How Hair Systems Have Evolved Through the Ages

How Hair Systems Have Evolved Through the Ages


With today’s technology, hair systems have evolved to cover up every type of hair loss but in the most inconspicuous way.

It’s interesting that hair loss has had a bad rap since before year one. Between 1 B.C. and A.D. 1, the Roman poet Ovid, famous for his erotic works of love, wrote Ars Amatoria(“The Art of Love”), vividly displaying his bald bias with the following: “Ugly are hornless bulls, a field without grass is an eyesore, so is a tree without leaves, so is a head without hair.” Even Julius Caesar was noted by historians to be uneasy about his baldness and tried to hide it by brushing his hair up and toward his face and willingly wore the honor of the laurel crown whenever possible because it hid his baldness. Later, around A.D. 800-900, even the character Scheherazade from The Arabian Nights asks, “Is there anything more ugly in the world than a man beardless and bald as an artichoke?”

The first hair systems were found in ancient Egypt

Because ornate wigs were first found in the tombs of the pharaohs, it was thought that wigs and toupees (a partial hair replacement usually worn on the top of the head) were worn only by the powerful, as a status symbol. But in a 1997 dig near the predynastic capital of Egypt called Hierakonpolis, an ancient working-class cemetery was discovered with a focus on hair. Of the three mummified women, one had gray hair colored with henna, another had hair woven with extensions and a third wore the earliest toupee (made from sheepskin) ever found, dating back to approximately 3200-3100 B.C. The ancient Egyptians also wore hairpieces attached with beeswax and resins to shield their shaved heads from the sun. Wigs were mainly found in ancient Western cultures, including those of the Greeks and Romans, but not in the Far East, where wigs were mainly part of costumes.

A photograph owned by the New York Public Library depicts another type of Egyptian wig and wig box found in an Egyptian tomb and believed to date back to the 18th dynasty, 1400 B.C. The wig is made of human hair and attached to netting, much the way it is done today. According to the TV show “How It’s Made,” the oldest way of creating a hairpiece was to use goatskin to simulate the scalp and then hook hair into it using an embroidery needle.

The first wig-makers’ guild was formed in 17th-century France

After the fall of the Roman Empire, wigs fell out of use for thousands of years until about the 16th century, when they were reintroduced for practical purposes aside from improving appearance. Because of the unhygienic conditions of the era, headlice was a problem, so people shaved their heads and wore a wig, which was easily deloused. It was the royals who perpetuated the elaborate wig trend for men into a frenzy in the 17th century, hence the term “big wig,” as King Louis XIV of France (1638–1715) was depicted in paintings.

A wig-makers’ guild of skilled professionals was established in France in 1665 because 17th-century wigs were increasingly long and showy and expensive to produce. They were made from natural human hair, but around the time of the plague, this caused uneasiness, as wearers wondered if the wig was made from the hair of someone dead from the plague! The hair of horses and goats was often used as a less expensive alternative.

During the 18th century, the trend in hairstyling for women, depicted in paintings of Marie Antoinette, included very high hair extended upward with artificial hairpieces, other objects, hair from animals and elaborate themes all held together with lard; the lard eventually became rancid and attracted vermin as the women slept, originating the term “rat’s nest.”

The powdering of wigs began as delousing and evolved into a pure white coloring for men and a bluish-gray tint for women. Fancy powdered wigs on men and powdered natural hair with supplemental hairpieces on women were an essential part of full-dress occasions and were used until almost the end of the 18th century. In 1795, the British government levied a tax on hair powder, which effectively ruined the powdered-hair and -wig trend.

The 19th and 20th centuries and the demise of the word “toupee”

The wearing of wigs as a symbol of social status was largely abandoned in the newly created United States and in France at the beginning of the 19th century, although wigs continued to be worn in the military and the court system. Only the first five American presidents, from George Washington to James Monroe, wore the powdered wigs of 18th-century Europe. By the early 20th century, wigs fell out of fashion and were often worn mostly by old women who had lost their hair.

Most wigs are made by hooking hair one strand at a time into a fine lace or netting. Modern base materials for hand-tied human hairpieces usually consist of a combination of skinlike thin material such as polyester mesh, silk, monofilament, silicone or thin polyurethane. Because the hair is pulled through and knotted strand by strand, similar to rug hooking, the term “wearing a rug” became synonymous with wearing a toupee and was the butt of jokes in mainstream pop culture in the 20th century. Laurel and Hardy used slapstick toupee humor during the 1920s and ‘30s. Before that, Thaddeus Stevens, a 19th-century U.S. congressman known for his quick humor, once ripped off his toupee and handed it to a woman who had asked for a lock of his hair (collecting locks of hair was like collecting autographs).

According to the U.S. Patent Office, even the name has evolved: The first toupee patent was filed in 1921 and the first hairpiece patent was filed in 1956. Toupees are now referred to as hairpieces or hair systems to avoid the negative and humorous associations with the word “toupee.”

20th-century hair systems become mainstream for men

By the 1950s, hairpiece manufacturers started to build credibility by successfully advertising hairpieces to men in major magazines and newspapers — and even the Sears Catalog. The craftsmanship had also evolved, pioneered by Max Factor, the Hollywood makeup artist whose hairpieces were almost invisible, with each strand of hair sewed to a piece of fine flesh-colored lace.

By 1959, Time magazine estimated annual U.S. sales of toupees at $15 million. And by 1970, Time estimated that 2.5 million out of 17 to 20 million balding American men wore toupees, mostly because of improvements in toupee technology and craftsmanship and a desire to appear younger. The mid-1970s gave rise to the Hair Club for Men and founder Sy Sperling’s famous tagline, “I’m not only the Hair Club president, I’m also a client,” to prove how well made and natural-looking his hairpieces were using his “Bio-Matrix Strand-by-Strand Technology.”

It wasn’t until 1998 that the adhesive cyanoacrylate was FDA approved as Derma Bond, a medical-grade adhesive, and embraced by the hair replacement industry as a long-lasting, better way to adhere a hair system to the head than traditional weaves, which caused traction alopecia (hair loss due to the pulling of the attachment) and irritation from other tapes and adhesives that were being used. This type of adhesive allows skin to breathe and hair to grow and was perfect for very active lifestyles and for a lower-maintenance, more permanent bond. Still, the hair system business was never geared toward women.

Fast-forward to 2011 and undetectable hair systems

With today’s technology, non-surgical hair replacement procedures focus on the simulation of a realistic natural, undetectable hairline. Using a new thin, light and breathable material similar to that of a contact lens, hair replacements and custom solutions, using names such as SensiGraft and new technologies such as Folligraft, in which the hairs are directly applied to the scalp, have elevated the technology of hair replacement and hair systems.

Now there is an emphasis on solving women’s hair loss and thinning issues, and because of the newest technologies women can now wear hair systems rather than full wigs if their hair loss is confined to the top and crown of their heads or integration units when thinning occurs all over the head or at the part line.

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