Why people wore powdered wigs

When I look at paintings of historic figures, I can't help but notice that a great deal of them sport powdered wigs.

Since my days as a youth in history class, I've wondered why this is so, and recently I stumbled upon an article that demystified the practice for me.

As it turns out, it was a syphilis outbreak in Europe in the late 1500s that triggered a huge demand for wigs. People used powdered wigs called perukes -- made of goat, horse, or human hair and coated with scented powder -- to hide the baldness, bloody sores, and unseemly aromas caused by the STD.

Interestingly, at the time, long hair was a trendy status symbol, and a bald head was considered hideous enough to besmirch one's reputation. Thus, it's no surprise people went to such lengths to acquire perukes and avoid that kind of shame.

Although common, wigs weren't considered stylish until 1655, when Louis XIV, the King of France, began wearing them to hide his balding. Five years later, Charles II -- the King of England and Louis's cousin incidentally -- followed suit when his hair began to gray. Courtiers and other aristocrats began sporting wigs, and the style soon trickled down to the upper-middle class. A new fad was born.

Although the cost of wigs shot up, they stayed around even after Louis and Charles had died. Wigs curbed the problem of lice; they were much easier to delouse (rid of lice) than a head of hair.

The trend began to fizzle out by the late 18th century, as the peruke fell out of favor in France during the Revolution and the British ceased wearing it after William Pitt levied a tax on hair powder in 1795. It was then that short, natural hair became the rage, and it would remain that way for another two centuries.

So, the next time you see a wig on sale at the store, you can impress your friends by telling them that a venereal disease, a pair of self-conscious kings, and lice all played a role in the hairpiece's rising popularity and wide usage around the world.

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