Wigs were considered of great important in dress in the eighteenth century. The military was no exception. However the fashion of large, curled wigs common among civilians was not practical for the soldier. These periwigs, or perukes, were constantly infested with bugs, were extremely expensive, and unbearably hot. They came in black, brown, or grey, which was called grizzle. Men often shaved their heads so that a wig would fit better and not be so stifling. Other types of wigs that were popular among the gentry but not among the military when on campaign, were bag wigs (held in a bag at the back of the head), and bob wigs that were puffed out and velutinous. The macaroni wig was a large pompous wig that was considered extravagant to the extreme. By the 1770’s, macaroni became popular slang for foppishness. (Therefore the lyrics for the song “Yankee Doodle” that some assert was written by a British surgeon to mock the colonists. Doodle meant foolish and macaroni with a feather pertained to feminine or unmanly behaviors.)
The officer/gentleman needed no such pomposity in a wig. He required a unique style in wig that gave the impression of long, flowing, curly hair, but allowed the wearer the freedom of movement required during drill and battle. The style that became popular among the military during King George I and II was the pigtail or queue. Usually pigtails were suspended loosely from a black ribbon that was knotted at the back of the head. They were at times braided but could also be smeared together using tar, or hidden under a snugly wrapped ribbon – sometimes stuffed into a cloth pouch.
Early military pigtails were shaped from the wearer’s own head. Later, they were designed from wigs which were labeled campaign wigs. The most popular style was the Ramillies wig, named after a British victory over the French in 1706 in the War of Spanish Succession. It had a short queue or pigtail that was tied with black ribbon or cloth near the scalp and at the other end. It also displayed short side locks. Wigs were made of human, horse, goat, or yak hair. Wigmakers could weave hair into any design that fit the officer making the request. Wigs were powdered with flour to such an extent that at times, if a general’s staff member was caught downwind, it could seem that a snow squall had befallen him. During a campaign, wigs were rarely cleaned. They were sent to the wigmaker or barber who cleansed them with sand and reset the curls with curiers made of clay; these were called buckles. Officers whose hair was long enough sought the cut of hair in the Ramillies style and usually applied flour or tallow.
The common soldier did not wear a wig. Those among the troops whose hair was not long enough to be styled into queues had false ones made of chamois leather with a tuft of hair at the end which was spliced or fastened to the scalp. Common among gunners were false queues made of black leather which was cleaned and polished whenever such attention was given to the shoes or boots. Tying a good queue was considered as important as the trim of one’s uniform. It was difficult for the individual soldier to tie his own and often the regimental barber was sought. If the barber was unavailable or too busy to make his rounds, men would tie each others queues.
A regimental company was issued a store of flour and tallow to powder their hair. They were required to appear freshly powdered at all times, whether in camp, in a parade prior to action, or in battle. Each man was allowed half a pound of flour a week
It is frequently asked, did George Washington wear a wig? The answer is no. He preferred to tie his hair back in a queue and powder it similar to the common soldier..
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Bullock, Tom & Tonkin, Maurice. The Wigmaker in Eigtheenth-century Williamsburg. 1959: Twelfth printing 2004: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamburg, VA
Earle, Alice Morse. Two Centuries of Costume in America 1620 – 1820 Vol. II. 1908: The Macmillan Company, New York, NY 1970: Dover Publications Inc., New York, NY.
Pendergast Sarah & Tom. Fashion Costume and Culture Vol III. 2004: Thomson Gale Group of Learning, Farmington Hills, MI.