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merkin nude black and white wig hair Pablo Kuemin
Photography Jesse Laitinen, hair Pablo Kuemin, model Tessa Kuragi

Kitty carpets and downstairs toupées: inside the niche world of merkins

From creating hairpieces for nude scenes in films to fielding requests for pubic hair donations, the experts of the merkin world share insights into the world of vagina wig creation

“I once had a really strange request from someone asking if I could make a merkin for them from their dead dogs’ hair,” says Manchester-based hairpiece designer Crystal Stuart-Fawkes. “It freaked me out a bit and I never responded.” While dead dog hair might be the weirdest request she’s had, it’s by no means the only one that has pushed the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Welcome to the world of merkins.

Stuart-Fawkes started off her career selling traditional wig pieces – moustaches, goatees, eyebrows etc – on her Etsy store. It was only after someone requested a merkin that she tried her hand at the more specialist subject, but it quickly became her most popular item. Now, she makes a staggering five to ten merkins a week.  

Like most in the field, Stuart-Fawkes uses human head hair to create her wig pieces. It’s a fact she has had to make clear countless times to potential customers hoping to get a more intimate purchase. “I emphasise HEAD hair because I have had numerous requests from people asking if I will buy their pubic hair from them or if I can make them a merkin from real pubic hair,” she says. “I had somebody who got quite angry with me when I would not buy their pubic hair and called me a ‘fake ass bitch’ when they found out that my merkins were not made from real pubes.”

A merkin, also known by various unserious euphemisms like ‘downstairs toupee’ and ‘kitty carpet’, is a wig for your genitals. As niche as it sounds, it’s not quite as unusual as you might think. Most commonly used in the film and TV industries, vagina wigs make on-screen appearances in nude scenes to make actors feel less exposed or to give a more authentic aesthetic for the time period or character. Merkins have been used in steamy period dramas like Bridgerton and for full-frontal nudity in cult classics like Midsommar or The Dreamers. Jared Leto even gave them a shout-out during the Oscars in 2016.

But merkins actually have a long history, dating back to the 15th century when they were known as ‘malkins’. According to The Oxford Companion to the Body, from 1450 sex workers would wear wigs on their genitals as a way to inhibit the spread of STDs and lice. At the time, a full bush was seen as a symbol of health and prosperity, while being clean-shaven was viewed as unattractive and a way to conceal venereal diseases. Thus sex workers and even aristocratic women, tired of getting pubic lice from their philandering husbands, would wear wig pieces made with anything from horse hair and goats hair to human hair stolen by grave robbers from corpses.

These days, the hair used for merkins is bought not stolen, says Dave Edwards, a wig and postiche (facial hair) maker who has experience creating merkins for film and TV. “Most of the hair that wig makers use is purchased,“ he explains. “Most commercial hair comes from either India or China. Finer quality raw hair comes from Slavic countries and can be very expensive to buy.” For those looking for a more coarse effect, Stuart-Fawkes says yak hair can also be used.

The merkin market is a specialised one and often each piece is custom-made and personalised for the wearer. To create a merkin, the first thing Stuart-Fawkes does is find out from the client all the necessary specifications: measurements, shape, colour and density. “I often get sent reference images to copy styles from. For a custom piece, my client will send me images with reference to colour or sometimes they will post a hair sample for me to colour match.”

Once a template has been created, each hairpiece is produced by knotting single hairs into a fine lace base. Stuart-Fawkes describes knotting each hair in a specific direction to make the pattern of hair growth look as natural as possible. When it comes to application, it’s usually best left to the experts – at least for film and TV. “The merkin would normally be applied by someone in the make-up or hair department,” says Edwards. “I suppose it would be possible for the actor to apply it on their own, but attaching hair pieces can be a bit tricky and would best be done by someone with experience.”

Unlike in the 15th century, today most mainstream beauty standards prize a clean-shaven look over women having any body hair. A survey done by Cosmopolitan in 2017 found that 57 per cent of women aged 18-35 remove all their pubic hair and 46 per cent of men prefer their partners to go completely bare – despite only 17 per cent of men doing it themselves. The global laser hair removal market was valued at $798.6 million in 2021 and is predicted to grow by 18.4 per cent annually for the next seven years.

Despite that, there is still a market for merkins, not just for use in the film industry, but also for fetish purposes like sex dolls, and the occasional high fashion moment on the runway or for editorial. In 2018, Korean designer Kaimin sent models down the catwalk at New York Fashion Week in punk-inspired merkins created by Dale Delaporte and Charlie Le Mindu. The theme of the show was tolerance, and the designer explained the merkins represented that “this acceptance of individuality is the human vagina”. For her iconic SS94 show, Vivienne Westwood gave Carla Bruni a fur coat and matching merkin.

So who are the people ordering merkins off Etsy? Aside from the occasional misadventure – Stuart-Fawkes once had a customer complain their merkin didn’t fit properly, “it turns out he thought it was a toupee and had been walking around with it attached to his head!” – many clients are sex doll owners.

“I’ve had a lot of clients, mainly from the US and Germany, who send me images and measurements of their RealDolls to make Merkins match their dolls’ hair,” she says. “I try not to ask my clients too many questions as I know most of them are quite private people (they often use fake names). From the small bits of information I have received, the purpose of the RealDoll merkins are to make them look and feel more realistic. A lot of my clients have a preference for a thick bush. The photos of the RealDolls that I have received are very realistic!”

Stuart-Fawkes’ reviews speak for themselves: “I ordered two merkins for my silicone Realdolls. They are beautiful! More than I could have wanted, realistic, quality hair and construction. I am already ordering another,” wrote one happy customer. “Just like the real thing,” said another.

As the Cosmo survey confirmed, many men favour a bare look and aren’t shy about vocalising their preferences – according to the study, 40 per cent of men have asked their partners to change their pubic hair and 30 per cent said a partner’s pubic hair might make them reconsider dating. However, this isn’t always the case. “I’ve had husbands contact me after their wives have had their pubic area lasered and can’t grow hair anymore,” says Stuart-Fawkes.

“I think my merkin business would’ve gone bust if it wasn’t for laser hair removal; it is so common nowadays and with so many period dramas requiring a period-correct aesthetic during nude scenes, there is no other option than to stick a merkin on.” On those occasions, the wig maker’s work plays an important role in helping the actors get into characters and feel supported both mentally and physically while revealing their bodies on screen. “I have had feedback from actors who have said my hairpieces have made them feel more comfortable when nude on set which is really good to hear.”

With Hollywood’s recent “shift towards Puritanism, as director Paul Verhoeven put it, however, the decreasing number of sex scenes in film and the industry’s desexualisation of the body, the need for merkins may be over soon. “In my experience, the demand for merkins hasn’t been very high. There seems to be a trend away from full-frontal nudity in films, so there isn’t a huge need for them,” says Edwards, finally. “I suspect it might depend on where the film is being made. Hollywood seems quite prudish these days, but I think films made in Europe and the UK might still be a bit freer with nudity.”