A wig is a head covering made from human hair, animal hair, or synthetic fiber. The word wig is short for periwig, which makes its earliest known appearance in the English language in William Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Some people wear wigs to disguise baldness; a wig may be used as a less intrusive and less expensive alternative to medical therapies for restoring hair or for a religious reason.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the use of wigs fell into disuse in the West for a thousand years until they were revived in the 16th century as a means of compensating for hair loss or improving one's personal appearance. They also served a practical purpose: the unhygienic conditions of the time meant that hair attracted head lice, a problem that could be much reduced if natural hair were shaved and replaced with a more easily de-loused artificial hairpiece. Fur hoods were also used in a similar preventive fashion.
With wigs virtually obligatory garb for men with social rank, wigmakers gained considerable prestige. A wigmakers' guild was established in France in 1665, a development soon copied elsewhere in Europe. Their job was a skilled one as 17th century wigs were extraordinarily elaborate, covering the back and shoulders and flowing down the chest; not surprisingly, they were also extremely heavy and often uncomfortable to wear. Such wigs were expensive to produce. The best examples were made from natural human hair. The hair of horses and goats was often used as a cheaper alternative.
In 1795, the British government levied a tax on hair powder of one guinea per year. This tax effectively caused the demise of both the fashion for wigs and powder. Granville Leveson-Gower, in Paris during the winter of 1796, at the height of the Thermidorian Directory, noted "The word citoyen seemed but very little in use, and hair powder being very common, the appearance of the people was less democratic than in England.
The wearing of wigs as a symbol of social status was largely abandoned in the newly created United States and France by the start of the 19th century. In the United States, only four presidents from John Adams to James Monroe wore curly powdered wigs tied in a queue according to the old-fashioned style of the 18th century. Unlike them, the first president George Washington never wore a wig; instead, he powdered, curled and tied in a queue his own long hair.
From the late 17th to early 19th centuries, European armies wore uniforms more or less imitating the civilian fashions of the time, but with militarized additions. As part of that uniform, officers wore wigs more suited to the drawing rooms of Europe than its battlefields. The late 17th century saw officers wearing full-bottomed natural-coloured wigs, but the civilian change to shorter, powdered styles with pigtails in the early 18th century saw officers adopting similar styles. The elaborate, oversized court-styles of the late 18th century were not followed by armies in the field however, as they were impractical to withstand the rigours of military life and simpler wigs were worn.
Formal military hairstyles lasted until beyond the end of the 18th century and it was the French Revolution which spelled the end of wigs and powdered, greased hairstyles in modern, Western armies. Powdered hair and pigtails made a brief return during Napoleon's reign, being worn by infantry of his Foot Grenadiers and Foot Chasseurs of the Old Guard and the Horse Grenadiers of the Guard.
In Britain, most Commonwealth nations, and the Republic of Ireland special wigs are also worn by barristers, judges, and certain parliamentary and municipal or civic officials as a symbol of the office. Hong Kong barristers and judges continue to wear wigs as part of court dress as a legacy of the court system from the time of British rule. In July 2007, judges in New South Wales, Australia voted to discontinue the wearing of wigs in the NSW Court of Appeal. New Zealand lawyers and judges have ceased to wear wigs except for special ceremonial occasions such as openings of Parliament or the calling of newly qualified barristers to the bar. In Canada lawyers and judges do not wear wigs.
In the theatre, especially on Broadway, wigs are a must for a performer as it alters their personality to be the character they need to portray. Almost like stepping into shoes that a specific character wears, the wig helps the actor get into character. Almost everyone on Broadway will wear a wig, except some of the men, but they can also be wearing facial wigs. The wigs are not only used for character design, but also to cover the microphone packs that actors wear. Usually, the microphone pack goes on the actor's head, so that they are not in the way of quick changes like they do when a microphone pack is worn around a performer's waist. The use of the wig is efficient and easy for the actor and less troublesome, if an actor does not get to wear a wig they are in charge of creating their look every time they go on stage. The wig helps solidify the character's design, as it always stays the same because natural hair is different day to day.