Any silk, any thread, 

Any toys for your head . . . 

The Winter’s Tale, 4.4.319-20


Tires and wigs

We have learned something of the Mountjoys’ story - such traces as remain - but what of the ‘trade of Tyermakeinge’ which was their livelihood? In the Belott-Mountjoy papers he is ‘Christopher Mountjoy of London, tiremaker’; in the Queen’s accounts she is ‘Marie Mountjoy, tyrewoman’. This is their professional identity, almost as primary to them as their national identity - in contemporary eyes, the two go naturally together: they are French and they are in the fashion business.

Head-tires came in many shapes and sizes. The word ‘tire’ - then also written ‘tyre’, ‘tier’ and ‘tyer’ - is simply an abbreviated form of ‘attire’, and is similarly generic. Any adornment for the head that was not an actual hat or hood could be called a tire. It was a dressing for the hair, and in the original sense of the word Marie Mountjoy was a hairdresser. (‘Tires’ in the plural was also used in the broader sense of attire - garments, costumes, etc - which is why the dressing room of an Elizabethan theatre was called the ‘tiring-house’ and the man in charge of it the ‘tireman’.1 It is usually clear which sense is meant, but there are occasional ambiguities, as in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 53, where ‘You in Grecian tires are painted new’ could refer to either robes or headgear.)

By the late sixteenth century, a particular style of head-tiring had evolved. It was a French import, associated with the glittery cours de ballet of the Valois court (see Plate 20): the Mountjoys were marketing a continental ‘look’ as much as a product.2 The full-blown tire was an assemblage rising up some inches above the head, based on a framework of silver or gilt wire, embroidered with silk and lace and gauze and gold thread, decorated with pearls, gems and spangles, and often topped off with a feather or two. ‘Tire’ has no etymological link with ‘tiara’, though these creations could be described as complicated tiaras. It was a sumptuous and expensive item, worn by queens, noblewomen and female courtiers, and thence by imitation percolating down the social scale - as complained of by two fretful ladies of fashion onstage in 1600:

PHILAUTIA: What? Ha’ you chang’d your head-tire?

PHANTASTE: Yes faith; th’other was so near the common, it had no extraordinary grace . . . I cannot abide anything that savours [of] the poor over-worn cut . . .

PHILAUTIA: And yet we cannot have a new peculiar court-tire, but these retainers will have it, these suburb Sunday-waiters, these courtiers for high days, I know not what I should call ’em -

PHANTASTE : O aye, they do most pitifully imitate.3

In texts of the day we hear of a ‘tyre of gold adorned with gemmes and owches’ (an ‘ouch’ is a gold or silver setting for a precious stone); of a ‘tyer of netting’; of an ‘attyre . . . in form of two little ships made of emeralds, with all the shrouds and tackling of clear saphyres’; of a ‘mourning tire such as gentlewomen wear at the time of funerals’; of toweringly tall ‘Turkish tires’; and, humorously, of a ‘tire [of] four squirrels’ tails tied in a true-love knot’.4 The Mountjoys did not necessarily supply the gemstones that adorned the tire: these would typically be part of the wearer’s own collection. When Christopher describes himself as a tiremaker he probably means he is a manufacturer of the basic unit - the delicately wrought framework into which various adornments could be fitted - though he no doubt put together complete, ready-to-wear tires as well.

The writer George Chapman laments the fate of a fashionable woman’s hair - ‘tortured with curling bodkins, tied up each night in knots, wearied with tires’.5 This reminds us that the more elaborate tires must have been heavy to wear - or, by analogy, that part of the tiremaker’s skill was to get volume without weight: an art of finesse, of leggiadr’a; a visual confection.

