Body Arts - Hair

Ancient Egypt

Egyptian wig
False fringe of curly hair, Egypt;1901.40.56
Ancient Egyptians of all classes wore wigs. Wigs disguised deformities, guarded against lice, and made the hair look thicker, which was considered attractive. The Ancient Egyptian nobility also favoured very elaborate hairstyles. Wigs made hairstyling simpler.


High-quality wigs were made from human hair and could be Egyptafforded only by the rich. This hairpiece, pictured left, was found in the tomb of an Ancient Egyptian king.

Less expensive wigs, which were available to the middle classes, were made from a mix of human hair and vegetable fibres. The cheapest wigs were made from vegetable fibres only. Wigs were meticulously cared for with emollients and oils, and with scented petals and chips of fragrant wood, such as cinnamon.


ChinaHairstyles may indicate an individual’s own aesthetic preference or such social differences as age, gender, or marital status. In seventeenth-century China, hair distinguished one cultural group from another.

The majority of Chinese people were from a group called the Han. Traditionally, the Han Chinese wore their hair long and bound up on top of their heads.

They believed that hair absorbed and stored spiritual power. Cutting the hair was considered a mutilation of the body. It was thought the hair protectedthe brain and that if it was shavedoff the scalp would be exposed to the air causing illness.Furthermore, because shaving the hair was a Man's plait, China
Man’s plait with black silt tassels, China;
traditional form of penalty forcriminals, a shaved head was considered shameful.

In the seventeenth century, the Manchus conquered China from the north. They forced the Han Chinese to shave their foreheads and wear their long hair plaited in the Manchurian way. To be forced to shave their foreheads and plait their hair offended the Hans’ self-respect. By making the Han Chinese and the Manchu look the same China’s new rulers suppressed the expression of cultural difference and exacted a form of social control.

In the early twentieth century the Manchu were overthrown and the new Chinese government passed a law requiring everyone to cut off their plaits.

Papua New Guinea

papua new guineaAmong the Huli of the Southern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea, men traditionally wore crescent-shaped wigs. There were two types of such wig. The wig pictured below was of the type used for everyday wear.

Wig, Papua New Guinea
Wig of human hair decorated with fur trim and
yellow feathers, Papua New Guinea; 1980.3.1
The other type of wig is shown in the second photograph. It is called the Haroli wig. Haroli was a bachelor cult. It involved young men spending many months in seclusion in the bush. There they used spells and rituals to prepare themselves formarriage, for Huli men consider women to be polluting. Aspart of the Haroli cult, men also cultivated their hair. At the end of the period of seclusion, bachelors cut off their hair and made it into upturned wigs decorated with flowers, fur, and feathers, in imitation of birds of paradise displaying their feathers. Although today Haroli is no longer practised, the wigs have become a symbol of Huli cultural identity.


Further Resources

Body Art Collections at the Pitt Rivers: A website exploring the Body Art collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Here you can find out more about the objects on display in the Museum, about the themes of the displays, and about the people who made and used the objects.

Further Reading

Detailed information about each of the objects on display is provided in the Body Arts Gallery.


huli men
Photograph of Huli men wearing Haroli wigs,
by Dr Laurence Goldman
CHENG, WEIKUN, ‘Politics of the Queue: Agitation and Resistance in the Beginning and End of Qing China’, in A. Hiltebeitel and B. Miller (eds.), Hair: Its Power and Meaning in Asian Cultures, New York: State University of New York Press (1998), pp. 123-142.

GOLDMAN, LAURENCE, Talk Never Dies: The Language of Huli Disputes, London and New York: Tavistock Publications (1983).

The objects featured in this introductory guide can be found in the following locations:

First Floor (Lower Gallery) L51B for wig from Papua New Guinea
First Floor (Lower Gallery) L52B wig from Egypt and Chinese plait

Fact Sheet compiled by:
Jennifer Peck, Project Assistant, DCF Redisplay Project, 2002

Fact Sheet revised by:
Bryony Reid, Senior Project Assistant (Interpretation)
DCF What’s Upstairs?, October 2005hair intro guide

Edited 2010



Download a pdf version of the Body Art - Hair introductory guide