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A brief history of the good, the bad, and the ugly side of hair extensions

From clip-ins to weaves to glue-in flowing locks, hair extensions have long been the secret of celebrities and mired in controversy

Welcome to Beauty School, the corner of Dazed Beauty dedicated to learning. From guides to histories, this is where we shed light on past subcultural movements and educate our readers on current trends and various goings-on.

“Hair extensions are a big family,” says Freddie Harrel, CEO of RadSwan, a start-up for premium afro hair extensions. “That family includes braids, weaves, clip-ins, wigs...” She’s tried pretty much all of these techniques – she laughs – with varying success. For her, extensions embody and facilitate the creativity of black hair more broadly: “A black woman is a shapeshifter in the way that she expresses herself; it’s like we are telling all of these stories, with our hair.”

Wigs warrant a history of their own: they have been around since circa 2700 BCE – when the Egyptians first started using human hair and sheep’s wool to make them, and becoming popular in the West in the 1600s after Louis XIV lost his hair, had an elaborate wig designed, and started the big-wig trend. But it was in the Victorian era that we began to see the introduction of hair extensions as we think of them today, with tonnes of human hair imported to the UK to be made into “switches” – long flowing clip-ins that were worn in styles like doughnut buns.

But things really changed in 1951, when an African American woman called Christina Jenkins living in Cleveland, Ohio patented the weave technique, where hair is attached to netting – or a weft – and sewn to the hair on the scalp. After that, the possibilities multiplied. Bonding and fusion involve attaching hair extensions to the scalp with adhesives. Pinch braids involve tying the extensions to the hair by braiding it in.

Vicky Demetriou is a hairstylist specialising in extensions and has given them to celebrities from Kristen Stewart to Lindsay Lohan. She is trained in most hair types, and gives hair extensions for many reasons, to those with thin hair or damaged hair – say from bleach or other treatments – to people who simply want a different shape or the subtle look of more lift and bounce. “With afro hair, extensions have been popular in the mainstream for much longer than European hair,” says Demetriou. “I was doing them at school in the common room! But when I started out professionally in the 90s, there was less awareness around extensions for European types of hair. People used to go to LA and ‘miraculously’ just have thicker or longer hair. It seemed remote; in Britain there was the odd salon doing it, but there wasn’t advertising around it.”

Demetriou thinks this changed around the early 2000s when Victoria Beckham ditched her famous bob for longer hair ("My extensions come from Russian prisoners, so I’ve got Russian cell block H on my head” Beckham problematically joked at the time), and when Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie started to appear with quite obvious fake extensions. “Now I look at it and I’m like, it’s kind of almost so bad that it’s cool?” Demetriou laughs. “But there was no shape to it, and barely a basic colour match.” People like Sadie Frost and Sienna Miller were getting them too, and Demetriou started doing them in salons: “I can’t tell you the kind of questions I used to get – no one understood it. They would like to say to me: ‘What part of the head is it attached to?’ They thought that you put it on the ends of your hair.”

Over the 2000s, UK reality TV shows depicted people actually getting extensions – from makeover shows to The Only Way Is Essex – and demystified the process. “I’ve been in the industry 15 years now and I saw a real boom around 2008, says Chris King, brand director of natural hair extensions company Great Lengths. “Reality TV was having a big influence on everyday people getting them, but also the growth of social media and the internet.” With Google, you were suddenly able to do research about hair extensions. Before that, people didn’t really talk about them, says King. Partly because they were meant to be natural, invisible, like a good dye job, and partly because they were taboo: “If I’d talk about hair extensions, people were critical, or would try to find out the bad side in regards to where they came from.” 

During this period several big documentaries did a good job of questioning the ethics of hair extensions suppliers. In 2008 Jamelia-hosted documentary Whose Hair Is It Anyway? At the time it came out, British women were spending £65 million a year on hair extensions, five times more than four years prior. The documentary meets young Russian girls selling their hair, as well as women donating theirs to temples in India as part of a Hindu ritual. It even explores the myth that some hair extensions come from human corpses.

Freddie Harrel says that the 2009 film Good Hair with Chris Rock put her off the use of human hair extensions: “I know there are some brands that do it ethically now but even touching it feels wrong. I don’t eat meat and I know it’s not the same but I wonder about exploitation; How many women were involved with this? How much was she paid? Did she want to give it away?” 

Within the reportedly billion-dollar global human hair industry, women are exploited from countries from Ukraine to Vietnam by being drastically underpaid for their hair or having it forcibly removed. People in Myanmar, South Africa, and Venezuela have been robbed for their hair – sometimes at gunpoint. Demetriou says that it’s likely the only place that human hair will come from is a place where people are living in poverty and that historically, much of it has come from China or rural Russia. 

Scepticism about the human hair industry is what made Harrell focus on using synthetic hair with RadSwan, along with the fact that the company creates wigs that have a curly or blown out afro look, and for black women, she says “human hair often doesn’t match our textures anyway, it’s often Asian or Indian hair that has to be treated to be courser or more textured like our hair.” 

