During the Roman Empire (27 b.c.e.-476 c.e.) wealthy members of Roman society developed a rich and fashionable lifestyle, which included much attention to appearance and ornamentation. Both women and men used any means available to improve their looks and decorate their bodies. Cosmetics and luxurious costumes were used, and elaborate hairstyles came into fashion for women. Baldness in men was viewed as an ugly defect. Both women and men made frequent use of wigs to hide any shortage of hair.
The citizens of the vigorous Roman Republic, which thrived between 509 and 27 b.c.e., had valued simple styles in hair and clothing. Even the wealthy styled their hair plainly, though they may have curled it with hot irons. By the time of the Roman Empire (27 b.c.e.-476 c.e.), which saw the Roman people grow in wealth and power, styles had changed, and luxury and excess were in fashion for those who could afford them. Though hairstyles for men remained short and simple, most who suffered hair loss were unwilling to have their lack of hair exposed. Julius Caesar, the famous general and leader of Rome who lived from 100 to 44 b.c.e., frequently wore a laurel wreath to hide his baldness. Other wealthy Romans glued hairpieces onto their scalps for the same reason.
During the Roman Empire, Roman women began to wear more and more elaborate hairstyles, with masses of corkscrew curls piled high on the fronts of their heads. The Empress Messalina, who lived from 22 to 48 c.e. and was married to Emperor Claudius I (10 b.c.e.—54 c.e.), became famous for the complicated and showy hairstyles she wore. Soon other noble women copied the empress. Women who did not have enough hair to achieve the ornate styles wore wigs or added extra false hair to their own. It became especially popular to use blond or red hair that was bought or taken from slaves and prisoners of war from more northern countries like Gaul (present-day France) and Germany. Blond hair had once been associated only with Roman prostitutes, but once the empress began to wear it, the shame attached to blond hair disappeared. Eventually light-colored northern hair became so popular that a lively trade developed, and red and golden hair became a sort of currency.
The dramatic hairstyles of wealthy Roman women changed so frequently that even sculptures began to have a sort of wig. Many notable women who had their portraits carved in marble began to ask that the hair be carved as a separate piece, so that the hair on the sculpture could be changed to keep up with the current fashion.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1977.
Black, J. Anderson, and Madge Garland. Updated and revised by Frances Kennett. A History of Fashion. New York: William Morrow, 1980.
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