The wig, from antiquity to Louis XIV

The wig, from antiquity to Louis XIV

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The wig Originally meaning "long, natural hair" as opposed to false hair called "feint wig" was the characteristic symbol of the Bourbon monarchy until the Revolution. The wig is the affirmation and claim - until its virtual disappearance in the 19th century - of belonging to a certain social category. This simple clothing accessory had a truly exceptional longevity for 150 years and the barbers who created wigs were the artisans of the glory of the Sun King.

From Antiquity to the beginning of the Grand Siècle

The wearing of the wig, even if it was favored by fashion under Louis XIII, already goes back to Antiquity, with the Greeks and the Romans, when Xenophon wrote “these young Lacedaemonian warriors kept their hair long in the idea that 'they would thus appear greater, more noble, more terrible ”. Long hair has always been a symbol of strength and authority, as in the days of the Merovingians "it is by shaving it that one degrades a defeated or deposed king". But curiously, in the 6th century, Gregory of Tours forbade Christian women to build towers on their heads with foreign hair.

The fashion and custom in the time of Louis XIII was for short hair, but the king liked long hair, some courtiers and lords added hair foreign to theirs. According to the fashion, to have a well-arranged head, it was necessary to part the hair at the top of the head, to lay them on both sides, making them go down below the ears and to have a “floating” tail at the back of the head. . As this tail grew longer, we had recourse to foreign hair.

At the age of 30, Louis XIII began to lose his beautiful long hair and thus adopted "the false wig" which became a wig. As early as 1634, the king authorized his first barber to create 48 places for wig-steamers, spread across the capital. They fashioned two kinds of wigs: the cap where the hair is passed one by one through a canepin (sheepskin) sewn around a small cap; "sheep" made for bald people who couldn't afford a skullcap. Then we began to braid the hair on three, four or five strands of silk, then sewn on assembled ribbons, placed on wooden heads to form them.

The Sun King's Wigs

During his reign, this will be the peak of this accessory. No performance will be without a royal wig, long, curly, curly, falling to the shoulders. Wearing the wig therefore plays an essential role in the representation of the character and will be "the symbol of the solar myth" showing the world the greatness, the power and the magnificence of the King of France.

Initially, despite his abundant hair, the king wears "turns": wedges applied on both sides and behind the head, which merge with the real hair for a greater thickness. Around 1673, he will use wigs with windows through which locks of real hair pass; later he will adopt the full wig.

As the fashion was to copy the king, little boys through courtiers to the greats of the kingdom adopted wigs. The bourgeoisie is conquered, lawyers and prosecutors go to the palace only wearing a long wig, the doctor only visits his patients with a wig. Only the clergy are recalcitrant, always basing themselves on the Council of Constantinople 1000 years ago; It was not until 1660 that the Abbé de la Rivière dared to wear a wig ... and the young canons followed his example.

The king's wigmakers

The king’s servants are grouped into several professions, one of which is the King’s Chamber dealing with everything relating to the intimate aspect of the monarch. Among the 60 people under the authority of the First Gentleman of the Chamber, ordinary barbers and valets de chambre-barbers have the mission of "combing the king, both in the morning and at bedtime, to make him hair and to wipe in baths and steam rooms and after he has played with the palm ”. These trusted craftsmen are chosen by the king, are devoted to his person, some becoming confidants, to whom they grant patents: a place envied "in the privation of the king".

Their pledge is around £ 750 a year, but with the bonuses they earn their income dramatically ranges from £ 30,000 to £ 60,000 (the value of an ordinary barber's job).

The rising of the king is a codified ceremonial, the first element that the king wears being the wig. The valet presents him with several different ones among which the king will choose according to his activities of the day. Once combed, then shaved, it styles the short wig. It is also used for treatment days. Louis XIV wears a long wig for council days and ceremonies.

