Wigs themselves have not changed much; but the way they are marketed has shifted radically. They have become glamorous accessories, to wear every day or for making a fashion-statement flourish at a glitzy Christmas party. Even wigs that are unashamedly fake are sought after by trendy clubbers who want a temporary bleached-blonde or neon pink mane. Sales have already reached a record pounds 20m worth every year.
Society hairdresser Trevor Sorbie has lent his name to a new collection which aims to bring wig-wearing squarely into the fashion mainstream. The Sorbie range starts at pounds 72, and according to Keith Forshaw of TrendCo, their manufacturer and Britain's largest wig-making company, will help young women realise that ``any time is a good time for a wig''.
Unlike traditional wigmakers, Keith Forshaw doesn't always work with real hair. ``It oxidises even in moderate sunshine and all the red and gold pigments come through. That's why you see all those men who look as though they've got a ginger tom sitting on their heads.'' Human hair comes from donors in Italy, Spain, China and Korea; Luc Graf of Wig Creations, who caters for ``the upper end of the market, nothing too jokey'', swears by it. His clients include stars such as Mel Gibson and Liam Neeson, who need a change of hair for film or theatre work. ``It usually takes four weeks to make a real hair wig and we charge about pounds 800 to pounds 900.''
Under the hair, natural or synthetic, is a mesh, usually made of nylon, with the individual hairs knotted into it. The more expensive the wig, the more lightweight, supple and well-fitting the mesh, which moulds snugly to the head. The wearer has to grease down long hair or wrap it closely round the head, and particularly in cheaper models the interior can get hot and sweaty. Brushing out can be done at home, but the hygienic take their wigs back to the salon once a month to be washed and restyled.
The real heyday of the wig was three hundred years ago, according to Avril Hart, assistant curator specialising in historic dress at the Victoria and Albert Museum. ``The fashion for wigs began with Louis XIV, who had very bushy, luxuriant hair. Sycophantic courtiers copied his style by wearing wigs, and the fashion spread across the channel. They were a status and fashion symbol.'' From the late 17th century onwards, every well-to-do man wore a well-powdered wig - Pepys's delight at finally being able to afford one was recorded in his diary. But they died out extremely rapidly in the 1790s. ``The Government got greedy,'' explains Avril Hart, ``and put a tax on wig powder, and very suddenly everyone refused to wear them - apart from the very old and unfashionable.'' (Today the London & New York Wig Company use yak hair to make 17th century-style periwigs.)
Wigs are also an effective disguise. A change of hairstyle can alter appearance beyond recognition. Criminals are well aware of this, and use hairpieces to bamboozle witnesses. John Platten, technical director of Aspley, the firm that makes the computer equivalent of the photo-fit, says that while 150 sets of eyes covers most of the population, the program has already logged over 500 different hairstyles for white men, and even more are being added for women.
Jo Hansford has just started renting out wigs from her London hair salon. ``Wigs change your personality,'' she says. ``Choose the right wig and it will make you feel more confident.'' Hiring leads to sales, she has found. ``You pay pounds 25 a day, but as soon as people get them onto their heads they want to buy them. At about pounds 160 they really are very reasonable, no more than the price of a good hat.'' Wigs can even be a money-saver. Several of Hansford's clients use them as disguises while checking up on errant husbands: far cheaper than hiring a private detective.
Andrew Tuck is consumer editor for Time Out magazine.