In his latest book, “At Home”, Bill Bryson has dedicated a whole, enormously entertaining and informative chapter to the dressing room. Through the recounting of the history of this room, Bryson discusses some of the most decidedly exotic fashion trends of the Victorian era and earlier.
In his lively and engaging way, Bryson suggests that, “it can seem as if the whole impulse of fashion has been to look maximally ridiculous. If one could be maximally uncomfortable as well, the triumph was all the greater.”
Because it is impossible to paraphrase Bryson in a way that is more witty or lovely, I will simply include an excerpt of this chapter starting with the discussion on the surprisingly irrational trend of male wig-wearing starting in the 1660’s that lasted for 150 years.
“Wigs might be made of almost anything- human hair, horsehair, cotton thread, goat hair, silk. One maker advertised a model made of fine wire. They came in many styles- bag, bob, campaign, grizzle, Ramillies, cauliflower, brown tie, riding bob, and more, all denoting some crucial difference in length of braid or bounciness of curl. Wigs were so valuable – a full one could cost 50 pounds – that they were left in wills. The more substantial the wig, the higher up the social echalon one stood- one became literally a bigwig. Wigs were also one of the first things snatched by robbers.
All wigs tended to be scratchy, uncomfortable, and hot, particularly in summer. To make them more bearable, many men shaved their heads, so we should be surprised to see many famous seventeenth- and eighteenth- century figures as their wives saw them first thing in the morning. It was an odd situation. For a century and a half, men got rid of their own hair which was perfectly comfortable, and instead covered their heads with something foreign and uncomfortable. Very often it was actually their own hair made into a wig. People who couldn’t afford wigs tried to make their own hair look like a wig”
This all sounds particularly funny because the victims of the fashion trend are men like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, men who built the social and legal structure of this country. Men of gravity and importance who it seems, made time to fret about the beauty and trendiness of their hair. The susceptibility to follow an irrational trend makes them seem almost too human. It’s rattling to think that the founding fathers’ judgment is not beyond reproach, at least where hairstyle is concerned.
Although this sensitivity to the fashion of the times seems like a weakness, upon deeper consideration it shows a kind of personal commitment to social and cultural cohesion that is necessary to form a united whole, or social unit, like a country. After all, fashion trends often carry in them a political statement, and are by nature faithfully democratic.