By 1580, syphilis had become the worst epidemic to strike Europe since the Black Death. Without antibiotics, victims developed open sores, nasty rashes, blindness, dementia, and patchy hair loss.
Powdered wigs, called perukes saved the day. Victims hid their
baldness, as well as the bloody sores that scored their faces, with
wigs made of horse, goat, or human hair and coated with powder
scented with lavender or orange, to hide the odor. Wigs were not
necessarily stylish, just a shameful necessity.
When Louis XIV was only 17 his hair began thinning. He hired 48 wig
makers to save his image. Five years later, the King of England,
Louis’ cousin, Charles II, did the same thing when his hair started
to gray. Other aristocrats immediately copied the two kings. They
sported ostentatious wigs, and the style trickled down to the
The cost of wigs increased, and perukes became a scheme for
flaunting wealth. An everyday wig cost about 25 shillings, a week’s
pay for a commoner. The bill for large, elaborate perukes could cost
as much as 800 shillings. The word 'bigwig' was coined to describe
snobs who could afford big, flowing wigs.
At the same time, head lice were everywhere and nitpicking was a
painful and time-consuming chore. Wigs curbed the problem. Lice
stopped infesting people’s hair, which had to be shaved for the wig
to fit, and moved to the wigs. Delousing a wig was much easier than
delousing a head of hair. A wig-maker would simply boil the wig to
remove the nits.