What’s In That Wig?

February 27, 2023 | Samantha Henman

What’s In That Wig?

The elaborate hairstyles of the 18th century not only had a fascinating history—but they also had a serious dark side. 

For one, there was the pompadour. Despite the fact that this voluminous style is named for her, King Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour actually never wore her hair swept up that way. She actually wore her hair tied back from her face—it was another court figure, fittingly known for her excess, who popularized an even more intense version of the hairstyle. 

Marie Antoinette not only lived in Madame de Pompadour’s former quarters, but she also was also a fan of the latter’s namesake hairstyle. However, when she attended the coronation of her husband, Louis XVI, she took it to the next level. The “pouf” hairstyle had already made appearances here and there at French society events, but when Marie Antoinette wore it to the coronation, it sparked a massive trend. And it wasn’t just about the volume, either. 

What's In That Wig?Wikimedia Commons

Hairdressers spent hours creating the elaborate pouf hairstyles, which often involved some sort of wire frame to support the sheer size of it, along with padded fabric to fill it out. A primitive form of extensions would also be used to help the wearer’s natural hair cover the frame, and then, the stylist would cover it with white or grey powder. But it still wasn’t done yet. Decorations also played a massive part—from jewels to feathers to hats, and even more unconventional choices, like dolls or a dish of fruit. 

And just as hairspray keeps today’s flyaways under control, hairdressers in the 18th century would load the hair up with styling products to keep the pouf in place—notably, pomade. But unlike today’s versions, which may contain wax or lanolin, the pomade of yesterday relied primarily on animal by-products, including bear grease, beef marrow, and mutton fat. The most in-demand ingredient was pork fat, since it didn’t have as much of an odor. That’s right, ladies like Marie Antoinette were loading their wigs up with lard for a night out. 

Parents just don’t understand—and that was as true for Marie Antoinette as any other young person following a trend. The queen’s mother actually wrote her a letter admonishing her for her elaborate hairstyle…and she kind of made a good point. To the revolutionaries who would eventually execute her, Marie Antoinette’s lofty poufs were a symbol of the excessive lifestyle they condemned her for.  

The higher the hair, the closer to God? Maybe not. 

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

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