Gettin' Wiggy With It

Adams' and his pals should have declared that among man's unalienable rights was life, liberty, and the right to show the world his own God-given head of hair.
03/17/2008 04:28 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Being the world's most reliable consumer of historical dramas, I obligingly
clicked on HBO for the first two episodes of its seven part series on John
Adams, which was titled, with no-frills certitude, John Adams. The show was
as dutiful, as earnest and as joyless (and ultimately less moving) as a big
bowl of All-Bran.

And I think I know why.

Eight years ago, when the Mel Gibson blockbuster The Patriot came out, I
wrote an article for The New York Times wondering why there weren't more movies about the Revolutionary War. One
person I asked to comment was the historian David McCullough, who was still
a year away from publishing his masterful biography of John Adams, which he
titled, with no-frills certitude, John Adams. He said "A lot of us have
trouble at first perceiving those people as real, because of their clothing,
and the wigs, and their mannered way of speaking, they are like characters
in a costume pageant."

After watching almost three hours of last night's late eighteenth century
pageant, I am convinced McCullough was onto something, even though he didn't
manage to head it off for the adaptation of his book. But it's not so much
the clothing or the way of speaking. It's the wigs.

Adams' puritan pewter-colored wig, Washington¹s powdery white wig,
Rutledge's ornate frosting wig -- they were big distractions. When Adams was
talking about liberty, I was thinking, "Doesn't he have any idea how goofy
he looks?' When Adams was going on about the futility of petitioning the
king, I kept thinking, "Look at Jefferson -- look how flattering that simple
ponytail is. And Franklin -- that aging hippie look works!" When Adams
recruited Jefferson and Franklin to write the declaration of independence, I
thought, "Would it have killed them to have included a Manifesto of

You know, wigs weren't some overnight, Nehru jacket fad. Wigs were the
fashion throughout Europe and the Americas for almost 200 years. Elizabeth I
kicked off the fashion among women in the late 16th century, and the Louis
XIII of France pioneered wig-wearing among men in the 1620s. Apparently
Louis felt badly about going prematurely going bald, and had a wig made for
himself. The ass-kissing toadies at court soon followed. Charles II of
Britain took up the wig when he was in hiding in France during Cromwell's
administration, and brought it back to England, which, weary of all that
severe roundheadedism, was ready for some frills. Unfortunately, the wigs
just kept getting longer and more elaborate. Hard as it to accept, the whole
of the Enlightenment was thought up under wigs. The style was on its last
legs when the Founding Fathers met in Philadelphia, but it really didn't die
out until Napoleon kind of kicked off a new era of natural coiffures. (Oh,
think of Oliver Perry's feathery bangs! Andrew Jackson's mane! Davy
Crockett's pelt! And then came the beards -- the 19th century really was the
century of hair.)

It's all well and good that the Adams and his pals shook off the shackles
that bound them to the despotic motherland. But had they really wanted to do
something revolutionary, they should have declared that among man's
unalienable rights was life, liberty, and the right to show the world his
own God-given head of hair.