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Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Lecture: The history of wigs in Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptians are known by many as a historical symbol of ancient beauty, vanity, and hygiene. 

Appearance was very important in the country near the Nile River. The way people looked was a symbol of their wealth, status, and role in society. The desire for a beautiful body influenced fashion, but the climate and medical issues also formed a unique style.

Beauty in Ancient Egypt 

Ancient Egyptian hairstyles varied with social status, gender, and age. A slave could never have the same hairstyle as a free person, and the lower class could never have the same style of hair as the upper class. However, there were some similarities between them. Like nowadays, most people tried to follow the same fashion.

Generally, the hairstyle of children, be they boys or girls, was the same. Their hair was shaved off, with only a long lock of hair left on the side of the head. This style was related to the hieroglyphic symbol of a child or youth.

The princess Nsikhonsu, with long wavy brown hair

When the children grew older boys kept their shaved heads and girls wore their hair in plaits or something similar to a ponytail. Men usually wore their hair short, with their ears visible. But sometimes they preferred to have short curls covering their ears.

In the case of women, hairstyles were more advanced and unique. They often liked to have their hair smooth or with a natural wave. Women in ancient Egypt also liked to have long curls, but in the Old Kingdom period, they preferred short or chin length bobs.

A group of researchers based at the University of Manchester in the UK examined the hair from 18 mummies, most of them from during the early Ptolemaic Period. They took a close look at the hairs they found using microscopes. During analysis, the researchers discovered that the hair of nine mummies had an unknown substance on it. Chemical analysis revealed that it was made of fatty acids of animal and plant origin. The researchers were convinced that it was a sort of hair gel which was used by the Egyptians to hold their hair in a specific position. After death, the hair mummified naturally.

Wigs appeared for a few reasons. First of all, Egyptians didn't like to have gray or white hair. They used henna to avoid this problem, but in the dry Egyptian climate, wigs appeared as a better solution. Secondly, many saw this idea as more comfortable than having their own long hair. The examination of the aforementioned mummies suggests that the hair of ancient Egyptians, especially when they were older, was in bad condition.

The Popularity of Wigs

Wigs were very popular not only in Ancient Egypt, but also in Mesopotamia, Crete, Greece and Persia. Nonetheless, Egyptians improved the technique of making them to perfection. The most expensive royal wigs look like real hair. They were made of vegetable fiber such as linen, sheep’s wool, other types of animal hair, and human hair stiffened with beeswax. The cheapest ones were made of vegetable fiber, but royals only used the ones made of human hair. For both real hair and wigs, ancient Egyptians used fragrant oils like fir oil, almond oil, rosemary oil, and castor oil. They believed that the oils stimulated hair growth. Popular in ancient times, the seeds of fenugreek are still in use as a remedy for hair growth.

Wigs were used during daily life of the royals, but also at major festivals and events. Egyptian wigs usually were made in a structure similar to the helmet. Some of them were brightened blue, red or green, and decorated with precious stones and jewelry. People who belonged to the upper class liked to possess many wigs. The more wigs they owned, the higher their status was. Decorated with hair bands ending in tassels, with added braids and curls, over time the wigs gradually became bigger and bigger.

During the period of the Old and Middle Kingdom, two kinds of the wigs appeared as the most popular: the ones made of short and long hair. The hair was formed to make the forehead partly visible, with the ears and back of the neck fully covered.

The most classical style of wigs is a Nubian wig, a headdress worn in many periods in history, but especially popular during the 18th Dynasty and all the New Kingdom Period. In those times, wigs with luxurious decorations were a powerful symbol of fertility related to the one wore by the goddess Hathor. The wigs, known from tombs, reliefs and statues of Kiya, Nefertiti, Tiye and other women of this period, partly resemble the modern Afro hairstyle.

During the Third Intermediate Period, wigs were quite massive and heavy. Queen Isimkheb in 900 BC wore a wig which weighed so much that the queen needed help from her attendants to stand up. Nowadays, the wig is a part of the Cairo Museum collection. It was made of brown human hair held together by beeswax.

Wigs were mostly made by women. The human hair used by the wigmakers came from the clients of barbers or was brought by clients. Quite often the hair came from the client who ordered the wig. Sometimes it came from people who sold their hair or from slaves.