As noted, ‘tiremaker’ serves also to mean a wigmaker. They were not called wigmakers because the word ‘wig’ did not yet exist - ‘periwig’ (from which it comes) was still in a malleable state, and is found as ‘perwycke’, ‘perewincle’ and ‘periwinke’. The fashion for wigs was associated with the French immigration: ‘Perwigs . . . were first devized and used in Italy by courtezans, and from thence brought into France, and there received of the best sort for gallant ornaments, and from thence they came into England about the time of the Massacre of Paris.’6 False hair - human at best, also horse-hair and hemp - was used in the tire itself. It provided a bedding for the tire to sit on, and matched for colour it created an illusion that the whole edifice was an extension of the wearer’s own hair. This bed of hair might be a ‘hair-caul’, which fitted close over the head, or a more substantial bouffon.7 A periwig or peruke - a full wig completely covering the head - is not the same as a tire, but if an Elizabethan wished to purchase one, she or he might well go to the tiremaker. I have suggested that Dr Forman’s note about ‘Madam Kitson’ proposes such a journey to Mrs Mountjoy’s shop in St Olave’s.

Possibly this wigmaking side of their business is referred to in a joke of Ben Jonson’s. In Epicoene (1609) the elderly and vain Mistress Otter is described as an assemblage of artificial parts: ‘All her teeth were made in the Blackfriars, both her eyebrows i’ th’ Strand, and her hair in Silver Street - every part of the town owns a piece of her!’ (4.2.81-3). These places are named for punning purposes - her teeth are black, her eyebrows strands, her periwig silver - but there is surely a glance at the actual wigmaker of Silver Street, Christopher Mountjoy, whom Jonson undoubtedly knew through their mutual friend Shakespeare. Being mentioned - or even half mentioned - in a Jonson comedy cannot have been bad for business, though as Mrs Otter is earlier described as wearing ‘a peruke that’s like a pound of hemp made up in shoe-threads’, the publicity is not all good.

No tires or wigs survive from the period of the Mountjoys’ production. 8 The chief culprit is physical decomposition. Anything in contact with the head comes also into contact with human hair-oil, and material impregnated with bodily secretions is particularly attractive to moth, beetle and micro-organisms. Wigs made of human hair or horse-hair are anyway vulnerable because of natural oils in them. Over time these oils also cause an unpleasant brownish staining. For these reasons the principle of benign neglect - clothes put away in a chest in the attic and forgotten, which has resulted in some historic survivals - is less likely to happen with headwear and underwear. Another reason for the non-survival of tires is that anything embellished with costly materials was likely to be destroyed and recycled.

We cannot see an Elizabethan or Jacobean head-tire in the flesh, but we can see them in many paintings. Almost all the ceremonial portraits of Queen Elizabeth show her head lavishly attired. In the famous ‘Ermine’ portrait at Hatfield House (1585) she wears a tire of large pearls and coloured gems arranged in sprigs; one can see the wire framework and the padded hairpiece on which it sits. The ‘Ditchley’ portrait (1592) features a mighty Wurlitzer of pearls and diamonds several inches high.9 The provenance of these tires is unclear - perhaps they were gifts. There is no mention of ‘tiremakers’ in the accounts and inventories of the Queen’s wardrobe so meticulously analysed by the late Janet Arnold. The dressing of the royal head was one of the tasks of the Gentlewomen of the Bedchamber, better known as the ‘Maids of Honour’ - an account-entry shows Blanche Parry, the overseer of the Maids, receiving ‘satten of sundrye colours to be used about the attyre of our hedde’. Also involved in her headwear were the Queen’s ‘silkmen’ and ‘silkwomen’, of whom the most frequently mentioned are Roger Mountague and Dorothy Speckard. In 1586 Mountague was paid for ‘translating [altering] & mending of an attyer for the hed of white nettworke florished with Venice silver’ and for ‘silver lase to edge the same rounde aboute’.10

We also see Elizabeth in elaborate wigs. By the mid-1580s she was greying, but her portraits continue to show her with dark-red or reddish-gold hair arranged in tight curls and waves. After an audience in 1597, the French ambassador de Maisse reported: ‘On her head-tire she wore a coronet of pearls . . . and beneath it a great reddish-coloured wig with a great many spangles of gold and silver’; either side of her head ‘hung two great curls of hair, almost down to her shoulders’, presumably hairpieces.11 Her wigs were also supplied by her silkmen and silkwomen. There are frequent payments to Roger Mountague:

vij [seven] heads of haire to make attiers, flowers and other devices for attiers [and] two periwigs of haire . . .

