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Welcome to Episode #174 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

The wig was first introduced to England around 1572, when Shakespeare was only 8 years old. The fashion would catch on very quickly in England, promoted by the Queen herself, who was known for wearing wigs in her older years, and defined by her naturally curly red hair in her youth. There are over 100 references to “hair” across Shakespeare’s works, many of them calling attention to the color of the hair, and assigning value not only to particular colors, but also reflecting the importance of keeping one’s hair neatly tended. In Henry V, the Duke of Burgundy says that prisoners are notable for being “overgrown with hair” and in Henry VI Part II, the Earl of Warwick defines a “ghastly” man as being recognizable by how his “well proportioned beard [is] made rough and rugged.” Later in that same play, Winchester, calls attention to the cultural importance of a well kept grooming regime when he associates a demonstrative problem with wild hair. He says, “Comb down his hair; look, look! it stands upright.” These are just a few references in Shakespeare’s plays that reveal to us the kinds of hair, combs, dye, and periwigs–the now archaic term used in Shakespeare’s lifetime to describe a wig–that were present during the life of the bard. Here to today to help us explore the vanity table of the 16th century and examine exactly what were the kind of Elizabethan wigs, hair dye, hair brushes, and toilette products used for women (and men) of turn of the 17th century London, is our guest and contributor to the Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits exhibition at the Royal Museum Greenwich, Sue Prichard

This exhibition is a collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery, London, and features 500 years of royal portraiture that offers us today a view into the story of haircare from Shakespeare’s lifetime. This exhibition is now on display at the Royal Museum Greenwich. Find more information on how to attend the exhibition in person here.

Join the conversation below.

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Sue Prichard is Senior Curator: Art at Royal Museum Greenwich.  She is responsible for the strategic planning of the Queen’s House, which includes exhibitions and displays.  Sue’s research interests include fashioning the body in portraiture, women and the domestic environment and gender relations.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Sue Prichard about :

  • Shakespeare uses the term “periwig” in Comedy of Errors, Hamlet, and Two Gentlemen of Verona, and all of them seem to be associated with men, which surprised me, as I had considered wigs to be something that women would have worn. Are there examples of periwigs in the portraits of the Tudors to Windsors exhibition, and are wigs primarily for men during Shakespeare’s lifetime? 
  • Shakespeare’s reference to periwigs in Comedy of Errors says “to pay a fine for a periwig and recover the lost hair of another man.” Sue, were periwigs made of real human hair?
  • Elizabeth I was known for her red hair, and for wearing wigs to accomplish that appearance, but would Elizabethans have ever used dye to change the color of their natural hair? 
  • … and more!

Watch the video version of our interview with Sue Pritchard on Patreon! Sign up here

Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • The Five Orders of Perriwigs as they were Worn at the Late Coronation Measured Architectonically, William Hogarth, 1761
  • 16th Century Hair Comb featuring David and Bathsheba and the Judgement of Paris
  • Self-portait of Richard Burbagee, c. 1600.
Sign up now for just $5/mo (or login here) and all the bonus content will immediately expand right on this page. (You will also get access to all our other patrons-only content, too!)

Book & Resources Sue Prichard recommends:

Faces of a Queen Exhibit at Royal Museum Greenwich

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