Wigs in the afterlife.

After death, people were often buried with their best wigs. They wanted to appear as wealthy and with beautiful hair in the afterlife. Because of this practice, many wigs have survived until now and they are parts of exhibitions around the world.

Women entertainers perform at a celebration in Ancient Egypt; the dancers are naked and the musician wears a typical pleated garment as well as the cone of perfumed fat on top of her wig that melts slowly to emit its precious odors; both groups wear extensive jewelry, wigs, and cosmetics; neither wear shoes - Thebes tomb c. 1400 BC. (Public Domain)

Legendary queens like Nefertiti, Cleopatra, and Nefertari were proud of their wigs and were regarded as great beauties. Many of them had shaved heads and their famous looks were partly made by the people who created the most impressive wigs of their kingdom.

Upper-class Egyptian men and women considered wigs an essential part of their wardrobe. Wearing a wig signaled a person's rank in Egyptian society. Although a shaved head was a sign of nobility during most of the Egyptian kingdoms, the majority of Egyptians kept their heads covered. Wigs were worn in place of headdresses or, for special occasions, with elaborate headdresses. Egyptian law prohibited slaves and servants from shaving their heads or wearing wigs.

The base of an Egyptian wig was a fiber-netting skullcap, with strands of human hair, wool, flax, palm fibers, felt, or other materials attached. The wig hair often stuck straight out from the skullcap, creating large, full wigs that offered wearers protection from the heat of the sun. Most often black, wigs were also other colors. Queen Nefertiti, who lived during the fourteenth century b.c.e., was known for wearing dark blue wigs, and festive wigs were sometimes gilded, or thinly coated in gold.

Wig hair was arranged in decorative styles throughout all the kingdoms of Egypt. During the earliest dynasties (which began around 3200 b.c.e.) and the Old Kingdom of Egypt (c. 2700–c. 2000 b.c.e.), both men and women wore closely cropped wigs with rows of short curls or slightly longer straight hair. In later kingdoms, some women began to grow their hair longer and wore wigs of greater length and bulk that showed their natural hair beneath. 

By the time of the Middle Kingdom (c. 2000–c. 1500 b.c.e.), bulky wigs with hair coils draping forward over each shoulder were favored. During the New Kingdom (c. 1500–c. 750 b.c.e.) men's wigs became much longer in the front than in the back and less bulky, but women's wigs became larger, completely covering the shoulders. For special occasions, wigs were decorated with gold, braided with colorful ribbons, or adorned with beads. Wigs were made even more elaborate with the addition of golden bands, caps, and fancy headbands.

The hot climate of Egypt made it uncomfortable for men to wear beards. However, Egyptians believed that the beard was manly, so they developed artificial beards, or beard wigs. Men of royal rank tied stubby beards on their chins for official or festive occasions. 

The king's beard was longer than that of other men and was usually worn straight and thick. Gods were depicted with thinner beards that curled up at the tip. Egyptians believed that kings were descended from the gods, and in some ceremonies kings would wear a curved beard to show that they represented gods.

Here are 10 facts about wigs worn in Ancient Egypt

1. What were Egyptian wigs made of?

The nicest wigs were made from human hair. These were also the most expensive. An accounts list from the town of Kahun put hair’s value in the same category as gold.

For the middle class, particularly those who couldn’t afford wigs made completely out of human hair, they would purchase a blended wig, which was constructed of part human hair, part vegetable fibers.

Wigs could also be made of sheep’s wool.

The absolute cheapest wigs were made out of 100% vegetable fibers.

2. Who could wear wigs, and who couldn’t?

Wigs were part of daily life in ancient Egypt. Both men and women could wear wigs. Men’s wigs were often shorter than women’s wigs.

Children did not wear wigs. Instead, girls either braided their hair or wore pigtails, and boys often sported shaved heads. Some kids wore what's called a side-lock, which was a braid on one side.

Priests, also, did not generally wear wigs and preferred to shave their heads instead.

Slaves and servants were prohibited by law from wearing wigs. They weren’t even allowed to shave their heads.

