A warship…with wig curlers?
A lot of wig curlers were found on HMS Invincible’s wreck – not something you’d expect to see on a battleship. Why were they there?
The height of fashion
A 1750s naval officer was an impressive figure. In 1748 officers’ uniforms were introduced, based on the civilian clothes of the day. Naval officers now wore sumptuous dress uniforms decorated with lace, gold braid and gold embroidery for formal occasions. Work uniforms were slightly less elaborate, but still fancy by today’s standards – and compared to the crew’s practical work clothes.
Officers were expected to pay for their uniforms themselves. They had to be wealthy enough to cover the considerable expense of work and formal wear, and the terribly fashionable accompanying wigs.
Bob wigs and dress wigs
Officers usually wore work wigs, known as bob wig majors. These had rows of curls around the base but no ponytail. They would save their more elaborate dress wigs with ponytails for formal occasions when they wore dress uniform. Some wigs were made from expensive human hair, others from cheaper horse or goat’s hair. But the damp sea air made the wigs droop. The solution was wig curlers.
How to curl your wig
Fired clay wig curlers were made by clay pipe manufacturers. Officers’ servants heated the curlers in a fire until they turned black, rolled them up into the wig and held them in place with rags. It’s highly likely that many unfortunate servants burned their fingers doing this fiddly job. Animal fat was used as hair gel, and scented chalk powder was dusted over the top to hide the smell and the grease.
At the beginning of the 1700s, the fashion was for very large wigs – the bigger the wig, the more important the person. A captain of a ship might choose to wear a much larger wig than lower ranking officers. Crew of the lower deck called their superior officers ‘bigwigs’, a term we still use today. Towards the middle of the century fashions began to change in favour of smaller, less elaborate wigs, making life much easier for the unfortunate servants in charge of maintaining the curls!