Changing Beauty: The Use of Elaborate 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.
Hair and Beauty
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.
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.
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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.
Wig cover, an approximate recreation (from original pieces) from the tomb of three minor wives of Thutmose III at Wady Gabbanat el-Qurud, circa 1479-1425 BC. Made of gold, gesso, carnelian, glass and jasper. (CC BY-SA 2.5)
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.
Ancient Egyptians faced the same problem of hair loss as people do nowadays. They had many kinds of remedies for men. One papyrus, dated to 1150 BC, advised the use of fat from lions, crocodiles, serpents, geese, cats, goats, ibex, or hippopotamus on the scalp. Patches of chopped lettuce were used to encourage hair growth too.
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 Vanity 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.
Ushabti of a Concubine; along with the naked body, jewelry underlying the breasts and shaved pubis with visible vulva, the heavy wig gives an erotic connotation to the statuette. Painted wood, Middle Kingdom Egypt. (CC BY-SA 2.0 FR)
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.
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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.
Wig Cover 18th Dynasty, reign of Thutmose III, 1479-1425 BC. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
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.
Taking Their Wigs with Them
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.
Featured image: Egyptian couple wearing formal wigs of the 4th of 5th dynasties. Source: (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Joann Fletcher, Oils and Perfumes in Ancient Egypt, 1998.
Joann Fletcher, Egypt’s Sun King: Amenhotep III, 2000.