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To wig or not to wig? Exploring the eternal hair trend & where it’s headed

As styles, wearers, and innovations multiply, we lift the lid on wig culture now: what’s new, what’s next, and how to secure yours

When I shaved my hair last year, it didn't register as a big decision. No-one ever saw it anyway – for the best part of six years, it was almost always underneath a wig. Despite this being common for many black women, up until recently wigs have been viewed as anything but everyday. They were an ‘on occasion’ expense – for hair loss, (whether out of illness or age), for costume (fancy dress or theatre) for tradition (the powdered wigs of British judges or the ‘sheitel’ worn by orthodox Jewish women). 

“The older generation grew up wearing wigs back in the 1960s and 1970s, when (for black women at least) they were a part of your outfit,” says Gina Knight, founder of Gina Knight Wig Design. “Attitudes are returning to that era – wigs are again just an extension of your style.” Wigs have always regularly appeared on catwalks without actually being ‘in fashion’ – now, they are shouted about from every internet corner. They’re a staple in the online lexicon of gay, black, and ‘stan’ Twitter, the custodians of online speak: “Wig snatched”, “wig flew”, “wigs reported missing”. 

The ubiquity of RuPaul’s Drag Race no doubt plays a part in this – iconic wig reveals from contestants such as season 9 winner Sasha Velour and season 5’s Roxxy Andrews, became the stuff of legend. Andrews’ ‘wig-under-wig reveal’ has been emulated countless times since, including by Katy Perry on Instagram, six years after it first debuted. Annaliese Keating’s wig removal in How to Get Away With Murder was another pivotal pop culture moment.  

It’s difficult to quantify the exact size of the wig industry worldwide; it’s made up of several moving parts from hair merchants to wholesalers to wig-knotters. The likes of ASOS, Boohoo, and Urban Outfitters stock them under the ‘beauty’ and ‘accessories’ sections of their sites, and the global hair wigs and extension market is estimated to reach revenues of more than $10 billion by 2023. Halloween’s gradual shift to a millennial, international celebration, the rise of e-girls, (whose characteristic bright hair is often achieved by wigs), and cosplay’s move away from the margins, means we see wigs more and more on social media. But they are now normalised offline too, outside of a costume context. 

Much of this is down to black women. As more and more newly-natural black women sought protective styling, wigs became an obvious go-to due to the lack of manipulation required. Advances in wig technology coincided with growing demand: years ago, we were once limited to store-bought ‘shake and go’ synthetic wigs, but you can now buy ones that are virtually undetectable. More and more synthetic fibres can be styled with heat, if human hair is too pricey. The options are endless, not just in style and colour, but in type: lace front wigs, 360 frontal wigs, U-part wigs. Styles that once took several hours to achieve, such as microbraids, can simply be popped on. 

Magazines often attribute the cultural shift toward wigs to Kylie Jenner (who three years ago, did the same herself). But they are simply another thing marginalised groups popularised, that required the ‘famous white woman stamp of approval’ before being widely accepted. One of the biggest drivers of wigs in recent years has been the natural hair movement and black women’s increased focus on general hair health. The damage done by the now unfashionable weave led to black women searching for less taxing alternatives.

Wigs at every level have become increasingly tailored to the specific needs of consumers. Take To All my Black Girls, launched by Anu ‘Nunu’ Obe after she failed to find any UK companies specialising in textured extensions. The natural hair movement has also led to many black women wanting wigs that reflect their authentic hair types. It’s a growing market, with influencer Freddie Harrell securing £1.5 million in seed funding for her startup RadSwàn, which produces synthetic clip-in textured hair extensions and wigs. 

Obe created a product that paired this trend with something often overlooked in black hair-care: convenience. She launched ‘The Wig Hat’ – hair attached to a bobble hat last year, ideal for a “school run’” or “unexpected visit”. “I first saw the wig hats being promoted by Chinese people, but they never used curly hair types, so I immediately saw an opportunity to implement that for the black community,” she says. “It was an instant hit! Whatever can be done for silky hair types, can be done for afro hair types.”

Obe saw a gap in the market that only exists because of the industry’s limited understanding of why women choose to wear wigs. Despite often being juxtaposed to the natural hair movement by purists, a want for fake hair does not necessarily mean a want for straight hair. In fact, Anu offers a more likely outcome: “I think in the next five years, other ethnicities will start rocking natural textured wigs,” she says. 

“Magazines often attribute the cultural shift toward wigs to Kylie Jenner... One of the biggest drivers of wigs in recent years has been the natural hair movement and black women’s increased focus on general hair health. The damage done by the now unfashionable weave led to black women searching for less taxing alternatives”

The blind spots are continually being addressed by black women. Aasiyah Abdulsalam, founder of The Renatural, wrote her dissertation at university on the wig industry, and identified issues often ignored by producers of products they don’t often use. “I tried using wig glues and velvet grips but they were sweaty, uncomfortable, fiddly, and pretty unsanitary,” she says. “They also damaged my edges quite a bit! That finally gave me the massive kick to actually invent The Wig Fix.” Abdulsalam’s creation is a specially engineered, silicone gripper that secures your wig while protecting your scalp. 

What’s clear is that while wigs aren’t new – the transparency around them is. “Just five years ago, celebrity stylists had to sign confidentiality agreements to keep the wig-wearing habits of their A-List clients a secret,” says Abdulsalam. “Now, I don’t think you can name one that hasn’t been spotted with a wig.” She’s right – these days we get wig closet tours from Blac Chyna, Khloe Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, and in-depth features on Porsha Williams’ awe-inspiring wig room. But this demystification is still newfound, especially for black women, who bore the brunt of the stigma around wig-wearing. 

