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Powdered wigs were an integral part of high fashion for both men and women during the 18th century. Sometimes employed as part of formal accessorizing for both social events and for public appearances, the powdered wig sported an elaborate design of curls and waves that was topped off with a dousing of white powder. While the use of the powdered wig declined drastically by 1800, limited use of the device remained in some countries around the world, notably as part of proper attire for barristers and members of Parliament in the United Kingdom.
The process for creating a powdered wig often involved the use of frames. The basic materials normally included horsehair and various binding agents. The horsehair would be arranged and set into place into a finished product that would remain in place even in a strong wind. To complete the basic look, powder that was specially developed would be applied liberally to what was essentially a helmet made of horsehair.
In actual design, the style for the powdered wig often related to gender, purpose, and social standing. White wigs for women in high society were often high piles of curls that were enhanced with elements such as bows, garlands of flowers and even feathers. These types of wigs were considered ideal for presentation at a royal court, attendance at a formal ball, and other key social situations.
By contrast, a powdered wig for a man would often be a simple design. For use in social situations, the wig would include feature a design that was relatively close to the scalp and the shape of the skull, with a minimum of curls. A small amount of curl normally extended at the nape of the neck and was tied with a simple black ribbon. As with the more elaborate wigs designed for women, this simplistic design for the well dress male would be liberally powdered to achieve a white or near white appearance.
The powdered wig designed for use in the courtroom was more elaborate. Wigs worn by barristers and sometimes judges would involve rows of curls that covered the head and sometimes hung to a length around the top of the shoulders. A wig of similar design became common in government settings as well, and remains popular in some countries today.
Wig makers of the period could spend weeks or even months designing a powdered wig. Under certain conditions, a wig could become infested during the preparation. When an infestation occurred, the powdered horsehair would have to be cleaned thoroughly in order to remove the vermin.
After around 1790, the broad appeal of the powdered wig began to wane. By the middle of the 19th century, the wig had all but disappeared from use by men in social situations. Modified versions remained popular with women in polite society for a time, but by the dawn of the 20th century were virtually obsolete as a fashion accessory. Today, powdered wigs continue to be used in theatrical performances and in some legal and formal settings around the world, although advances in synthetics and coloring have replaced the traditional methods of designing and styling the wigs.