Showing posts with label Black Death. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Black Death. Show all posts

Jul 13, 2012

Nitpicking, Bigwigs, and Perukes

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 upper-middle class.

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.