Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Of Periwigs and Puritans

When one views 17th and 18th century portraits it is apparent that at least some Puritans wore powdered hair or wigs, and the modern stereotype of a stern Puritan magistrate wearing a wig (often imagined presiding over a witch trial) is powerful, vivid image in our minds today. The modern European custom of wearing periwigs, or wigs for short, developed in France in the 1620s when King Louis XIII, who was going bald, began to wear a wig. Likewise in England, it was during the Restoration with the royal patronage of King Charles II that male wigs became popular. Before this, Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, had both employed them, but the practice became a symbol of social status for men in Restoration-era England. Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary the first time he wore a wig to church in 1664: "I found that my coming in a periwig did not prove so strange as I was afraid it would..."

But while the custom caught on quickly, there were those among the Puritans who opposed it. William Prynne took an early stand in 1628 when he wrote that "the wearing of counterfeite, false, and suppositious Haire, is utterly unlawfull" (The Unlovelinesse of Lovelockes). The Scottish Covenanter John Carstares wrote in his preface to the reader to James Durham's Practical Exposition of the Ten Commandments (1665, 2002):

To over-costly, curious, vain and conceity dressing and decking of the body, and setting of the hair now after one mode, now after another. (Wherein, as in other vanities, many men, somewhat unmanning themselves, do now contend with women, partly by their unnaturally nourished long hair, and horrid bushes of vanity, as Mr. [Robert] Bolton calls them, and partly by their variously and strangely metamorphosing modes and colors of periwigs) --

James Durham goes on to say further (quoting Robert Bolton again at one point), pp. 334-337:

And therefore we say that in men and women both, there is condemned by the Lord:
2. Strangeness in the ever-changing fashions, and extravagant modes of apparel; whileas the Lord by nature has continued the shape of men's bodies to be the same. For what is meant else by strange apparel, so often forbidden in Scripture, but that which is commonly called the fashion, or new fashion, a new and uncouth garb?...There is a lightness in clothing as to color, mounting as they call it, etc, and in dressing of the body, which may be seen in these dressings of the hair, powderings, laces, ribbons, points, etc, which are so much in use with gallants of the time; this, especially in women, is insisted on and condemned (Isa. 3:16-17, etc.) Some things indeed there mentioned are not simply unlawful, especially to persons of higher quality, and at all times; but the following particulars are condemned....

There is in clothes a base effeminateness amongst men (which someway emasculates or un-mans them) who delight in those things which women dote upon, as dressing of hair, powderings, washing, (when exceeded in) rings, jewels, etc, which are spoken of, and reproved in the daughters of Zion (Isa. 3), and so must be much more unsuitable to men. Also interchanging of apparel is condemned; men putting on women's, and women men's clothes, which is unsuitable to that distinction of sexes which the Lord hath made, and is condemned in the word, as a confusion, an absurd, unnatural thing, and an inlet to much wickedness. Whereof the Dutch annotators, as several fathers did long before them, on 1 Cor. 11:14, make men’s nourishing and wearing of long hair to be some degree, it being given to women, not only for an ornament and covering, but also in part for distinction of the female sex from the male.

And here, having touched a little on this vain dressing of the hair (now almost in as many various modes as thee are fashions of apparel), especially incident to women; it will not be impertinent to subjoin a strange story, which learned, pious, and grave Mr. Bolton, in his Four Last Things, p. 40, repeats from his author the famous Herculus Saxonia, professor of physic in Padua:

The Plica (saith he) is a most loathsome and horrible disease in the hair, unheard of on former times, as morbus gallicus, and fudor anglicus, bred by modern luxury and excess; it seizeth especially upon women, and by reason of a viscuous, venomous humour, glueth together, as it were, the hairs of the head, with a prodigious ugly implication and entanglement, sometimes taking the form of a great snake, sometimes of many little serpents, full of nastiness, vermin, and noisome smell: And that which is most to be admired, and never eye saw before, these being pricked with a needle, they yield bloody drops. And at the first spreading of this dreadful disease in Poland, all that did cut off their horrible and snaky hair, lost their eyes, or the humour falling down upon other parts of the body, tortured them extremely. It began first, not many years ago, in Poland, it is now entered into many parts of Germany. And methinks (says Mr. Bolton) our monstrous fashionists, both male and female, the one for nourishing their horrid bushes of vanity, the other for their most unnatural and cursed cutting their hair, should every hour fear and tremble, lest they bring it on their own heads, and amongst us in this kingdom.

And John Eliot was one who viewed afflictions upon New England society as attributable in part to God's wrath against men wearing wigs, and prayed against the practice.