Wigs are evolving and gaining momentum. At first, they are blonde, layered with curls falling to the shoulders and back. They turn brown, then black down to the waistline. When Mlle de Fontanges appeared among the king's entourage in 1690, the wigs shortened and stood up with a curly toupee five to six inches high, forming two tips. Towards the end of his reign, the king made a concession by adopting an ashy or white wig, powdered and scented with Cyprus powder (a mixture of oak and flour smelling very strong) to soften the face.

These large, powdered wigs weigh three or four pounds and are worth 1,000 tournois pounds, with one pound from that time roughly $ 15 in 2002.

Design and conservation of a royal wig

To make a royal wig, 50 heads are needed; preferably hair cut from a living woman, from a village or the countryside (because the hair is protected by a cap unlike city women), round hair, elastic 24 to 25 inches in length long, no men's hair too dry and too brittle.

The wigmaker who gets his supplies in Flanders, the land of beer, a drink that contributes to the good quality of the hair, buys the hair raw, it is up to him to shape it.

They are treasured in the Cabinet des Perruques or Cabinet des Termes, separated from the king's room by the Cabinet de Conseil, forming part of the King's Apartment. These current wigs were on display, surrounding a superb golden wig, the one the king wore in a representation of Phébus at the Tuileries in February 1662. After the successive arrangements of the sovereigns at Versailles, the cabinet disappeared in 1755.

The disadvantages of the wig

Even though they are carefully maintained by barbers, it is a nest of dust and vermin. On the other hand, even if the king thus gains 30 cms in height, he must suffer a lot of inconvenience: the weight and the compression on the skull cause headaches, dizziness, dizziness, even pruritus. Also, trying on wigs in the recurring air currents of the castle, he catches many and many colds. In 1696, he was struck by a boil degenerating into a suppurating anthrax, caused by prolonged wearing and rubbing of the wig; this anthrax having taken on such an extent of the neck and going from the right ear to the left ear, it was necessary to operate on the king by incision. Ten years later, a new anthrax reappears in the same place, treated in the same way.

This is how, little by little, the wigs are transformed by becoming shorter, with a tail tied at the back then braided, with a purse where the hair is locked in a small bag of taffeta, Spanish style, etc.

Inimitable artists

Among the barbers of the Court, two families from Touraine share the charges: the Binet and the Quentin.

Binet arrived at the court as the king's hairdresser, creating wigs including the famous golden wig for the show at the Tuileries. He obtained the post of ordinary barber in December 1684 and composed the monumental royal wigs called "hoes". He died in 1695 and left the survival to his son until 1716 when he resigned.

Quentin already ran a bathhouse in Paris where the king and the young people of the court came to be perfumed there and took "Polville powder" which gave back energy to lovers, an invention which made him famous. In 1669 he obtained an office with the queen, then a patent for four offices of valet-barber in 1671 who could serve the king all year round; ennobled in 1681, he was Marquis de Champcenetz in 1686 and gentleman of the chamber in 1702 but died in 1710. His young brother having followed in his footsteps, became the king's ordinary wigmaker, inventor of the window wig in 1673. He contributed to the improvement of this fashion accessory, by braiding it and forming whole hair. The same year, the king gave him the privilege of "wigs passed to the trade", a kind of industrial wigs that were copied and exported abroad. King's coat rack in 1674 and with the survival of his brother's office of valet-barber for the entire year, he was first valet of the wardrobe in 1697. Past butler of the Maison du Roi in 1704, he abandoned his duties in 1716. Known in 1693 he became baron de Champlost in 1721.

As we can see, these craftsmen lived in ease, overwhelmed by royal favor, thanks to their talent placed at the service of the king and by their ever-growing European fame. Out of respect for the monarch, they left their duties at court shortly after the king's demise.

For further

- History of French fashions from the monarchy to the present day, from Guillaume François Roger Molé.

- History of costume in France from the most remote times until the end of the 18th century.

- Review of the Palace of Versailles from the Ancien Régime to the present day - Frédéric Ottaviano.

Video: What It Was Like To Live At Versailles