iij lardge fayre heddes of heaire [and] iiij perewigges of heaire . . .12

Mary Queen of Scots also used wigs - most famously the red wig she wore on the day of her death in 1587, which came off when the executioner lifted up her severed head.13

There is nothing to link the Mountjoys with Queen Elizabeth’s headwear, but with the advent of Queen Anne or Anna, the Danish wife of King James, their fortunes rose. As mentioned, ‘Marie Mountjoy, tyrewoman’ received payments from Queen Anne in 1604-5 (see Plate 23); the accounts either side of this fiscal year do not survive, so it is possible she made other appearances. She is one of about thirty suppliers listed under the rubric, ‘Paiments made upon severall bills of Artificers for necessaries belonging to Her Highnes Roabes and other ornamentes’. On 17 November 1604 Marie received £18 13s 7d, and on 11 March following £21 12s 10d; together with some other payments not itemized, the total sum was £59. Also receiving payment that year was her neighbour, Christopher Weaver the mercer, who would later give evidence in the Belott-Mountjoy suit; and Thomas Sheppard, perfumer, whose sister Jane will later be of interest to us.14 That it is Marie rather than her husband named in the accounts is not unusual - roughly a third of the payees are female - but suggests what might anyway be guessed: that she was the public face of their business, the customer services department; also no doubt the one who physically fitted, adjusted, discussed and decorated the tire in situ, which occasionally meant in the Queen’s dressing room, probably at Somerset House in the Strand, which Anne took over around this time as her private palace, renaming it Denmark House.

In this document we find the Mountjoys at their professional zenith, specialist suppliers ‘by royal appointment’, in company with the similarly top-drawer haberdashers, milliners, girdlers, hosiers, drapers, pinners, locksmiths, feather-makers, farthingale-makers and coffer-makers also listed in the accounts, and not so very far from those other specialist suppliers listed in royal documents at this time, the King’s players.

Queen Anne wears a head-tire in the full-length portrait of her by Marcus Gheeraerts the younger, now at Woburn Abbey (see Plate 24). The painting is dated c. 1605-10, a range that intersects with the Queen’s employment of Marie Mountjoy as her ‘tyrewoman’. The tilt of her head hides some of the detail, but we see a delicate, wreath-like framework studded with pearls, a background of red cloth, perhaps silk or taffeta, and a spray of white feathers. The tire is worn high on the back of her head, floating on a cloud of blondish hair which is probably in part a wig. Cool understatement is not something to which the head-tire generally aspired, but one sees a tendency to elegance and restraint in comparison to the grandiose displays favoured by Elizabeth.

It is quite possible that the headgear depicted by Gheeraerts is an actual product of the Mountjoy workshop, though as Anne wears a similar tire in a later portrait (Paul van Somer, c. 1617) we may have to think of it as a more generic depiction.15 These are, at least, the type of head-tires produced by the Mountjoy workshop around the time of Shakespeare’s presence upstairs.

A remarkably precise vignette of a fashionable lady putting on a head-tire is found in a language-manual printed in 1605: The French Garden for English Ladyes and Gentlewomen by Peter Erondell. The first dialogue in the book is ‘The Rising in the Morning’ (as was the norm, Erondell’s manual is written in dialogue form, with parallel texts in English and French).16 It features a French aristocrat, Madame de Rimelaine, getting ready for the day with the help of her chambermaid Prudence, her gentlewoman Jolye and her page-boy.

‘Come dress my head,’ milady demands. First she must have her scalp rubbed: ‘Come, Jolye, rubbe well my head, for it is very full of dandrife.’ For this procedure there are ‘rubbers’, which the page has earlier been ordered to warm. Next she has her hair combed, but ‘give me first my combing-cloth, otherwise you will fill me full of hayres’. Two combs are used, one of ivory and another ‘boxen’ (of boxwood), and when the combing is done, the page is ordered to clean them with ‘combe-brushes’ and to use ‘a quill to take away the filth from them’.