Convers Francis, Life of John Eliot, the Apostle to the Indians (1836), pp. 322-323:

Mr. Eliot had a few whims, to which he was pertinaciously attached. One of these was an unsparing hostility to the practice of wearing long hair and wigs. He could not endure it; he regarded it as an iniquity not to be tolerated. The man, and especially the minister of the Gospel, who wore a wig, he considered as committing an offence, not only against decency, but against religion. His zeal about "prolix locks" was warm, but unavailing. He lived to see the practice prevail in spite of his remonstrances, and at last gave over his warfare against it with the despairing remark, "The lust has become insuperable!" The readers of New England history will remember, that in 1649 an association was formed, and a solemn protest published, against wearing long hair, by Governor Endicot and the other magistrates.

In this punctiliousness we see the influence of sympathy with the English Roundheads carried even into trifles. In England periwigs were permitted quietly to cover the head soon after the restoration of Charles. But for more than thirty years after that time, they were deemed by many a sore grievance in New England. Gradually during that period they were coming into use; but they need all the authority derived from the practice of such divines as [John] Owen, [William] Bates, and [Joseph] Mede, to find protection at last. The intolerance they experienced from Mr. Eliot was not, therefore, a singularity in the good man; he only persevered in his stern hostility against them longer than many others.

In 1675, as a response to the devastating consequences of the King Philip's War, the General Court of Massachusetts legislated against the sin of pride in wearing wigs:

Whereas there is manifest Pride openly appearing amongst us in that long Hair, like Womens Hair, is worn by some men, either their own or others Hair, made into Perewigs: And by some Women wearing Borders of Hair, and their Cutting, Curling, and Immodest laying out their Hair; which practice doth prevail and increase, especially among the younger sort.

This Court doth Declare against this ill custome as Offensive to them, and divers sober Christians amongst us, and therefore do hereby exhort and advise all persons to use moderation in this respect; And further do impower all Grand juries to present to the County Court such Persons, whether Male, or Female, whom they shall judge to exceed in the Premises; and the County Court being authorized to proceed against such Delinquents either by Admonition, Fine, or Correction, according to their good discretion.

Increase Mather, likewise, saw the wrath of God poured out against men wearing wigs and took note of them in a sermon following the burning of Boston, Burnings Bewailed: in a Sermon, Occasioned by the Lamentable Fire Which was in Boston, Octob. 2, 1711. In which the Sins which Provoke the Lord to Kindle Fires, are Enquired into. (1711):

Monstrous Perriwigs, such as some of our Church-Members indulge in, which make them resemble ye Locusts that come out of ye bottomless Pit. Rev. ix. 7,8, -- and as an eminent Divine calls them, Horrid Bushes of Vanity; such strange apparel as is contrary to the light of Nature and to express Scripture. I Cor. xi. 14, 15. Such pride is enough to provoke the Lord to kindle fires in all the towns in the country.

However, his son "Cotton Mather first wigged in 1691" (Bruce C. Daniels, Puritans at Play, p. 198) and defended the practice against those "who preached against an innocent fashion, taken and used by the best of men."

Cotton Mather's chief opponent on this score was Samuel Sewall, whose opposition to periwigs, as recorded in his diary, is legendary. He himself did wear a skull cap in his old age to keep his head warm, but he inveighed against the rising custom of wearing wigs in his day with great fervency. His diary (Vol. 1, p. 342) records his opinion of one sermon by Cotton Mather on hypocrisy:

In his proem said, Totus mundus agi histrionem. Said one sign of a hypocrit was for a man to strain at a Gnat and swallow a Camel. Sign in's Throat discovered him to be zealous against an innocent fashion, taken up and used by the best of men; and yet make no conscience of being guilty of great Immoralities. 'T is supposed means wearing of Perriwigs: said would deny themselves in any thing but parting with an opportunity to do God service; that so might not offend good Christians. Meaning, I suppose, was fain to wear a Perriwig for his health. I expected not to hear a vindication of Perriwigs in Boston Pulpit by Mr. Mather; however, not from that Text. The Lord give me a good Heart and help to know, and not only to know but also doe his Will; that my Heart and Head may be his."

One authority he cited against the practice was a sermon by Vincent Alsop, which appeared in the Cripplegate Morning Exercises, "What Distance Ought We to Keep, in Following the Strange Fashions of Apparel, Which Come Up in the Days Wherein We Live?", published in Puritan Sermons, 1659-1689, Vol. 3, pp. 488-530, and appended to the Soli Deo Gloria edition of Vincent Alsop's Practical Godliness: The Ornament of All Religion. While acknowledging that social status is lawful factor in the selection of one's apparel, Alsop saw little to no value in the use of wigs. Alsop even quoted Increase Mather against their use, which was likely known to Sewall.

