Costume No More - How Wigs Revolutionised Black Hair In One Decade

·6-min read
Photo credit: Ana Davila - Getty Images
Photo credit: Ana Davila - Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Today's wig culture might be all waist length today, curly fro tomorrow, micro fringe for the weekend, but it's a far cry from the synthetic, plastic-feeling £20 intro wig I first donned during freshers week as a teenager. The aim then was to create some distance between my baby face and my new ‘adult’ persona. The resulting look was definitely different, but not exactly the sophisticated head of hair I'd had in mind. But, despite its distinctly singed aroma and slightly too tight cap, this wig was a welcome change from my heat damaged days of weave leave out. For me, wigs were the future.

And I wasn't alone. As a new centennial generation began their love affair with wigs, the industry exploded, with the current global wigs and extension market now estimated to achieve revenues of more than $10 billion by 2023. Regularly changing up your hair has always been a perk for those blessed with coils and kinks, but over the past decade wigs and their ability to bring about total transformation in half the time – and the damage - have seen a welcome uptick in popularity.

No longer the preserve of fancy dress costumes, wigs have become a mainstay within everyday Black beauty routines. Once known for being a 'Sunday best' accessory for ‘Aunties’, wigs have become a way to express your personal sense of style. They afford you the ability to switch between different aliases with the ease of alternating between the Gucci crossbody to the Prada bowling bag. They've even acquired that elusive cultural significance only awarded by the internet, taking their place as a cornerstone of the online lexicon championed by gay, Black, and ‘stan’ Twitter, with phrases like ‘wig snatched’ and ‘wig flew'.

According to hairstylist and visual artist Joy Matashi, the advancement of wig culture is at least in part due to the introduction of ‘lace front technology.' ‘Wigs were once used predominantly in TV and production, but the shift to mainstream definitely came in around 2006,' explains Matashi. 'I’ll never forget seeing an article about Beyoncé at the Dreamgirls premiere demonstrating lace front wig technology - it was being debuted on her and was probably the first time I saw it front and centre in the media.' Matashi adds that, ‘Wigs never really left, but they have become more accessible for the average woman to buy, cut and dye, and we have YouTube to thank for that.’

The DIY world of YouTube provided the wigged-out corner of the internet with tips, tricks and the occasional link for affordable bundles ready to be stitched into another style. Initially however, due to the 'paint by numbers' style of the tutorials ‘so many women were sporting the same curl pattern,’ explains Matashi. ‘There was a lack of information on styling and crafting the wig to fit you. Now, however, customisation is everything.’ This is something that Zateesha Barbour - celebrity hair stylist for the likes of Jorja Smith - explains has been influenced by celebrity culture. 'Wigs have always been used within the music industry, but thanks to the high quality of hair pieces passing as real hair, they remained a well-kept secret. Now, thanks to social media, there is more transparency around what happens behind the scenes.'

Inspiration provided by social media apps like Instagram and Tik Tok has led to a wealth of wig-content, with celebrity hair stylists sharing the secrets to wig styling for anyone who chooses to click 'follow'. 'It's made people a lot more experimental with vivid wig colours and styles,' says Barbour.

Photo credit: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin
Photo credit: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin

To caveat this though, despite this rebirth paving the way for expression though beauty, ‘We can’t forget that for people like my gran, wearing wigs was an effort to conceal hair that wasn't deemed acceptable due to a culture of ignorance about Black women's hair,' concludes Barbour.

The impact of more recent wig culture on Black beauty seems overwhelmingly positive, but it does still invite a few questions. Mariam Musa, podcast host and influencer, poses a few of them. She says that her own wig experimentation has been ‘both good and bad because it allows for new styles that I love, but that put my real hair at risk. There has been so much discussion around whether it's a positive thing if you feel your best in a wig, rather than with your natural hair.’ However, continues the avid wig-wearer, ‘There’s nothing like a wig for instant self-expression and glam – even with a busy work schedule!’ Barbour also adds that a little caution is necessary: 'Some DIY wig fittings and removals result in scalp and hair damage, so I always advise clients to seek some professional advice before getting into wigs to ensure it's done with care.'

Photo credit: Rich Fury
Photo credit: Rich Fury

Ease and creative expression might be one factor in the meteoric rise of wigs over the past few years, but the influence of ‘Bad B’ culture is one that social strategist Lorna Karechu explains should not be overlooked. ‘Lil' Kim and other 1990s hip hop icons may have been key for cultivating the beauty line between "ratchet" and "classy", but thanks to actors like Lauren London, "Bad B" became the beauty blueprint for a lot of women,' says Karechu. The reclamation of the word 'bitch' combined with an adamant reshaping of the lines of what is perceived as chic has led to a new cultural cross-section - ‘Boujee’. A look that's heavily credited to celebrities like Amber Rose, Cardi B, and Megan Thee Stallion, and more often than not features an exceptional wig. In this way, wigs become more than just an expression of fashion, they become part of a feminist or political statement about badass women, reframing what it means to be a boss b****.

‘Personally, I started wearing wigs when I was 19, quite late in comparison to teenagers now,' explains Karechu. More than just assimilating her aesthetic with the A-listers she admired, for the cultural commentator, wearing a wig was a source of much-needed confidence. ‘I suffered from thinning hair and hair loss from a young age, so wearing wigs was a way for me to feel completely confident, sexy and everything in-between.'

Whether trawling our Instagram feeds, experimenting at home, or admiring Beyoncé's multitude of looks in 'Black Is King', the cultural impact of wigs in 2021 is now an irrefutable fact. Showcasing the creativity and versatility of Black hair, encouraging Black women to express themselves and providing a source of beauty and confidence, wigs have become more than just hair.

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