Madame de Rimelaine is planning to wear her ‘French hood’ but Jolye tells her the weather is fine, so she resolves on a ‘head attyre’ instead. She calls for ‘my jewels that I weare on my head’; they are in the ‘long box’ in her closet. She demands: ‘What is become of my wyre? Where is the hair capp? Have you any ribans to make knots? Where be the laces for to bind my haires?’ We again note that the tire is something assembled, rather than a ready-made artefact - a ‘hair-cap’ or caul to fit over the head; a wire framework in which jewels can be set; a quantity of ribbons and laces to tie things into place, as well as to decorate. Finally, ‘now set on my carkanet of precious stones’.17

Erondell’s dialogue also gives a handy vocabulary of French tire-related terms in use in 1605. The tire itself is un atour, though in its more general sense of head-dressing it is simply une coiffure.18 The structure of wires which supports it is un mole (which today generally means a jetty) and the ‘hair cap’ is une houppe. These are words you would hear used in the Mountjoys’ workshop.

We are close here in time, language and ambience to the Mountjoys. Erondell probably knew them within the French community of Jacobean London, and perhaps his knowledge of head-tiring owes something to their expertise in the subject. What do we know of Monsieur Erondell (or ‘Mr Swallow’)? He was from Normandy, and was in England by the mid-1580s, translating Huguenot propaganda and teaching French. Thereafter nothing is heard of him till the appearance of the French Garden. (There is a Peter Swallow listed in the 1593 Return of Strangers, but he is a Dutch blacksmith.) One thing we do know is that Erondell was for a while French tutor to Sir Thomas Berkeley: he dedicated the French Garden to Berkeley’s wife Elizabeth, from whom he had received ‘gratuites faveurs’.19 Not for the first time this brings up the name of the Careys, Lord and Lady Hunsdon, for Elizabeth Berkeley was their daughter - their only child. There is a venerable theory that Elizabeth’s wedding to Sir Thomas Berkeley in February 1595 was the occasion of Shakespeare’s nuptial fantasia, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

We know of two people in the Hunsdon orbit with whom Marie was acquainted at one time or another - Alice Floyd, servant to Lady Hunsdon; and William Shakespeare, poet of Lord Hunsdon’s theatre troupe - and she may also have been acquainted with Peter Erondell, French tutor to the Hunsdons’ son-in-law.

There is anyway a parallel between the imagined head-dressing of Erondell’s French Garden and the actual head-dressing offered by the Mountjoys, and it is one that reminds us of their status. Mrs Mountjoy is not Madame de Rimelaine, but the one who receives the orders: Jolye the ‘waiting gentlewoman’. (This is one of the definitions of ‘tirewoman’ given by OED - ‘a woman who assists at a lady’s toilet, a lady’s maid’, though this relates to the more general sense of ‘attire’.) In 1605, the year that Erondell’s manual was published, the King’s Men staged the first performance of Ben Jonson’s comic masterpiece Volpone. The affected Lady Would-be is a classic tire-wearer, and we watch her imperiously fretting with her two ‘waiting-women’, rather as Madame de Rimelaine does with hers -

LADY WOULD-BE: Come nearer. Is this curl 

In his right place? Or this? Why is this higher 

Than all the rest? . . . I pray you, view 

This tire, forsooth: are all things apt, or no?

WOMAN: One hair a little here sticks out, forsooth. 

LADY WOULD-BE: Does’t so, forsooth? . . . 

Pray you both approach and mend it. (3.2.42-53)

This is the sort of thing Marie Mountjoy had to put up with, as she attended to the tires and coiffures of her rich clientele.

Tires and wigs were worn by queens, princesses, maids of honour and grandes dames like Madame de Rimelaine and Lady Would-be - all eminently respectable. From a different angle, however, the tire was a typical instance of the sinful vanities and superfluities of female fashion. The prophet Isaiah sets the tone, foretelling the downfall of the materialistic ‘daughters of Zion’ - ‘The Lord will take away the bravery of their tinkling ornaments about their feet, and their cauls, and their round tires like the moon’ (AV, Isaiah 3.18).

Nashe has some strident comments in his homiletic broadside of 1593, Christ’s Tears over Jerusalem (dedicated to the future Lady Hunsdon). He targets tires and wigs as part of a general diatribe on women’s vanity:

Their heads, with their top and top-gallant lawn baby-caps, and snow-resembling silver curlings, they make a plain puppet-stage of . . .

