loss or improving one's personal appearance. They also served a practical purpose: the unhygienic conditions of the time meant that hair attracted head lice, a problem that could be much reduced if natural hair were shaved and replaced with a more easily de-loused artificial hairpiece. Fur hoods were also used in a similar preventative fashion.
Royal patronage was crucial to the revival of the wig. Queen Elizabeth I of England famously wore a red wig, tightly and elaborately curled in a "Roman" style while King Louis XIII of France (1601-1643) and King Louis XIV of France (1638-1715) pioneered wig-wearing among men from the 1620s onwards. King Louis XIV of France was also popularly known as The Sun King (in French Le Roi Soleil). During his reign he built the Château de Versailles, a large and extravagant royal residence and moved there the court life from Paris. He created an elaborate court style at Versailles. King Louis XIV was dictating men's fashion at the time with his sophisticated style, and his exuberant taste for luxury. Perukes or periwigs for men were introduced into the English-speaking world with other French styles when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, following a lengthy exile in France. These wigs were shoulder-length or longer, imitating the long hair that had become fashionable among men since the 1620s. 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:
With wigs becoming virtually obligatory garb for men of virtually any significant social rank, wigmakers gained considerable prestige. A wigmakers' guild was established in France in 1665, a development soon copied elsewhere in Europe. Their job was a skilled one as 17th century wigs were extraordinarily elaborate, covering the back and shoulders and flowing down the chest; not surprisingly, they were also extremely heavy and often uncomfortable to wear. Such wigs were expensive to produce. The best examples were made from natural human hair. The hair of horses and goats was often used as a cheaper alternative. In the 18th century, men's wigs were powdered in order to give them their distinctive white or off-white color. Contrary to popular believe, women in the 18th century did not wear wigs, but wore a coiffure that we nowadays would call hair-extentions. The top of their natural hair was being enriched by fake hair, or hair not of their own. Women mainly powdered their hair grey, or blue-ish grey, and from the 1770's onwards never bright white like men. Wig powder was made from finely ground starch that was scented with orange flower, lavender, or orris root. Wig powder was occasionally colored violet, blue, pink or yellow, but was most often used as off-white. Powdered wigs (men) and powdered natural hair with extentions (women) became an essential for full dress occasions and continued in use until almost the end of the 18th century. Powdering wigs and extentions was messy and inconvenient and the development of the naturally white or off-white powderless wig (made of horsehair) for men is no doubt what has made the retention of wigs in everyday court dress a practical possibility. By the 1780s, young men were setting a fashion trend by lightly powdering their natural hair, like women already did from the 1770's onwards. Often they would use their own hair and not a wig. After 1790, both wigs and powder were reserved for older more conservative men, and were in use by ladies being presented at court. After 1790 women hardly powdered their hair anymore. In 1795, the English government levied a tax of hair powder of one guinea per year. This tax effectively caused the demise of both the fashion for wigs and powder by 1800.
Among women in the French court of Versailles in the mid-to-late 18th century, large, elaborate and often themed (such as the stereotypical "boat poufs") were in vogue for women. These combed up hair-extentions were often very heavy, weighted down with pomades, powders, and other ornamentation. In the late 18th century these coiffures (along with many other indulgences in court life) became symbolic of the decadence of the French nobility, which helped to fuel the French Revolution(although it's influence is highly exaggerated.
During the 18th century, men's wigs became smaller and more formal with several professions adopting them as part of their official costumes. This tradition survives in a few legal systems. They are routinely worn in various countries of the Commonwealth. Until 1823, bishops of the Church of England and Church of Ireland wore ceremonial wigs. The wigs worn by barristers are in the style favoured in the late eighteenth century. Judges' wigs are, in everyday use as court dress, short like barristers' wigs (although in a slightly different style) but for ceremonial occasions judges and also senior barristers (QCs) wear full-bottomed wigs. The wearing of wigs as a symbol of social status was largely abandoned in the newly created United States and France by the start of the 19th century, although it persisted a little longer in the United Kingdom.
Women's wigs developed in a somewhat different way. They were worn from the 18th century onwards - although at first only surreptitiously - and full wigs in the 19th and early 20th century were not fashionable. They were often worn by old ladies who had lost their hair. In the film Mr. Skeffington (1944), when Bette Davis has to wear a wig after a bout of diphtheria, it is a moment of pathos and a symbol of her frailty.
Today, wigs are worn by many on a daily or occasional basis as a matter of convenience as they can be styled ahead of time and then worn when there is not sufficient time to style one's own hair. They are also worn by individuals who are experiencing hair loss due to medical reasons (most commonly cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy or those who are suffering from alopecia areata). In men, the most common cause of baldness is "male-pattern baldness" and this is probably the most common reason for wig-wearing in this group. The post-menopausal diffuse baldness of women, while more common than generally realized, is usually not severe enough to warrant the wearing of a wig.
A number of celebrities, including Dolly Parton and Raquel Welch have popularized wigs. Cher has worn all kinds of wigs in the last 40 years- from blonde to black, and curly to straight. They may also be worn for fun as part of fancy dress (costume wearing), when they can be of outlandish colour or made from tinsel. They are quite common at Halloween, when "rubber wigs" (solid bald cap-like hats, shaped like hair), are sold at some stores.
In Britain and most Commonwealth nations, special wigs are also worn by barristers, judges, and certain parliamentary and municipal or civic officials as a symbol of the office. The original purpose of the legal wig was said to provide a form of anonymity and safety (i.e. disguise). Today, Hong Kong barristers and judges continue to wear wigs as part of court dress as an influence from their former jurisdiction of the Commonwealth of Nations. In July 2007, judges in New South Wales, Australia voted to discontinue to wearing of wigs in the NSW Court of Appeal. New Zealand lawyers and judges have ceased to wear wigs except for special ceremonial occasions such as openings of Parliament or the calling of newly qualified barristers to the bar.
In Jidaigeki, a genre of film and television, wigs are used extensively to alter the cast's hair styles to reflect the Edo Period when most stories take place. Only a few starring in big-budgeted films and television series will grow his or her hair so that it could be cut to a proper hair style instead of using a wig.
Another use seen in modern day society is for men who crossdress as women, wigs are used to make the men have more feminine hair in all sorts of styles, they wear this along with other 'female' clothing.