INFER. II. All youthful periwigs and paintings, which are sinful in youth, are doubly sinful in the aged. (p. 507)
How do our gallants expect reverence, if not adoration, for their whistling silks and ruffling periwigs; and that all should rise and bow to their state, port, and grandeur! Thy silks and periwigs are but excrements; and the latter, perhaps, of one that died of the foul disease, or at the gallows. Tertullian nips this humour severely: Ne exuvias alieni, forsan immundi, forsan nocentis et gehennae destinati, sancto et Christiano capiti suppares.* "O, do not," says he, "wear on thy sacred and Christian head the hair of another, perhaps some foul-diseased fellow, perhaps one that was a malefactor and is now in everlasting burnings!"

* Tertullianus De Cultu Feminarum. (p. 513)
I know, both paintings and periwigs have their palliations and excuses: --

(1.) They that ruffle in their waving perukes, and look like the locusts that "came out of the smoke of the bottomless pit," whose "faces were as the faces of men, and they had hair as the hair of women," (Rev. ix.8;) do plead that they wear them upon good advice, for their health's sake, to divert catarrhs, to prevent consumptions.

ANSWER (i.) And is it indeed so, that the nation is become almost one great hospital? Are the generality of men among us just dropping into consumption? Then what other lust, what debauchery, has introduced a sinful necessity, and then taught them to plead it? But is it not evident, that the corruption is much larger than the pretended occasion? (ii.) But if cutting off the hair be in some degree useful for that end, are periwigs therefore so? Can no other thing substitute for the place of hair, but such a vanity? (iii.) But if this vanity be any ways useful, what does the curling contribute to it? and what does the change of the colour conduce to that effect? Is it no colour but one contrary to the natural, that will do the deed? Or if it must be so, what does the immoderate length signify to that end? How much more ingenuous had it been, to have confessed the sin, and yet persisted in it, than to palliate it with such slender, thin excuses? (pp. 526-527)

Solomon Stoddard also took a hard line against wigs in a letter to Samuel Sewall dated July 29, 1701:

I cannot condemn them universally. Yet there is abundance of sin in this country, in wearing wigs. Some cut off their hair, because it is red or gray; some, because it is straight; some, frizzled; and some, because it is their own. Some of the wigs are of an unreasonable length, and generally they are extravagant as to their business. They are wasteful as to cost. The wearing of them is pride, to make a vain show. It is contrary to gravity -- is light and effeminate. It makes the wearers of them look as if they were more disposed to court a maid than to bear upon their hearts the weighty concernments of God's kingdom.

There were those Puritans then who viewed wigs as an innocent fashion, and those who saw them as unnatural, effeminate, and vain, mixed with much that is sinful. Although we see some Puritans wearing them in portraits, even the Mather family itself was divided on the practice, and, lest we fall into stereotypes, we should recognize that not all Puritans approved of wigs, and some argued vehemently against them, with some nuances not to be overlooked (and I have here quoted from the opponents of wigs more extensively for the purpose of breaking that stereotype). Fashions are curious things, and while it is fashionable to view the Puritans as monolithic, the periwig controversy of the 17th and 18th centuries shows otherwise.


  1. That was so fascinating Andrew. Loved the Samuel Pepys quote.

  2. Despite his portrait showing him with fairly long hair, George Gillespie says the following in his English Popish Ceremonies (Part 3, chapter 9, §5):

    "As touching a man’s self, the law of nature teaches him that he should not live as a reasonless creature, but that all his actions should be such as may be congruous and beseeming for a creature endued with reason: Whereupon it follows, that he should live honestly and virtuously, that he should observe order and decency in all his actions, etc. Hence the Apostle says, that nature itself teaches that it is a shame for a man to have long hair (1 Cor. 11:14) because it is repugnant to that decency and comeliness which the law of nature requires. For, among other differences which nature has put between men and women, this is one, that it has given to women thicker and longer hair than to men, that it might be as a veil, to adorn and cover them.[1] The reason whereof, nature has hid in the complexion of a woman, which is more humid than the complexion of a man. So that, if a man should take him to this womanish ornament, he should but against nature transform himself (in so far) into a woman."
    [1]Paraeus, Com. in illum locum. [Cf. Ad Corinthios priorem (1609) col. 699.]