May 202012

It is about time I did justice to those enormous head dresses which dominated the latter part of the 18th Century – those monstrous edifices which defied gravity and good taste in equal measure! I remember the absurd millinery examples favoured by Gertrude Shilling – hers were dowdy skull caps in comparison!

First let us look at these two charming ladies appearing facing each other in a cut-away picture (copyright of British Museum) of a carriage known as a vis-à-vis. They are forced to sit on the floor of the coach because their hair pieces, adorned with what appears to be fruit and veg and plumed feathers, are too high to fit under the roof of the vehicle. The roof of the carriage is ornamented with two ducal coronets. The engraving is dated 25 May 1776.

Twenty years later the fashion for wigs may have moved on, but the range of choices facing the lady who wished to stay ahead in the fashion stakes was huge: as evidenced by this cartoon from 1798 illustrating women trying on their wigs.

And of course no two women look the same in the same outfit, as shown in this parody by Gillray dated 1794 (also from the British Museum). But if we are into ostrich feathers, how about this lovely print of a phaeton, whose small body is raised on springs high above the wheels. It is drawn by four absurdly small horses being driven by a lady standing up and wielding an enormously long whip; next to her sits a hatless man terrified out of his mind, his hands held up, his face contorted with fear.  On the side of the carriage is a crest – a stag’s head in an oval, with the motto “Fashion”.

Beneath the design is engraved;

“Talk not to me Sir of yr old Fashion’d rules,

E’en laugh’d at by Children, the Joke of the Schools:

They might do for yr meek minded Matrons of old,

Who knew no use of Spirit but thier Servants to scold.

But for me Z——ds & Blood am not I fit to command,

I can swear Sir, & What’s more drive four Horses in Hand.” 29 June 1781

The British Museum suggests that the lady may be Agnes Townshend, a noted courtesan, known as vis-à-vis Townshend, who drove her coach and four all over the country. Personally I favour the Lewis Walpole Library suggestion that the lady in question is the Duchess of Devonshire (hence the ducal coronet). Besides why would vis-à-vis Townsend be driving a phaeton as opposed to a vis-à-vis?

While on the subject of the gorgeous Georgiana, you remember the scene in The Duchess where her wig is set alight by a candle? I rather like this Rowlandson take on the risks of self-immolation entitled a Doleful Disaster, or Miss Fubby Fatarnmin’s Wig Caught Fire.

Gillray meanwhile mocks the penny pinching ladies of fashion who seek to save a guinea by missing off the  wig powder:

And unless I am very much mistaken, the hairdresser on the left of the picture is a bit of a ringer for the picture of the French hairdresser running to get to his next customer, who featured in my blog 2 days ago:

On the other hand, I think I would prefer to have the French hairdresser cut my locks than this one of the English Village Barber,whose board advertises not only categories of wigs but also food and drink, washing aids, and cures for various ailments: “BOBS, BOB-Majors SCRATCHES [plain wigs] & other wigs made here, also SAUSAGES, WASHBALLS[soap] Black Puddings Scotch Pills, Powder for the ITCH, RED HERRINGS, BREECHES BALLS & small BEER by the maker

Mind you, hairdressers have never been thought of as entirely trustworthy – hence this lovely warning entitled The Boarding School Hairdresser. Note the leg placed  indecently between the girls thighs!  Still. she looks happy…            .

Men of course had to suffer a full head shave if they wanted their wigs to fit snugly, and without head lice causing endless itching! Hence, in this delightful etching by the splendidly named Mr Bunbury we see the hapless man getting lathered up in The Shaver and the Shavee:

 But let us return to the full horrors of the high fashion wig as worn by the ladies of taste and discernment, and at the same time have a subtle dig at the French who were always considered just a bit too far off the graph when it came to subtlety!

Dated 1771 it shows the lady bending forward and terrifying the living daylights

out of the cat, dog and parrot – and the hapless male!



















And to end with, a couple of quite quite delicious prints of dubious taste (all brought about because I have an appointment to have my hair cut this week!:


  2 Responses to “If you want to get a head, get a hairpiece”


    Fantastic – Thanks (yet again) Mike!

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