Thy flaring, frounzed periwigs, low dangled down with love-locks . . .

As angels are painted in church windows with glorious golden fronts beset with sunbeams, so beset they their foreheads on either side with glorious borrowed gleamy bushes . . .

These ‘borrowed gleamy bushes’ are what we would call hair-extensions, also at the time called ‘borders’. Nashe adds that they ‘signify beauty to sell, since a bush is not hanged forth but to invite men to buy’. He is referring to the ivy bush hung outside wine-shops, but there is an obvious bawdy overtone. He suggests that this sort of elaborate headwear is associated with prostitution - beauty for sale. His friend Robert Greene refers more bluntly to ‘street-walkers’ in their ‘quaint periwigs’.20

In the same year we find another writer talking of ‘lascivious Jessabells’ who ‘set out their broidred haire with periwigs’. They appear to be ‘fine & proper women’ but in reality ‘live in pleasure enjoying the lust of the flesh, most filthely making a pastime thereof’.21 If Nashe’s pieties sound unconvincing, these are even more so - the writer was Dr Forman, for whom lust of the flesh was a favourite pastime. In similar vein Thomas Middleton - a disciple of Nashe, and a future collaborator with Shakespeare - describes his prototype of female vanity, ‘Insolent Superbia’, as a wearer of tires and wigs:

But O her silver-framèd coronet 

With low-down dangling spangles all beset, 

Her sumptuous periwig, her curious curls . . .22

A visual counterpart to this depiction of tire-wearing as gaudy and immodest is Isaac Oliver’s allegorical watercolour on a theme of virtue and pleasure, c. 1590-95 (see Plate 29), in which the flashily dressed figures on the right are wanton pleasure-seekers, the sprawled man reminiscent of the Prodigal Son among the harlots.23 The central woman of this group, dressed in gold with her breasts exposed, is a vivid portrayal of a courtesan by one of the best immigrant painters in London. She wears a showy head-tire of lace and gauze, a border studded with black bugles, and tightly primped blonde hair which may well be a wig. ‘Courtesan’ is euphemistic: essentially one means an upmarket prostitute.

These writers and artists trail an idea that lavish tires and periwigs are a trademark of prostitutes, or anyway women of dubious reputation, and it is not surprising that we glimpse tire-wearing women among the desirable but dodgy ‘dames’ in the audience of the playhouse. Thus Father Orazio Busino, chaplain at the Venetian embassy, found himself at the Fortune theatre in 1617, ‘amongst a bevy of young women’.24 One of them, a ‘very elegant dame’, placed herself beside him, and asked him for his address ‘both in French and English’. The priest ‘turned a deaf ear’, but not, it seems, a blind eye, for he gives an enthusiastic description of her clothing. She wore three pairs of gloves, which she took off one after the other, finally ‘showing me some fine diamonds on her fingers’. He notes her yellow satin bodice, her petticoat of gold tissue with stripe, her robe of velvet with a raised pile, and finally her head-tire, which was ‘heavily perfumed’.

Another ‘dame’ is spotted at a playhouse, probably the Blackfriars, in Henry Fitzgeoffrey’s Satyres (1617). She too wears something fancy on her head, indeed she is identified by it -

But stay! See heere (but newly entred), 

A Cheapside Dame, by th’ tittle on her head! 

Plot, villain, plot! Let’s lay our heads together. 

We may devise perchaunce to get her hither . . . 

Heer Mrs! Pox on’t, she’s past, she’l not come o’re, 

Sure shee’s bespoken for a box before.

OED gives various meanings for ‘tittle’ but none connected with headwear. It looks for a moment like an early version of ‘titfer’, but the latter is rhyming-slang (tit-for-tat: hat). Perhaps it is a jocular coinage for a head-tire.25

The Mountjoys’ clientele included Queen Anne, and no doubt some aristocratic and courtly ladies, possibly including Ladies Hunsdon and Kitson, but it is also drawn from this more louche milieu of fashion-mad young Superbias, dolled-up dames at the playhouse, courtesans and prostitutes. Like Shakespeare and his company, the Mountjoys supply the great growth-industries of leisure and pleasure which give Jacobean London its rackety boom-town aura.

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