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What Lay Under the Wig: A Question from a Reader

Haydn wore wigs. We know that. David Wyn Jones writes that he was “certainly” the last great composer to have worn one. Mozart and Beethoven only wore wigs on occasion. But what lay beneath the wig? A shaved head or a head full of hair?

It’s an intriguing question, but history unfortunately doesn’t always hand us easy answers on a plate. It’s a phenomenon that both historians and writers of historical fiction are quite familiar with. So the best we can do is to express an opinion that, as historian Tim Blanning writes in his biography of Frederick the Great,  “accords best with what is known” with the understanding that “certainty can never be achieved.”

I was reminded of this quite forcefully when a reader sent me a question about wigs and shaved heads. As a researcher, I’ve learned not to extrapolate from general statements about eighteenth-century life. There are several reasons for this. The first is that much of this information typically comes from British, American, and, to a lesser extent, French customs and practices.

The fact that letter writing was expensive in Britain doesn’t mean that it was so in the Holy Roman Empire, and, in fact, it wasn’t. Austrian funeral customs weren’t exactly the same as French customs even though both countries were Catholic.

Does it seem strange that eighteenth-century Europe wasn’t quite so homogeneous? It really should be no more strange than the fact that the health care  and political systems of the United States are quite different from those of its Canadian neighbor in the north.

The other reason is that beneath a general custom or tendency there’s considerable individual variation. Yes, monks and priests took a vow of celibacy. Yet, an  investigation of Austrian monasteries during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation revealed that actual practice differed substantially from the expected rule.

There are many references to Haydn wearing a wig even as a child. He left Rohrau to attend the parish school in Hainburg at the age of five. Even then, Griesinger, his earliest biographer, informs us, he wore a wig. But there are no references to Haydn shaving his head.

Why would we expect such references?

Well, because something about this insistence on wearing a wig makes it seem like a strange habit. Was it perhaps a little pretentious—dandified, even—for the son of a wheelwright to habitually wear a wig? His mother, let us not forget, was a mere cook in the kitchens of the Count Harrach whose country seat was in Rohrau. The Harrachs were magnates like the Esterhazys, Haydn’s employer.

In the countless letters, Leopold Mozart has left behind, we—or to be more precise, I—can find no references to wig-wearing. So much information about the elaborate suits and dresses bought for the children, but nothing at all about a wig to go with the expensive suits.

Who shaved Haydn’s head? He had to care for himself in Hainburg. He was so ill-fed, he likely wouldn’t have had the money to pay a barber to do it for him. We know Haydn struggled to keep himself clean in Hainburg. At five, he was little more than a toddler. His mother would have had to teach him how to shave his own head, and someone would have had to entrust him with a razor.

Yet, we are told nothing about how well, or ill, he managed the task of shaving his head.

On the other hand, in the numerous books I’ve bought and read on Haydn and the Habsburgs, we do find references to hair color and texture, in addition to other aspects of personal appearance. In the portraits of Haydn, we always see a ribbon behind him, suggesting his hair was gathered back into a ponytail. There are similar portraits of Frederick the Great of Prussia and of Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, at the time the Haydn Mysteries begin in 1766.

Could this be their own hair gathered into a ponytail or the wig itself? It’s hard to tell. And even well-respected historians aren’t in agreement on the subject. But we’ll return to this point in just a minute.

As a novelist, I do need specifics. So, what do I do, when Haydn’s life doesn’t present me with the information I need? Well, I turn to other sources. Although customs and conditions in the German principalities could be quite different than those in Austria, examples from Germany are likely to be closer to the Austrian situation than anything else.

So, to satisfy my reader’s curiosity, I turned to one of my biographies of Frederick of Prussia. Giles MacDonogh describes Frederick’s morning routine as a child. He washed his face and hands, wore a tight bodice, and his “hair was combed and tied in a pig-tail.”

Later, MacDonogh quotes a description of Frederick the King provided the French ambassador Guy de Valory: “His build is irregular; his hips sit too high and his legs are too fat. . .His hair is thick. . .”

