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I've read that one reason that the nobility attending royal court in the 17th century had a passion for wigs, powdered faces, and gloves was the then prevalence of syphilis. By this reasoning those were partly devices to hide the bodily signs of the disease (before bedtime, that is).

A quick Google search turns up lots of so-so evidence to support this explanation, but I am wondering:

Are there any primary sources?

For example, in the form of contemporary or modern medical textbooks that add further (perhaps definite) evidence one way or the other.

Also, do we know what size the epidemic grew to in Europe and how it affected different strata of societies?


Painter Gerard de Lairesse
(Source: Portrait of Gerard de Lairesse by Rembrandt van Rijn, ca. 1665–67)


Wig and cosmetics for poxed prostitute
(Source: Six Stages of Mending a Face by Thomas Rowlandson, 1792)

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I had a go at answering this question but the primary source requirement dovetails into a spiral of low-res scans of 200+ page 16th century proto-medical treatises, using some sadist font-setter's idea of a typeface. Without primary sources I can still confidently say that there is a very strong correlation between the syphilis epidemic of the 16th century and the conveniently perfumed, powered and bushy wigs. The "king was bald" claim doesn't fly since male-pattern baldness existed well before the 16th century. –  LateralFractal Oct 23 '13 at 4:58
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A good non-primary source is this article‌​. The best primary source that'll likely map syphilis to wigs is William Clowes' collection of pamphlets as from what I could stomach reading (the horrifying typeface, not the syphilis) the surgeon did detail the dress and social class of his patients. –  LateralFractal Oct 23 '13 at 5:07

1 Answer 1

Thomas Nashe's 1592 work Pierce Penilesse, His Supplication to the Divell implies a use of wigs to hide the indications of venereal disease:

"Men and women that have gone under the South pole, must lay off their furde night-caps in spight of their teeth, and become yeomen of the vineger bottle: a close periwig hides al the sinnes of an olde whore-master, but Cucullus non facit Monachum--'tis not their newe bonnets will keepe them from the old boan-ach."

"Gone under the South Pole" is, as you might guess, a euphemism for fornication. "Lay off their furde (furred) night-caps" seems to refer to loss of hair, and the "vinegar bottle" was a supposed cure for syphilis. (See also p. 19 here.) "A close periwig hides all the sins of an old whore-master" seems to be a relatively straightforward reference to wearing a wig to hide the symptoms of the disease.

"Cucullus non facit Monachum": the hood does not make the monk. In other words, that wig might hide your symptoms but it doesn't change anything.

In the 1604 play The Wit of a Woman, the character Bizardo says:

"...A periwig, a pox on it: and yet I curse to late: for, but for the poxe, it had never been used, for I have heard that in olde time, balde men were had in great reverence..."

Note here the allusion to wigs coming into use specifically because of the disease. "Pox" in this context is the "French Pox," or syphilis.

(This last reference found via the very interesting paper "Strange Things Out of Hair: Baldness and Masculinity in Early Modern England," by Anu Korhonen.)

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