At the height of the battle of Culloden the Duke of Cumberland, who was commanding wearing full court dress, removed his wig to wipe the sweat from his forehead. He then shook out the bullets, replaced it, and carried on fighting. He was showing great bravery not only by risking his skin but also an item of clothing of huge value. He was wearing the top wig available at the time, the Roy Kerridge. Only three of these were ever made. The other two were owned by King George himself and the superstar composer George Frederick Handel. The size and quality of your wig was one of the key signs of status in the eighteenth century – and we still use the term ‘bigwig’ for an important person in the UK today.
I got that story from a wigmaker I have had dealings with over the years – I don’t know if it is written down anywhere. I couldn’t find anything on Google. Wigmakers are not in such demand today – only judges and few parliamentary dignitaries still wear full dress wigs regularly. These are made of horsehair by hand and are still items of great craftsmanship. The other customers are theatrical costumers and scientists like myself who sometimes need hair to do experiments on. I once needed some blond hair tresses. A shampoo I had developed was getting complaints from Germany that it was turning blond hair orange. I needed to investigate. At the time a war was going on in the Balkans. It seemed that blond hair tresses were all but unobtainable. The chief source was nuns from Serbian Orthodox convents who would sell their hair as one of the ways of funding their tranquil lifestyle.
These stories came to mind because I saw an article about the singer Jamelia. Celebrities today are the equivalent of the aristocracy in the past. They don’t impress us with huge wigs, but they do spend probably similar amounts of cash on making their hair look good by including hair extensions to bulk up what nature provided them with. This is a hugely skilled undertaking, and obviously requires a source of hair. Jamelia has been investigating the origins of the hair used in her hair extensions. It is, it seems, a scandal. The Daily Mail has an account of why she will never wear hair extensions again. It seems that hair is bought from people in poor countries for very little money. The trade is exploited by religious organisations in some places. Jamelia is entitled to her opinions and it is good to have a social conscience. In my opinion though, there are worse things that happen in the world. The problem here would seem to be the poverty of the people donating the hair rather than the business itself. If you are poor you have few choices. Who is to say that selling your hair is the worst option open to you. But this is not a political blog: once again I just stand amazed at the efforts to which humans will go in the pursuit of beauty.