A Venereal Disease Determines a Fashion Trend

The cover page of Thiel’s book on wigs.

Jean-Baptiste Thier, Historia von Ursprung, Gebrauch und Gestalt der Perruquen, Worinnen Sonderlich der Mißbrauch, Irregularität und Ubelstand derjenigen Perruquen, deren sich die Geistliche bedienen, gezeiget wird. [History of the origin, usage and form of wigs in the course of which especially the misuse, the irregularity and the evil of the wigs used by clergymen is shown.]

Printed in 1712 in Frankfurt as a German translation of the French book from 1690.

A 600-page long history of wigs – it is hard to believe that such a book became a best-seller. And yet, the demand for the first book on this subject written by the French clergyman Jean-Baptiste Thier (1636–1703) was so high that the book was published in German 20 years later. Actually, that does not come as a surprise. Around 1700, using wigs as fashion accessories was all the rage and they were an absolute must have among the members of the high society of the entire European continent.

The reason was the French “Sun King” Louis XIV, whose court, style of governance and fashion were imitated all across Europe.

The famous painting of the Sun King by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1701/02.

A Disease and Its Consequences

Before this was the case, the young king rather struggled with fashion, namely he had a problem with the long hair considered fashionable at the time. Already at the age of 17, he suffered from hair loss that could no longer be concealed. Back then, this problem was not as unusual as you might think. The reason was syphilis, the disease that had been raging through Europe for about 150 years on an enormous scale. Especially among members of the high nobility of France, who did not take marital fidelity that serious, the venereal disease was rather the rule than the exception. An example: Princess Palatine Elisabeth Charlotte, the king’s sister-in-law and a fruitful source of court gossip, expressed her shock in a letter from 1721: “Out of nine people of quality, who had lunch together with my grandchild, the Duke of Chartres, several days ago, seven had the French. Isn’t that dreadful?” The name commonly used in the German regions to refer to syphilis, which she used as well, is very indicative: the French disease. By the way, the French people called it the Italian or Neapolitan disease, the Scots called it the English disease, in Poland it was called the German disease and in Russia the Polish disease. You see, then as now: There is always somebody else to blame.

Back then, highly toxic mercury was considered the best remedy against syphilis. Those treated with it quickly lost their remaining hair as well. The king made a virtue of necessity. Just as his father, he chose to wear a wig. However, it should no longer pretend to be the natural hair of the person wearing the wig – it became a fashion accessory instead. The curly allonge wig was born. It was voluminous and became an indispensable characteristic feature of the grand majesty. After all, a king has to convey a sense of dignity. The wig did not only cover a bald head. Just like heeled shoes, which were very fashionable, too, the wig added a few crucial centimetres to the height of the person wearing it – this is shown impressively by an English caricature.

“What makes the King?” caricature by William Makepeace Thackeray, 1840.

The trend spread quickly, both among Louis’ courtiers and abroad, irrespective of whether or not one actually needed a wig. The wig quickly became an indispensable status symbol, at the latest when the allonge wig was officially declared state wig in 1676. Those who could afford it bought wigs made of human hair, everybody else had to make do with horse or goat hair. Only members of the high nobility were allowed to powder their wigs. The king himself had 48 wig makers and every morning five wigs had to be presented to him so that he could choose one.

Spoken and Unspoken Criticism

Writing down the history of a fashion accessory was not the only intention Jean-Baptist Thier had in mind when he created his book. He combined historical descriptions with an extensive lesson about why wearing wigs was not decent – even forbidden – for clergymen, but hardly anyone cared about it. He stated that especially the unnecessarily huge allonge wigs did not only express the extreme obsession for self-glorification but were vain and effeminate, too. And were clergymen not supposed to be tonsured anyway?

Do you know whose name does not appear at all in the book? The name of the king. Not mentioning the inventor of the allonge wig and the person that made wigs fashionable all over Europe leaves a yawning gap that is most certainly no accident. According to the preamble, the author’s criticism was exclusively targeted at the clergy.  Those who read between the lines might conclude that he was not allowed to say it but he neither approved secular men wearing wigs. In this context, it is interesting to read this explanation of the book’s title taken from the preamble: “I probably could have had this book published with a different title that might have been more appropriate in order to give a better idea of the subject it deals with. It is entirely for the manners and the ideas of our time that due to a particular reason it was not possible for me to do so, but most people will be able to figure it out easily.” This explains also why this was the only one of his 32 books that Thier had to publish at his own expense.

 

If you would like to browse Thiel’s work on wigs you may do so here.

We bought this book at Thomas Rezek’s antiquarian bookshop in Munich.