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Essay: The Ridiculous Fashions of Restoration Britain: Samuel Pepys and the ‘Great Cushions of Curls’

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  • Published: 1 April 2019*
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  • Tags: Fashion essays

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Mortimer argues that the human race has a 'irresistible urge' to adopt a particularly ridiculous garment or style in an attempt to 'mark out the fashion of their generation to those who come after them'.  This is particularly true of the Stuarts in the seventeenth century. The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 had led to a sharp increase in the artificiality of appearance for both men and women, with fashions beginning to change and adapt to suit the style of the monarch: King Charles II. This new aesthetic is cleverly detailed in Samuel Pepys' masterpiece, and he highlights, not only his personal opinion on the matter but also how these new styles took hold. Throughout his diary, Pepys conforms to these new social ideals of wearing false hair and animal fur, for a variety of reasons. These included his desire to follow the latest trends, along with his desire to climb the social ladder. In light of this, one thing that is particularly fascinating about Pepys' diary, is his refusal to accept this new aesthetic for women, especially his wife. He disliked her use of false hair and makeup, thus making it fair to assume that Pepys', along with many others, believed in the degraded status of women within society.

When Charles II returned to England in 1660 to reclaim the English throne, it is fair to assume that his hair was entirely his own. In fact, it was not until 1663, when Charles himself started to go grey, that he and his brother begin to adopt the practice of wearing a periwig. Almost overnight the fashion switches from long, luscious, natural locks to artificial hair pieces.  This was not a trend unique to England, in fact, the whole situation practically mirrored France in the 1630s, when King Louis XIII went almost entirely bald.  Predictably this new French style immediately attracted those from a wealthier household. Samuel Pepys for example was one of the first to fully adopt it in England after the royal family. In the diary, on October 1663 he claims to have visited several periwig shops in London, however, he is almost put off by the sight of greasy old woman hair on sale in one of them.  Nevertheless he goes on to order two wigs: one costing him £3, made of someone else's hair, and another worth £2 as it would be made of his own.  The practical arguments in favor of cutting off all ones hair and making a wig out of the results, can also be deemed as one of the reasons for its dramatic takeoff during this period. For example a wig is much easier to clean and thus it would be simpler to rid oneself of nits.  Pepys describes the unbelievable 'convenience' of his wig in May 1665.  On the whole however, this move to a more artificial appearance seemed slightly ludicrous, particularly to those that could neither afford it nor understand it.  For example, certain members of English society did not approve of the rise of the wig, specifically Clergymen.  Puritans or those representing other reform groups unsurprisingly criticized the new fashion and refused to admit people who were wearing wigs in to their place of worship.  They did not approve of this new found artificiality, particularly when they believed in the reformed and therefore simplistic version of the Catholic faith. However, this did not stop Pepys, nor the majority of the English gentlemen of the upper and middle classes for that matter, adhering to this new, and more manufactured aesthetic despite being relatively religious.

The periwig was an important symbol of wealth within Restoration Britain, it was often used to showcase a person's standing within society.  As a member of the gentry and a close friend of the King, Pepys would have therefore been keen to build and then uphold his social status through the adoption of this fashion. The ability of a single garment to boast ones' wealth can be owed simply to the cost of owning one. The periwig was remarkably expensive to keep. Maintaining a couple of wigs could cost up to 20s a year. Moreover, as Pepys' perruquier says, the wig will only last him two years, yet in the time he will regularly have to have his hair cut short. Thus, the of fashion means that Samuel Pepys ended up paying twice for his hair: once to the barber and once more to the perruquier. This move to a more artificial appearance would be extremely costly, and so it only appealed to those that could afford it. Nevertheless, Pepys' wigs were at the cheap end of the spectrum. The Earl of Bedford for example paid £20, £18, £10 and £6 for four new wigs in 1672. He would then go on to spend £14 or £15 a year on new wigs and their maintenance, excluding a regular haircut to ensure that they fit. Tomalin argues that by night when Pepys' hair was shorn, he was no different from an ordinary Englishman, yet by day, he was a gentleman of the highest class.  This was simply a result of wearing a false head of hair. The wig gave those that could afford it, a new sense of confidence, as it meant that one would never go grey or bald in public. Pepys could instead appear as a public icon, and less of a person, thus contributing to the rationale as to why these 'great cushions of curls' became the ultimate symbol of power and status.  They also resembled the status of both King Charles and his inability to go grey along with King Louis' 'inability' to go bald. This successive use of wigs by members of the higher classes in England consequently confirm that Pepys and his fellow compatriots were consumed by artificiality during this time, not only as a result of personal taste, but also due to the increased social status that it brought them.

Pepys invests deeply in the status that the periwig brought him. So much so that when rumors began to spread about the sources of the hair used in the booming wig trade, he began to panic. Cheap wigs were believed to have contained many different materials from a variety of different sources, unlike what was claimed by the wig makers.  In England, people wondered if wig makers were using the hair of dead victims during the Great Plague during 1665 and 1666.  On September 3rd, 1665, Pepys provides evidence of this claiming that 'my new periwig… I darts not wear it because the plague was in Westminster when I brought it'. He also goes on to portray and immense fear for the fashion after the plague, writing 'nobody will dare buy any haire for fear of the infection? That it had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague'.  This indicates a clear move to a more artificial appearance in England during this time as the wig trade was still alive even during a time of great social crisis.

