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Eighteenth-Century Life 29.2 (2005) 47-90

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Wigs and Possessive Individualism in the Long Eighteenth Century

Harvard University

In his seventeenth-century tract The Unloveliness of Lovelocks, William Prynne complains about men who try to pawn other people's hair off as their own. "Men who weare false Haire, or Periwigs," he writes, "doe commonly affirme, and sweare them to be their owne, (perhaps, upon this evasion, that they have paid well for them) and would have all men deeme them for their naturall, and native Haire."1 Prynne is perturbed both by the artificial enhancement of appearance, with its attendant manipulation of God-given traits, and by the deception of the unsuspecting observer. Prynne's irritation, however, goes beyond scorn at the evident falsity of an ill-fitting hairpiece; his remarks focus on a troubling proliferation of possible senses of possession. The hair is one's own ("natural"), but the wig is made ("false"); the hair is not one's own (it grew on the head of another), but the wig is one's own (because it was purchased). The provenance of the hair, the labor of the wigmaker, the purchase and wearing of the wig all enter into the notion of in what measure—or whether—the wig belongs to its wearer. When Prynne insists that hair culled from another's head is not part of the self, whatever the price paid, he is refusing to sanction the elusive link between what is purchased or worn and what is "one's own."2 Lurking beneath the querulousness of Prynne's text, then, is an anxiety about the nature of the self and its possessions: [End Page 47] how do we know what is proper to us? And how do we take things as our own?

The existence of a thriving market in hair in eighteenth-century En-gland at times makes it difficult to decide where one person's parts end and another's begin. The wig's physical nature—the way it shuttles among different individuals, recomposing the body and its surfaces—erodes the boundaries that set the individual subject off from the world. The tracts on wigs betray anxieties about the way the worn thing can redefine not only what it means to possess but also what constitutes the individual doing the possessing. Two rival forms of the person surface in eighteenth-century discussions of the wig, where the liberal idea of the subject as an individual jostles against the notion of the self as the possessor of detachable parts. If the individual is composed of removable and attachable layers that it owns, what exactly is doing the owning? Consider Prynne's remarks with which we began. For Prynne, the wig reveals that the individual self (in its depths) possesses manipulable external qualities (surfaces). Worse, these interchangeable parts can be bought and sold. That one person's lopped-off locks may be appropriated by another undermines organic self-possession and threatens the God-given integrity of the body. Prynne himself wore his hair at chin-length to conceal the fact that his ears had been cut off by royal edict for his writings.

The expression "one's own" postulates both a capacity to possess and a subject ("one") capable of possessing. Just such a concept lies at the heart of the "possessive individualism" that C. B. Macpherson famously argues is the fundamental principle of the seventeenth-century concept of the individual. According to Macpherson's account of Hobbes, Locke, and the Levellers, the individual is considered to be "essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them. The individual is seen neither as a moral whole, nor as part of a larger social whole, but as an owner of himself."3 Macpherson's language implies a division among styles of self, as if the person doing the possessing could be pried away from the person possessed, as if one self labors while the other reaps political autonomy from that labor...


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