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For nearly two centuries, powdered wigs—called perukes—were all the rage.
The chic hairpiece would have never become popular, however, if it hadn’t been for a venereal disease, a pair of self-conscious kings, and poor hair hygiene.
The peruke’s story begins like many others—with syphilis.
By 1580, the Sexually Transmitted Disease had become the worst epidemic to strike Europe since the Black Death.
According to William Clowes, an “infinite multitude” of syphilis patients clogged London’s hospitals, and more filtered in each day.
Without antibiotics, victims faced the full brunt of the disease: open sores, nasty rashes, blindness, dementia, and patchy hair loss.
Baldness swept the land. At the time, hair loss was a one-way ticket to public embarrassment. Long hair was a trendy status symbol, and a bald dome could stain any reputation.
When Samuel Pepys’s brother acquired syphilis, the diarist wrote, “If [my brother] lives, he will not be able to show his head—which will be a very great shame to me.”
Hair was that big of a deal.