These changes in fashion do not affect just the great and the rich; they have a knock-on effect throughout most of society, including the poor. Clothes that are were out of date were generally handed down from the wealthy to the servants. Men and women of the middle class – those who tend to copy the fashions of the gentry – realized that they too must constantly change style to fit with the time and their status within society. These people not only wanted to be seen dressed in the latest clothes, or following the latest fashion trends, but they also do not want to be mistaken for a servant, or those in a lower class. This can happen quite easily if these trends were not followed. For example, Samuel Pepys, in March 1667, when he accompanied his wife to church was mistaken by the verger for Mrs. Pepys' servant, a comment that was able to belittle Pepys and hurt him in one of the worst ways possible. This therefore portrays a society overrun by fashion and the desire to follow it. People were now taking so much care over their appearance that it became an insult if one did not fit with this more artificial image.

It is also ironic that the greatest emblem of wealth: the periwig, was a result of those that had none, or very little money. These wigs that were worn by the highest in English society, were frequently made from the hair of the poorest in Stuart society, people who needed to sell their hair for money.

Non-human hair was also extremely significant in showcasing social status. The well-dressed gentleman knows that presenting himself well is not just about wearing the right clothes but, having all the right accessories.  Exotic furs from animals of all sorts were favored to decorate the robes of the royalty, nobility, clergy and any rich merchant. The fur that was of greatest demand during this period in European society, was beaver.  For generations, people all over the world had prized the beaver for its thick fur coat of short very fine hair fibers. This therefore made it a popular choice for hats. In the sixteenth century, a proper beaver hat was 'de rigueur' for both established and aspiring gentlemen.  Such hats were the symbols of status and wealth, worn outdoors, indoors, at church, and at the dinner table. the hats came in many different styles, but they were all fairly expensive. It is once again no surprise that gentleman Samuel Pepys owned one, putting one per cent of his yearly salary towards its purchase.  This once again indicates Pepys desire to showcase his wealth and status through his appearance. Wearing a beaver on his fine head of false hair was the easiest way in which a man with Pepys power and money could show it off.

Specialist female hairdressers are just starting to establish themselves in London during the Stuart period. Women opted to have their hair drawn back from the face and arranged in an oval bun at the back of the head, decorated with ribbons or artificial flowers. It also becomes fashionable to insert locks into the hair which are plated and curled and secured by pins. Pepys openly dislikes this style, forbidding the use of 'false-hair' on Elizabeth's head.

Another affectation that increases the artificiality of appearance during this period is the practice of wearing little black patches on the face.  This begins in the 1650's when women start to mark themselves with artificial moles or beauty spots, in an attempt to cover blemishes.  Samuel Pepys describes this trend as a 'strange sight' on more than one occasion.  However, it is not until his wife attempts to follow this trend in 1660 when she applies her first patches, that his overt unhappiness in regard to this trend becomes truly apparent.  Pepys fails to grant his wife leave to wear these small velvet shapes until the following November, thus giving himself several months to come to terms with the matter.  His ability to 'grant' her leave is particularly emblematic of a woman's degraded status within society, or more specifically, Elizabeth's degraded status within her own relationship.

This dominance that Pepys asserted over Elizabeth is also evident in his influence over her choice of clothing. Tomalin argues that Pepys was so 'blisteringly rude' to his wife about her attire one day that she went home and then took herself to a different church.  He also called her a whore for wearing ill-matched ribbons.  This criticism of clothing and hairstyle was strictly one sided. There is no place in the diary where Elizabeth comments on his appearance, even when, in November 1663, there is widespread anxiety at his newly shaven head by both his friends and colleagues. There is no evidence in the diary of any reaction from her that her husband now went to bed with a shorn head, but by day wore the symbol of power and status.  In comparison, Pepys was actively against the use of 'false-hair' on his wife's head.

Similar to the Periwig, the use of makeup to create a more artificial looking appearance also came from France. Mortimer declares that 'rouge, white-powder and perfume', a typical selection of makeup that is used in the French courts, should be on the makeup table of any respectable lady during this period.  Pepys was also unsurprisingly against this. However, this was not a view that he held entirely for Elizabeth, unlike the black patches and false hair, instead it was the same for all women. This is particularly obvious from his numerous visits to the theatre. Although the production intrigued and pleased Pepys, his visits backstage punctured the allure of a playhouse performance.  He reserved special criticism for the actresses because they used cosmetics. He believed that the theatre parodied the real world, women should not be allowed to wear a full face of makeup like they did on the stage, instead they should take a more minimalistic approach to their appearance. Jane Welsh for example, with her 'very pretty innocent' face was far more successful in catching a man's eye, particularly Pepys', than Elizabeth Knepp was.  In two detailed visits to the actress Elizabeth Knepp, Pepys focused his attention on her unnatural appearance.  He writes 'but Lord to see how they were both painted would make a man mad and did make me loath them'.  This is particularly fascinating as it becomes clear that Pepys truly believes that the only function of these new fashion trends for women, was to impress men. Once again portraying the clear degraded position of women in comparison to men as they were not allowed to follow these trends as freely as their male counterparts were.

In conclusion, Samuel Pepys explicitly detailed the changes that were experienced across England in terms of style and appearance. There had been a sharp increase in the artificiality of appearance for both men and women, with fashions such as false hair and makeup taking hold. Throughout the diary, Pepys conforms to these new social ideals yet refuses to accept women conforming to them, thus reiterating the degraded status of women in society.

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