3. Why did Egyptians wear wigs?

In ancient Egypt, wigs served multiple purposes.
  • Decoration. People liked the way wigs looked.
  • Shade. Given that wigs could often be quite large and thick, the hairpieces could have acted as sun hats. They would have offered a degree of shade.
  • Special occasions and religious ceremonies. People would pull out their most expensive wigs for these occasions, rather than wear the simpler wigs they wore for everyday use.
  • To cover thinning hair. Even back then, people were concerned about hair loss. We know this because archaeologists have found instructions and recipes for hair growth remedies

4. What color were Egyptian wigs?

Most wigs were colored deep black. Less popular, but equally impressive, were blond wigs.

Queen Nefertiti, however, bucked both of these trends and had a fondness for dark blue wigs, which she made famous. What a fashion-forward rebel!

5. How were wigs decorated?

There were countless ways to adorn these valuable hairpieces. First, wigs could be curled and braided. Bangs extensions could be added. Men preferred simpler styles, while women loved adding lots of extra ‘bling.’ Here some examples of wig adornments:
  • golden tubes
  • jewelry chains
  • glittery pins and clips
  • ribbons woven through braids
  • tassels
  • flowers
  • tiaras
  • colored strands
  • caps
  • headbands

6. How were wigs made from human hair?

Hair first had to be collected. It was extremely valuable, and people probably bartered or sold their hair to wig-makers in exchange for goods. Once a wig maker had the required amount, they first cleaned the hair of any lice eggs. Combs have been found with traces of the eggs still in the teeth!

After cleaning the hair, it was separated into various lengths. A wigmaker would coat the hair with a mix of resin and beeswax to make it easier to work with.

Hairdressers would then weave the hair through a cap made of fine netting (which itself was often made of hair) and affix the strands using more wax.

After creating the basic wig, styles would be applied such as braids and curls. The wax and resin would help keep the styles in place through endless wearings, even in the Egyptian heat.

Fun fact: One particularly impressive wig artifact contains 120,000 individual hairs!

7. Who made wigs?

Ready made wigs were made in factories, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of wig factories. Wig boxes have been found in tombs, and may have come from the factories with the wigs inside.

Barbers also made wigs, and so did women. It was considered a very respectable profession.

8. How were wigs cared for?

Because they were so expensive, Egyptians spent effort caring for them.

Since they couldn’t be washed, wigs would be perfumed instead using scented petals, essential oils, and wood chips such as cinnamon bark.

Oils and emollients made from animal or vegetable fats could be applied to keep the wigs shiny and supple.

9. What the heck is a beard wig?

Beard wigs were false beards made of human hair or wool that were worn using hooks that fastened behind each ear.

Beard wigs were braided and knotted into a tight, solid rectangle or tube shape that hung straight down from the chin. They became so popular that even the gods were depicted wearing beard wigs.

Beard wigs became a symbol of pharaonic power, worn to show that they were living gods on earth. Even some of Egypt’s queens, such as Pharaoh Hatshepsut, wore beard wigs during certain ceremonies for this purpose.

10. How did wig styles change?

Just like modern fashion is always changing, so did wig fashions change and evolve in ancient Egypt.

Old Kingdom wigs
: These were short and either straight or with rows of short overlapping curls.

Middle Kingdom Wigs: Most people wore one of two styles: a short wig with bangs made of small curls that overlapped one another like shingles. The bangs were short enough to show some forehead, while the side and back covered the ears and neck. The alternative during this time was a long, bulky wig with bangs that framed the face, while the longer back section was formed into waves or spirals that were draped over each shoulder.

Wig rings of Sithathoryunet (Egypt, B. Sit-Hathor-yunet was a daughter of Senwosret II

New Kingdom Wigs: Many people wore wigs with groupings of long, tassel-ended tails. Women’s wigs became even larger and bulkier, and decorations became hugely popular, including beads and ribbons, and fancy caps. Men preferred less bulky wigs, and ones that were longer in the front than in the back.

An Ancient Egyptian wig worn in the New Kingdom,
this is known because of the gold detailing on the braids.

Amarna Period Wigs: During this time, styles became short and simple.

Final Note:

Like any fashion form any civilization you can see that through time styles changed from being very basic to very complex and decorative and like ours it will repeat in some form or another.

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