Perukes and periwigs were an expensive fashion statement in the 18th century. All members of the gentry, who were anybody, would delight in flaunting their latest acquisition. A visit to Richard Kerby’s barber shop in Salisbury Street, Blandford in 1790 would cast light on what perukes and periwigs were. Both were types of powdered wigs. As 18th century Blandford was neither clean nor hygienic, the regular delousing of wigs was a lucrative sideline for hairdresser, Kerby.
As a show of wealth, periwigs became larger, more ostentatious and bizarre. Consequently, they became more and more valuable so wig snatching from the heads of wearers became quite common. The fashion of wig wearing had begun in France with Louis XIV. As baldness was considered to indicate a lack of masculinity so to hide his follicle challenge, Louis appeared in court wearing a showy, powdered wig. Naturally, his courtiers copied him and soon the fashion spread across the English Channel. Satirist William Hogarth mocked the effete preposterousness of wig wearing in his work The Five Orders of Periwigs. At the time, regular bathing in warm water was considered to be a health hazard so the powder was designed to mask the body odour. It was reckoned warm water opened the pores through which disease could enter the body.
Heavier and taller periwigs were particularly unsuitable when travelling. This led to the invention of the smaller and lighter peruke. The particular speciality of Blandford was the making of perukes. Hair from the heads of the Dorset poor was used. While for a less expensive product, there was always horse and goat hair or even cow tails.
Wig wearing started to go out of fashion after the French Revolution when so many French aristocrats were beheaded by the guillotine. This discouraged showiness about wealth. A second blow came from the Government introducing a wig powder tax. Users of powder were required to pay one guinea for an annual certificate. Those that did were nicknamed ‘guinea pigs’. By the 1830s there were no peruke makers left in Blandford.
Apparently, certain quite senior members of the Blandford and district gentry were particularly fond of their locally made perukes. As a consequence, they continued to wear them for a long time after they had fallen out of fashion.
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