Wednesday, 18 December 2019

In praise of Wigs (1799)

Here is an extract from a comic "Eulogy of Wigs" published in 1799.  

The author was Jean-Marie de Guerle (1766-1824)a native of Issoudun, who, having  been forced by the Revolution to abandon his career as a procureur,  made his living as a teacher of grammar and literature.  (In 1809 he was to become Professor of Eloquence in the newly-founded Faculté des lettres in Paris).  He was well known for his Latin translations and also penned several amusing or erotic pieces of this sort.  We learn that he created a "museum of wigs" which the writer Félix-Sébastien Feuillet de Conches visited in 1827 [Causeries d’un curieux vol.2 (1862), p.204]

As Friedrich Nicolai observed, the work includes a whole list of "Éloges dans le genre gracieux et badins" (p.198) and  is intended to be taken in the same vein.  Nonetheless, Nicolai conceded, it was not altogether worthless:
"[The author] has included anything amusing which came to his mind, without worrying too much about his facts.  What he takes from Ancient and Medieval writers should be taken with caution. But what he says about his subject in the history of France, is often useful, and what he says about the "Regeneration of Wigs in Paris" is really quite comical." [Recherches historiques, p.25]

The Regeneration of the Wig

 Louis-le-Grand had gone to his grave;  as widow of the crowned head, the royal wig followed him into the tomb. But, if queens are mortal, a people never dies.  After a long period of mourning, wigs were finally consoled and trusted themselves to the promises of faithful heads; placing themselves adroitly in the here-and-now, they reappeared in the world with new éclat, adorned with the propitious name of perruques à la Régence.

Adversity, they say, is the crucible of wisdom.  Wigs had learned  from experience the dangers of arrogance, and this time preserved more modesty in their forms.  The Sartine, proud to have graced the head of a magistrate, knew how to respect the humble perruque de laine sported by the sailor.  A miser could hide his skinny pate for little expense under a perruque de fils de fer; with this sort of helmet, he could safely brave rain, wind and hail; and he could feel happy that in death he would leave the hereditary hairpiece intact to his son. Chapelain, had he lived later, would have adopted this wig, as it is the perruque économique par excellence.
[The reference is to a satire against the poet Jean Chapelain: Le Chapelain décoiffé (1665)]

Never had the family of wigs produced so many varieties.  Sometimes, arranged with grace and freedom, the hair would fall full length to a point, in a pear-shape, with the pigtail lost in the wearer's belt;  this was the perruque naissante.  At other times, having been arranged in rolls round the temples and forehead, the hair would form an upside down cone at the back of the head, which was plunged into a perfumed  sack;  this was the perruque à bourse.  Then again the hair could be divided into two pigtails which were folded back on each other without any ties, so as to present the appearance of two natural rosettes;  this was the perruque à  noeuds. Layers of tight curls were arranged on top of each other in a double parallelogram, to form two moving sidepieces by each ear,separated by a flat roll; this was the perruque carrée, the familiar companion of the law court. Then again still, the hair escaped from the middle of a horseshoe, and divided on each shoulder into two parallel fat rolls, which are imprisoned side-by-side with a ribbon.
      Each twin is held in her place
     Offering a sister to her sister at a remove

Who does not recognise from this description the perruque à deux queues, which is not much rated by French ladies, but enjoys the favour of German baronesses.

Finally, who would believe it? One sees glass, tamed and spun by nimble fingers, curled into elegant heads of hair;  a new comet in orbit around a pretty head, displaying its flamboyant tail.  But this sort of wig:
      Just as it has the sparkle of glass
     Has also its fragility
Often, having shone on the horizon with all the fire of the sun, this star, which is reduced to powder at the slightest shock, falls at its apogee into eternal eclipse..

The facility with which wigs appealed to all tastes, increased before one's eyes their partisans, and assured them faithful friends.  Fashion, daughter of the desire to please and mother of important little nothings, has created vogues for many things:
Ample redingotes from London
Jackets in Eastern style escaped from Warsaw
Gothic flounces resuscitated from the 15th century
The inconstant palatine translated from a Germanic bosom
The elegant caraco camisole descended from Caracalla by the female line.......

But these abortive ephemera, the whims of a frivolous century, shone on the world stage for but a moment.  Their credit was no more;  but, standing on the debris of their glory, the wig reinvented itself, ceaselessly more resplendent, in different forms.....The imperishable wig, always changing but always the same, seemed impervious to the torrent of the ages....

From Louis XV up to Year One of French Republic the wig showed a marked preference for masculine heads.  But the regeneration of a great people brings with it the regeneration of wigs. The cradle of liberty became a tomb for the thatch of the Ancien Regime; recalled to its primitive institution, artificial hair today prefers the attractions of the fair sex.

Eloge des Perruques, enrichi de Notes plus Amples que le Texte, par le Docteur Akerlio
De l'Imprimerie de Crapelet, A Paris, Chez Maradan. 1799, p.17-22.
Biographical note on de Guerle:

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