Hair-raising 18th-Century Wig Designs

Charting the rise of France as the arbiter of luxury and fine taste, over 1100 objects from the V&A’s collection of 17th and 18th century art and design are on display in the newly reinterpreted Europe galleries. If you havn’t had chance to visit since the 1600-1815 galleries reopened, you can preview the suite of seven rooms online and even try your hand at hairdressing – 18th century style…

V&A Wig

The V&A’s design a wig game lets you recreate the extravagant designs popularised by Marie Antoinette, which can be adorned with everything from fans and feathers to flags and flowers – or even a battleship should that take your fancy! My pink-powdered coiffeur (pictured above) is actually quite restrained – I could probably have piled the hair higher and still retained historical accuracy given that it wasn’t unknown for ladies to be forced to kneel on the carriage floor to avoid crushing their enormous wigs. With some styles towering up to 4ft high, a metal framework was required to support the stacks of horsehair cushions. Observers began to note the strange appearance of women with hair as high again as they were tall, so that the face looked like the centre of the body. Unsurprisingly, satirical prints from the period mock the absurdity of it all.

Marie-Antoinette-CartoonAs the hair grew higher, so did the risks; add candles into the mix and many a wig must have toppled and gone up in flames. Marie Antoinette and her hairdresser, Leonard Autie came up with  styles to suit every occasion – progressing from plumes of feathers to pastoral scenes, complete with stuffed birds. Meanwhile, across the channel the Duchess of Devonshire set the craze for sporting increasingly long ostrich feathers when Lord Stormont presented her with a 4ft specimen in 1775. However, Georgiana also saw the funny side of being a fashion icon. In her anonymously published novel The Sylph (1779), Julia, the provincial heroine,  is primped and preened beyond recognition by none other than the Duchess of Devonshire’s own French hairdresser so that she’ll be accepted into London society. Julia rejects the ridiculous style in favour of her natural appearance, but the sneaky mention of the Duchess hints both at Georgiana’s authorship and her self-awareness regarding the fickle fads and fashions of the Bon Ton.

I could play around with the V&A’s game for hours adding ever more horsehair cushions to pad-out the styles Marie Antoinette and the Duchess of Devonshire were renowned for – but let’s not forget the boys! It’s hard to imagine the likes of Charles James Fox dressed to impress in his finest Maccaroni garb when he’s remembered for his rather dishevelled appearance in later life, but in his youth he had quite a penchant for blue powdered wigs!



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