Perhaps, Frederick didn’t follow fashion, my reader suggested. But consider Guy de Valory’s description. He certainly doesn’t mince words. If Frederick was not fashionable, would we not have heard about it, just as we hear about his too-fat legs? Of the four biographers I’ve read of Frederick, there’s nothing to suggest that he didn’t follow fashion. Quite the contrary, actually.

“Away from the public eye,” writes Blanning, Frederick “liked to revert to the sort of elaborate French fashions his father had despised so much.” His fondness for elaborate French dress was, in fact, a bone of contention between himself and his father.

Giles MacDonogh, when I emailed him, wrote there could be no doubt that Frederick followed fashion quite closely.

What then of the wigs? Blanning told me that all he could say with certainty was that Frederick did indeed wear wigs. One had only to look at his portraits to see that he did. MacDonogh concurred, suggesting that he might also have shaved his head. He was a soldier after all.

Was this the end of the matter? Had the mystery of what lay beneath the wig been solved? Actually, no. A few minutes after his first email, MacDonogh wrote back saying he’d been mistaken in his initial email. He had just spoken with Christopher Duffy, a fellow scholar more knowledgeable on such matters, and Duffy could say with certainty that Frederick never wore wigs. He always wore his own hair, always tied into a ponytail or pig-tail.

Having said that, however, MacDonogh wrote that he felt Frederick might on occasion have worn a wig, perhaps less so when he was an older man.

When historians differ so widely, what should the novelist do? Well, the best we can do is to immerse ourselves sufficiently in the time period and the specific place to provide the best opinion we can, based on our interpretation of the known facts.

I could tell you that Haydn shaved his head. Or, I could say that Haydn wore his wig like a cap. Those are both conjectures. To my mind, the latter seems more plausible than the former, especially when we consider that wig-wearing seemed to be going out of fashion  by this time.

There’s a painting of the twenty-eight-year-old Emperor Joseph II, Maria Theresa’s son and co-regent, meeting Frederick II. Frederick looks as though he might be wearing a wig. But the young Emperor’s hair, thick and wavy, a glossy, burnished brown, is gathered back into a ponytail. There are other, more formal, portraits of him in a wig.

The wig worn as a cap? It would appear as such.

  • I am indebted to David Wyn Jones, Giles MacDonogh, and Tim Blanning for their willingness to help a mystery writer satisfy her reader’s curiosity.


eighteenth-century fashion, Frederick II, Haydn, wigs

  1. cjpetterson says:

    Love the in-depth research you do. Great blog.

  2. Nupur says:

    Thanks, Marilyn! It’s a lot of fun. Just like being a detective–but without the danger. I love it!

  3. KB Inglee says:

    What the writer does with a problem like this is to say something like “That is none of your business. Do I ask you what you wear next to your skin under your street garments?”
    Loved this blog.

  4. Nupur says:

    Oh, that is too funny, KB! But it was an intriguing question. Thanks for visiting.

  5. Kate Collier says:

    Terrific post! I admire your research tenacity and problem-solving!

    1. Nupur says:

      Thanks, Kate! One of the reasons I can do this is because scholars and researchers are so quick to respond to my questions. And I am very grateful for that.

  6. Amber Foxx says:

    Thanks. This was fun. Being familiar only with the shaved heads of wig-wearers in England and her colonies, I had no idea how much work you’d do to find out the Austrian answer. (I admit to being that curious reader who asked.) Great detective work on your part. And now I know.

  7. Nupur says:

    Thanks for visiting, Amber. Your question might have started off a whole new research topic in the field! Everyone I emailed was quite intrigued by it. And it was a great topic for a blog post.

  8. R. E. Conary says:

    As Haydn wore wigs even as a child but nothing is said of his head being shaven, perhaps he lost his hair from a high fever caused by such childhood diseases as rheumatic fever or scarlet fever.

  9. Nupur says:

    We actually don’t know that. He did have small pox as a child, and suffered throughout from nasal polyps. Furthermore, we’re told he liked wearing wigs. Not that he was obliged to wear them. Otherwise, he seems to have enjoyed good health.

    Thanks for taking the time to read the post.

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