Wigs were introduced to France by Louis XIII and his son Louis XVI to cover up the family baldness, but many people took to wearing them for comfort’s sake. With little means of controlling head lice and other vermin, shaving the head and wearing a wig could often be a preferable option. Women’s wigs could reach enormous proportions, and the dressing of a head for a fashionable function could occupy three or four hours.
Equally large and similarly extravagant hats were needed to cover these creations, whether artificial or the wearer’s own powdered hair, their designs changing on an almost daily basis in response to current events, the theatre, or even lawsuits.
Anne Howard-Vyse appears to have her own unpowdered hair beneath her enormous bonnet in Tilly Kettle’s portrait. Anne Howard married General Richard Vyse in 1780, taking the name Howard-Vyse from then on. While the prominence of the wedding ring on Anne’s hand draws attention to the match, her resolute gaze immediately halts any notions of giddy romance. One senses that the fripperies of fashion, particularly in relation to wig decoration, were never part of her personal style.
More than anything this particular portrait is a magnificent celebration of paint. The highly elaborate bonnet, coupled with the silks, satins and brocades of Anne’s costume, positively shimmer with silvery lights, set off by the plush grey velvet cushion on which she rests her arms. The tags on the ermine border of her jacket serve not just to keep her warm, but also remind the viewer of her aristocratic pedigree.