Object lesson No 25 Wigs

Masters of disguise, cross-dressers and judges have all got one thing in common. Whether they are going incognito, changing their identity or asserting their authority, they are all wig wearers - standard bearers for a hairpiece-toting tradition dating back thousands of years.

The Egyptians' plaited and braided wigs were held on with beeswax. Among women of the Roman Empire, wigs fashioned from blond hair shorn from the heads of vanquished northern Europeans were a must-have. Artificial hair grew out of all proportion in the early 17th century at the court of King Louis XIII of France, where extravagantly curled, perfumed and powdered periwigs and perukes become de rigueur for both men and women.

Social climbers soon realised that if they wanted to get ahead they had to get a wig. These were the original "big wigs" - people of influence and power who were recognisable by their outsized coiffure. And, as they became indicators of status, wigs started going to ridiculous lengths and extravagant heights. They were built up around unwieldy wire cages and would sometimes catch fire on chandeliers. Poor wig maintenance (lard was a favourite hair dressing) meant hey often became infested with insects or mice. Luckily, the French Revolution did away with such bourgeois habits, but not before the heyday of wig-wearing had contributed a couple of strands to hairpiece history. The toupee (from the French toupet, meaning forelock) was originally a fringe attachment to hairpieces of the time, and the horsehair wigs still worn by judges and barristers today arose in the same period.

The function of a wig ranges from the serious - helping chemotherapy patients and alopecia sufferers cover up the outward effects of their condition - to the plain silly, as in the multi-coloured Afro models favoured by clowns and football fans.

But it is only when the wearer's baldness is matched by their vanity that wigs realise their full comic potential. Ernie Wise's rug starred in a hundred comedy sketches even though, as Eric Morecambe said, you couldn't see the join. And when showbusiness stars like Bruce Forsyth, Burt Reynolds, Tony Curtis and Charlton Heston decide to patch up their thinning thatch with an expensive syrup rather than to baldly go, you have to ask: how much did they have toupee for that?

Harvey McGavin

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