She acknowledges that the current synthetic industry has a “terrible reputation” and is “thought of as the cheap alternative,” that there is a misconception that if you have money or want to show status, you don’t go synthetic, “partly because it’s a wholesaler market so they buy huge volume and then sold to so many shops at low margins and the experience we get with both the hair and the shops is poor,” she says. “But RadSwan is direct to consumer, our quality is high, the maintenance is low, and it looks so realistic you don’t even need to go for human hair.’

Of course, the type of extensions you can get largely comes down to your budget: human hair is generally more expensive. Yet synthetic hair, while usually cheaper, comes with environmental impact: “It’s essentially composed of ultra-fine strands of plastic, and the petrochemical-derived materials such as polyester, acrylic, and PVC are not biodegradable. This means that they ultimately end up in landfills and contribute further to our global waste problem.” explains one report. This is one of the main reasons why Demetriou doesn’t work with it: “It’s basically single-use plastic, and every three months you’re removing it.”

“Within the reportedly billion-dollar global human hair industry, women are exploited from countries from Ukraine to Vietnam by being drastically underpaid for their hair or having it forcibly removed. People in Myanmar, South Africa, and Venezuela have been robbed for their hair – sometimes at gunpoint”

Demetriou also uses human hair because she does a lot of TV and film work, and it looks more realistic on camera, catching the light in a more natural way than synthetic extensions and giving you more movement than a wig. She works mostly with Great Lengths, who say they have been ethically sourcing natural hair extensions since 1993, distributing to 30,000 salons worldwide today. “We’ve got over 1500 salons across the UK and within those, I’d say about 3000 plus stylists,” says King. But their hair doesn’t come cheap: “Prices are different in North of England versus Mayfair, say, and obviously different people need different amounts, but prices in salons range from £700 to £2000,” he estimates.

Great Lengths uses Indian temple hair which has been donated. “We buy the hair directly from the temple, not individuals, and the money paid to the temples is then reinvested in the communities in India; health, and education. We have exclusive contracts with temples, we go direct to the source and pay a fair price for it.” After that, the hair goes to their factories in Rome “where the magic starts to happen” says King. “Because obviously it’s black Indian hair. India is becoming a lot more Westernised, with more people using colours on their hair. We need what we call ‘virgin hair’, with no chemical treatments done on it, so we’ve invested heavily in technology to actually be able to analyse that hair.” 

Once the hair has been tested it can enter an up to 20-day process whereby very delicate solution gently draws out the colour pigment without damaging any of the structure of the hair. The colour is then replaced with vegetable dye colours to create around eight shades, before skilled workers colour mix the hair, creating a total of eighty shades that look naturally mixed.

“This is obviously a very long and expensive process and not one that everyone adheres to,” says King. “What you’re finding is there’s a lot of companies on the market today who offer human hair extensions, they won’t all be of the same quality, because the quickest, easiest way to colour hair is to strip the cuticle off, bleach it and put some silicon on top of it. That can still be classed as human hair under the rules because there are very few regulations around it all.” 

Great Lengths encourage their salons and consumers to donate their human hair to the Little Princess Trust charity, dedicated to supplying real-hair wigs to children and young adults suffering medical hair loss, essentially recycling it. As well as supporting this kind of circular model, Demetriou thinks we need more transparency and solutions from synthetic hair companies about the damage that their hair can do to the environment, and how consumers might recycle it.

Especially as – she says – hair extensions are a mainstay in salons and on sets. “Loads of people say to me, extensions are not popular anymore, or no one really wants them… but I am doing them all week and all year. When bobs are in, they just get thicker or shorter, when balayage is in, you might just be adding some toffee bits in the right places. Hair extensions can adapt, and the way people use them adapts.”

“Loads of people say to me, extensions are not popular anymore, or no one really wants them… but I am doing them all week and all year. When bobs are in, they just get thicker or shorter, when balayage is in, you might just be adding some toffee bits in the right places. Hair extensions can adapt, and the way people use them adapts” – Vicky Demetriou, hairstylist 

On this point, Harrel agrees: “The black diaspora is used to using hair extensions from a young age for having your hair changed, regardless of your money or your family situation. We’re hooked on that versatility that matches the fluidity of our cultures.” If anything, the natural hair movement means that we will just see more people moving into more natural-looking extensions, she says: “Black women used to relax our hair a lot more, but now the majority of us don’t, so now it’s less an idea of covering or compensating with extensions, but a celebration of what we already have.” 

The global wig and hair extension market is estimated to be worth over $10 billion by 2023, and Chris King thinks that – no pun intended – this will only grow: “Nowadays, it’s not taboo. People are talking a lot more about the positives of extensions, like the confidence you could give people back if they’ve been having issues with their hair and extensions can help fix it, how they can really be quite life-changing.”