That one was a wig. Wig. Wig… Lineisy Montero… That was three wigs. Nicole Kidman… Black wig…” Fresh from the spring/summer 2018 shows, uber-hairstylist Sam McKnight laughs as we peruse his pictorial anthology, Hair by Sam McKnight. “Yes, yes,” he concedes. “I do like wigs.”
So, it seems, do others. Duffy – the hairstylist, not the singer – sent models at Haider Ackermann down the runway rocking jaggedly cut pixie wigs. On the Moschino catwalk, the girls – Taylor! Gigi! Adwoa! Bella! Kaia! – were given short crops by Paul Hanlon, his choppy ode to Christy Turlington meets Jean Seberg and Mia Farrow. At Fendi, McKnight’s blue and green “mini wigs” became faux side fringes on the crowns of Kendall et al. There are no two ways about it: the wig is truly back in fashion.
This has been no overnight success, however; for the black community, the wig has always played a key role in women’s beauty regimes. The difference is that now it has gone stellar. Its trajectory has been steady. There are the characters (Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, Sia), the editorial shoots, social media (Kylie Jenner), television, music videos (that wig-shop scene in Beyoncé’s “Formation”), film ( Jared Leto as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club), the streets (from Brixton to Brooklyn)… The wig has stealthily worked its way out of the closet and into our conversations. It is no longer a dirty secret.
Walking into McKnight’s west London studio, I was greeted by a row of wigs on polystyrene heads. The candy-pink bob looked familiar: it was from the Chanel spring pre-collection 2013 show – a major wig moment inspired by “Versailles in Socialist France”. The row of heads also struck a chord. One of my earliest memories of growing up is of my mother’s dressing table, her wigs resting on their polystyrene heads. Every so often, hoping for that inexplicable magic, I would quickly try them on and hold my imaginary microphone because, of course, I was a member of Boney M. I felt beautiful, elegant, sophisticated. I thought the same of my mother and her fellow African friends, all of them immigrants who had settled in London in the 1950s and 1960s. They all wore wigs. As a grown woman, I find it shocking, looking back, to realise that as a five-year-old black girl I had already decided what I thought made a black woman beautiful (a European-style wig) and what didn’t (her own natural Afro hair). Just as most women would never introduce themselves to anyone English by their traditional African names, they and many other African immigrants wore Caucasian-textured wigs in order to be more acceptable in a country and culture that already saw them as “other” because of the colour of their skin.
Years later, the wig became more about choice and convenience. Certainly that’s what I had in mind when I experimented with a relative’s wig in my teens. It was a striking full-fringed black bobbed number – a bit Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, except appallingly synthetic. I convinced myself that I looked like Spinderella from Salt-N-Pepa. After weeks of (bad) weather and the stress of pretending it was mine, I saw it lying on my bed one day and realised it looked like an electrocuted cat. I never considered wearing a wig after that. Until now. The availability of high-quality wigs has helped somewhat, but many are still on the fence. Detractors say it is one thing to see wigs on celebrities and catwalks, but surely there is still a teeny stigma attached to normal, everyday women wearing wigs IRL in 2018?
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Shay Ashual, the wig guru lauded for his Vogue covers and big fashion-house campaigns (he’s known as the Master of Wigs), has been awaiting this new chapter for a long time. He was working with wigs even when the negative connotations were still a challenge to shift. “When I started using wigs in the 1990s, it was a dirty word in the fashion industry,” he recalls. “It was quite a struggle to get people to agree even to look at them.” Like Ashual, revered stylist Eugene Souleiman was a huge wig advocate in an era when it was far from fashionable. Recalling his experience in the mid-1990s, he says, “Most models had an established look, and this was my way to create something new I wanted to get back into changing colours, cutting hair, creating raw textures with short, sharp fringes cut quite aggressively… Wigs were not acceptable then — people feared change.”
So what was the turning point? “Beyoncé,” replies Ashual matter-of-factly. “She made it OK to wear wigs openly, and created a demand for lace-front wigs [more realistic, better quality] that were normally only available in the film and theatre industries. Wig companies saw this as an opportunity to up their game and make it into the mainstream.” Charlotte Mensah, the award-winning London-based Afro hairstylist, believes the demand has also been galvanised by the move away from relaxers and weaves (notorious for causing damaged hair and receding hairlines) and the rise of the natural-hair movement: “A lot of women wearing their hair natural still want the versatility of hairstyles,” Subrina Kidd, the natural-hair expert at the Collective, agrees. “Plus you can do it without sacrificing your own hair.” So now the market has exploded. Type wigs into Google and you’ll get the gist – it’s an industry worth billions.
One person who, arguably, had a hand in the wig resurgence is Beyoncé’s long-time hairstylist Kim Kimble. “With wigs, you no longer have limits on the look you want to achieve. There is no commitment. Celebrities have also helped popularise wigs, in cool colours – like Kylie Jenner.” Jenner said in a 2016 interview, “I started wigs and now everyone is wearing wigs… I just do whatever I want to do and people will follow.” Well, quelle surprise, an internet storm ensued. The outraged black community saw this as yet another form of cultural appropriation. The history books are clear: the ancient Egyptians created wigs for practical reasons (as a shield from the sun), but they also denoted social status. Black women have donned wigs for literally centuries. So, long story short, Kylie Jenner did not start wigs. No, not even the brightly coloured ones – Jamaican dancehall girls owned that look decades ago.
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The man behind Jenner’s famous wig collection is Tokyo Stylez. He is keen to give credit where he believes it is due. “I would love to say Kylie started the wig trend, but I wouldn’t even know how to make wigs and apply them if it hadn’t been for my black clients at the start of my career,” he says. Still, Jenner’s influence on the elevation of the wig as fashion accessory and talking point cannot be disregarded; and there are many other women outside black culture for whom wig-wearing is a significant part of their attire – Stylez cites singer Cher as “my favourite wig inspiration of all time”. Like Jenner, Cher has talked openly about her “wig closet”. Adele, Katy Perry and Beyoncé are also known to have extensive wig wardrobes. Kimble won’t divulge exactly how many wigs the Lemonade superstar has – her collection is rumoured to be worth more than $1 million – but the highest amount she’s known a woman to pay for a wig is a jaw-dropping £30,000. Astronomical? Ashual says it is justified. “When you’re looking at those prices, think about couture: the workmanship, the detailing…” For relatively affordable bespoke wigs, many women turn to Helena Collection in New York and Gina Knight (aka the Wig Witch) in London. And for off-the-peg wigs, Freddie Harrel’s Big Hair No Care range is a worthy contender – if only for the cool packaging designed by artist Jamilla Okubo, who was recently tapped by Dior.