I just finished reading Lynn Festa’s article entitled “Personal Effects: Wigs and Possessive Individualism in the Long Eighteenth Century,” published in Eighteenth-Century Life volume 29, issue 2 in 2005. It’s an excellent essay on what wearing a wig meant in the eighteenth century.

William Wycherley I read the essay in part because I’m looking for an article to begin my eighteenth-century class with next quarter. My course is going to focus on “The Making of the Modern Self: Writing Identity in the Long Eighteenth century,” so I want to begin with an article about identity that is kind of fun too. What could be more fun than wigs? Maybe I can help bring back wigs as a male fashion necessity! Here’s a portrait of William Wycherley — wouldn’t I look great in big, curly wig like his?!

Eighteenth-Century Life has become one of my favorite journals. I like that it publishes high quality articles about a wide range of interesting subjects. The most recent issue, for example, has articles on the significance of Venice for Scots in the Age of the Grand Tour; Violence, Virtue, and Politics in the Visual Culture of the French Revolution; displaying curiosities; and entomology. This article by Festa is typical in its ability to construct a complex argument that is of interest to general eighteenth-century scholars.

In this essay, Festa “addresses the shifting relation between personal possessions and personal identity, the objects one owns and the characteristics individuals are deemed to possess” (49). She’s interested in how wigs marked, but also obscured, individuality at various points in the long eighteenth century. It’s a fascinating study.

I especially like that the article has a lot of illustrations. While it’s true that illustrations always help make an article more interesting (I admit that I look at picture more than I read articles in newspapers and magazines — or at least that it’s often the pictures that get me to read a newspaper or magazine story), Festa uses her images from the period very well. Since so much of her argument is based on a visual element — how someone looks wearing a wig — it’s especially helpful to see some of the images she discusses in the article.

I also like that the article packs a lot of information into its argument. I hadn’t thought much about the fact that wigs were made of human hair in the eighteenth century. There are obviously practical issues of harvesting human hair and wearing someone else’s hair that Festa analyzes quite well. She also discusses tensions between barbers and wig makers over various hair issues. I also enjoyed her study of William Pitt’s taxation of wig powder and its negative affect on the fashion of wearing a wig.

Eighteenth-Century Studies had a special issue on hair a couple of years ago. Festa’s essay deals with a lot of the issues raised by some of those articles. But rather than seem repetitive, this article felt like a very sophisticated and in may ways more interesting take on the issue.

I don’t know yet whether I’ll start my class with this essay, but if I can figure out a great assignment — something involving playing with wigs in class! — to go along with it, I think it would be a fun way to start the quarter.

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