For years it was assumed we resort to wearing others hair because we can’t grow our own or the ‘right’ type. Black women’s purported ‘fakeness’ is a well-worn punchline – in a famous episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Will gets trapped in a basement with a love interest who slowly ‘falls apart’, removing her coloured contact lenses, her nails, and of course, her wig. “In the last three hours, you took out your eyeballs, your fingernails, your eyelids, and your hair.” Will snaps at her. “Now what else on your body can I get at the mall?” It’s why ‘wig snatching’ videos of unsuspecting black women having their wigs removed have long been a viral sensation. 

Over the years, however, it’s a threat that has been somewhat defanged – being caught in your wig cap sans wig was once a communal fear, but black beauty bloggers have normalised it, regularly recording tutorials de-wigged. Social media personalities like Nicole TV and on-the-come-up Cardi B, made it part of their schtick – Cardi on Instagram live in her wig cap was a regular sight and she recently even threw her wig into a crowd at a London show. 

Wig snatching lost its ‘gotcha’ power when it became clear there was no secret to expose. Black women were doing it themselves – during a heated debate on television show This Morning, panellist Irene Major pulled hers off to labour a point. ‘I bought it, so it’s mine’ was a popular clap-back to enquiries about the veracity of a black women’s hair long before Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings”, but nowadays it feels like there is less of a need to explain that most wear wigs to stand out, as opposed to obscure. 

The future of wigs looks bright, literally: the lack of permanence means they are becoming more avant-garde. Black women, who are so often penalised in the workplace for hair choices, are free to experiment with ‘weekend wigs’ as wig wardrobes expand. As the viral #dmxchallenge showed, variety is the spice of life when it comes to them. Many women attribute wigs names, personalities and characters – during her wig room tour, Porsha Williams introduced "Georgia housewife” Carrington, "executive chairwoman” Olivia and “princess” Pocahontas. 

Character creation through wigs is something drag queens pioneered, as well as giving creative license to take wig looks to the extreme: “We have taken wigs out of proportion and created what people were maybe thinking about, but didn’t necessarily do,” says Serena Chacha, a Season five contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race and founder of Serena Chacha wigs. “We gave that push to be more wild with wigs and design crazy stuff. The individuality of having a custom wig that sets up your character is how we change the game.” 

With continued innovation and a generational steer towards ethical consuming, focus seems to be veering toward craftsmanship and hair sourcing. Videos depicting the intricate, often overlooked, skill of wig creation and installation already garner thousands of likes and shares online. A savvy form of advertising for vendors but increasingly, akin to visual ASMR for wig-lovers. The controversial ways in which human hair is sourced is well documented – millions travel to Hindu temples in southern India every year to get their hair shaved – or “tonsured” as it is known when it is done for religious reasons. The hair is sold every few months by the temple authorities. 

“We have taken wigs out of proportion and created what people were maybe thinking about, but didn’t necessarily do. We gave that push to be more wild with wigs and design crazy stuff. The individuality of having a custom wig that sets up your character is how we change the game” – Serena Chacha, founder, Serena Chacha wigs and RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant 

Meanwhile, Chinese hair is falsely advertised as “Virgin Peruvian” or “Pure Brazilian” and impoverished women across the globe often sell their hair out of desperation. As in the food and clothing industries, consumers are rightfully now more picky about where their hair comes from. “Accountability and transparency with the manufacturing is one,” says Abdulsalam. “I see more personalisation with ordering processes and the emergence of overarching digitally native brands that cater to specific niches in the wig community.” 

Conversations around wig disposal were virtually non-existent when I first started wearing them, but sustainability is now a huge talking point. As we invest more in wigs, refurbishment, renovation and repair services have become big business. Dry cleaning service Wig Wash and Drop was launched last year by Gabriella Phillips and is proving to be a much-needed enterprise. “It was a new concept,” she tells me. “I wanted to see if this was a service that would work and I have seen such an incredible response from so many women across the UK. Women that are busy with no time for the salon and those looking for help in caring for their wigs and hair extensions. Many of them, not knowing what to do, have thrown £100s in the bin!” 

As wigs again gain prominence in wider, whiter society, they will increasingly become an even bigger talking point. Throughout history, wigs were largely non-gendered and worn across races – during Ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, 16th century Europe and a brief revival in the 1960s – and it appears they may be coming full circle. Male weaves are now a booming business and wigs are a staple accessory for hipster festival-goers – the mental image of a ‘wig-wearer’ will continue to shift over the next few years. 

When Abdulsalam launched her platform, she assumed the early adopter market would mainly consist of women of African/Caribbean descent, aged 18-65, as they make up 60 per cent of the global wig market. “According to our reviews, customer service/social media intel, it’s more diverse than we initially thought.” Alongside “women and men of different races”, she notes a number of first time, experimental buyers inspired by celebrities – their favourite K-Pop group “and even Khaleesi from Game Of Thrones!” Motivations have changed too, with clean beauty buyers turning to wigs as a “safer, seamless, and non-toxic way” to dramatically change their hairstyle and colour. “Wigs are the ultimate hack to them,” she concludes and if their current rise is anything to go by, wigs may soon be a hack enjoyed by all.