The History Of Wigs Is Rooted In Culture, Expression, and Identity
Wigs are one of the most versatile beauty tools. While they’re popular today in the form of sew-ins, closures, U-parts, lace fronts—and more—wigs go way back and have a rich history dating back to Ancient Egypt. In the newest episode of Crowned, Star Donaldson, Byrdie’s senior social media editor, explores the history behind wigs and why it’s important to know. Read more, ahead.
According to Byrdie’s team of researchers, Egyptians were some of the first people recorded wearing wigs in 2700 BCE. Wigs served many purposes in Ancient Egyptian times, including protecting bare scalps from sunburn. At the time, wigs were made mostly of palm leaf fibers, wool, and human hair in some cases. “Wigs were a symbol of rank, social status, and religion,” Donaldson says. Egyptians brought wigs to Europe, where pieces made completely from false hair became popular. Until the 1950s, wigs were primarily handmade, until machines developed in Hong Kong made mass-produced hairpieces more accessible.
Stateside, the history of wigs is more complex. In the United States, wigs have a stigmatized history because of their connection to aging and medical conditions. However, wigs play an important role in the lives of those who may struggle with hair shedding or loss due to medical treatment or conditions. Black people and the queer community have also popularized wigs, making them a cultural and gender expression tool, hair protection method, and—overall–a fun accessory. In the early 1950s and 60s, performers used wigs for creative expressions as part of their stage looks (think: the Surpremes and the Ronettes). Black queer people also wore wigs and dresses at drag balls and other gatherings as a form of expression.
Hair sourcing for wigs has also been a controversial part of the business, with many people worldwide—from countries like China, Peru, India, and more—being compromised financially and physically to source materials for the hair trade.
There are many ways to install a wig, and techniques have evolved. You can slip a wig over your head (usually covered with a wig cap). Many units come with comb clips to secure the piece to your head if you have braids or a bun underneath your wig. Alternatively, sewing on a wig is also used for a longer-lasting style. Lace front wigs are also popular thanks to their natural-looking appearance, and they’re usually glued along the hairline for a seamlessly blended look. Headband wigs have been making their rounds on social media and are an excellent option when you’re in a pinch for time.
Today, wigs can serve many purposes. You can tuck your natural hair away and wear a wig on top to avoid manipulating your strands. Partial wigs can add length and volume to sections of your hair. Of course, wigs are also a great way to test different looks without commitment: You can have a pink bob today and a blue pixie cut tomorrow. The possibilities are endless.
While wigs are considered a protective style, it’s essential to note wigs are not classified as a natural hairstyle as many of them don’t reflect afro hair textures. Many straight-styled wigs are on the market, but brands like Heat Free Hair, Big Chop Hair, and Her Given Hair prioritize natural hair textures in their wig units. Historically, Black people have had to manipulate their natural hair textures to conform and survive in a racist, anti-Black society. Some may argue that wigs can be considered a response to anti-Blackness, as a way to conceal or avoid afro hair.
Still, there’s been a massive shift in the world of wigs and it’s currently a billion-dollar market. According to research, the global wigs and hair extension market is expected to reach 13.3 billion dollars by 2026.3 Celebrity stylists like Kim Kimble (who did hair for B.A.P.S.), Arrogant Tae, Tokyo Stylez, and many more, have also proven that wig styling is an art form with their inventive hair designs.
The Bottom Line
Like most historically Black hairstyles, the lineage of wigs paints a picture of a style that was made for survival and preservation, which remains true for some people. Still, they illustrate the nuance of Black hair as it continues to evolve over time. Now, wigs represent whatever you want: Whether you’re testing out a new look, standing firm in your identity, taking a break from styling, or just figuring things out, the choice and reason for wearing a wig is totally yours.