“I think that the most important thing a woman can have—next to talent, of course—is her hairdresser.”
― Joan Crawford
“People always ask me how long it takes to do my hair. I don’t know, I’m never there.”
― Dolly Parton
Introduction to Wigs
An amazing costume requires an excellent head of hair. Where would Marie Antoinette be without her pouf? Veronica Lake without her swoop? Princess Leia without her cinnamon rolls?
Hair is one of the most immediately visible parts of any costume. After all, it’s right there on top of your head. And people really respond to hair. Perhaps it’s not as important as the costume itself, but if I were to walk down the street in a towering, powdered, 18th century pouf, people would shout, “Marie Antoinette!” even if I were wearing the wig with jeans and a T-shirt. (If I wear the dress without the wig, I’m Cinderella.)
The good news is that any period style is easily achievable with a commercial wig and a little bit of elbow grease. In this series we’ll cover many aspects of wig styling including cutting, dying, adding and subtracting hair, and reproducing period hairstyles. We can even look at making our own wigs. But for this first instalment, let’s start at the very beginning:
What is a wig?
A wig is a head covering that mimics the look of hair. It can be worn over a bald head or the wearer’s real hair. It can be commercially manufactured or custom made. There are several different types of wigs.
Wigs can be made out of almost anything. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert featured towering wigs made out of telephone cords. Lady Gaga probably owns a wig made out of meat. But in general there are three main kinds of wig fiber: human hair, animal hair, and synthetic hair.
Human hair is the most expensive and natural looking. Synthetic hair is basically extruded plastic; it's much less expensive and comes in a wider range of colors, lengths, and styles. Animal hair is often used for big fluffy wigs like high-end Santa Claus or clown wigs, for period wigs, and for other sorts of punky, gravity-defying wigs. Sometimes different fibers are blended together to make a wig that is both organic and synthetic.
The methods used to style a wig vary wildly between the different fiber types. Human hair uses many of the same techniques and tools one would use for styling one’s own hair, like hair gel and curling irons and straighteners. Synthetic wigs do not respond to the same methods, as they are not actually made out of hair, and one should never use a metal tool like a flatiron or a curling iron on a synthetic wig unless one is willing to risk ruining the wig. (If you won’t cry if the wig is destroyed, go ahead and give it a shot. Experimentation is the best way to learn. The road that brought me here is littered with melted, mangled wigs.)
Today we’re going to deal with synthetic hair wigs, because I like a wig that I can glue, paint, and throw in a blender if necessary. When dealing with a synthetic wig, there’s one big rule to keep in mind at all times:
Really. A synthetic wig is made of plastic, not hair. Keeping that in mind will save you a lot of headaches and make it much easier for you to come up with interesting, out-of-the-box styling solutions. (When I’m working on a wig, I tend to think of it less like hairdressing and more like making a sculpture, only my medium is 54-inch strings of extruded plastic.) The main element used for styling synthetic wigs is steam.
Styling Tools for Synthetic Wigs
Steamer: Steaming a synthetic wig allows you to melt the fibers just enough to reshape them. A handy travel steamer is a great tool for this, as is a standing, commercial steamer.
Wig block: The wig needs to sit on something while being styled. A Styrofoam wig head will do fine. There are also canvas wig blocks, which are basically like dress forms for wigs, but we’ll get to those later. Make sure your wig block is something you can stick pins in.
Thing to hold the wig block in place: You’ll need something to hold the head still while you work on it. I have this wig mount that fits on the edge of a table, which is great because it lets me move the head as I like.
T-pins: These pins are for pinning the wig to the wig block and for pinning rollers in.
Comb: I keep a couple combs around, but the main ones are a rat-tail comb and a wide-tooth comb. All of my wig combs and brushes have hard plastic handles that come in handy for detangling and separating sections of the wig.
Brush: A brush with wire bristles is good for smoothing the hair after the tangles are removed with a comb.
Hairspray: Don’t break the bank here. Synthetic hair does not need any kind of special vitamins or essential oils. The hairsprays that work best on synthetic wigs are the ones that are basically spray paint for hair. Just look for the cheapest, toughest hairspray you can find. It’s usually on the bottom shelf in the hairspray aisle at the drug store. I like old-school AquaNet.
Wig-Styling Basics: Straightening and Curling
Our guinea pig today is a random, curly wig that has been in my wig stash for about 10 years now. The brand is New Look, the fiber is synthetic “Eleara” hair, the model is Naomi, and the color is “Fire Red.”
This wig was last worn in 2003, and it’s been in a bag since then. Ugh. It’s kind of a mess because in 2003 I did not know how to put a wig away like a grown-up, but let’s see if we can straighten it out.
Prepping the Wig
First, pin the wig to the wig block. With a hard-front wig like this, I usually use five pins: one at the center front, one at each of the sideburns, and one at each side of the nape. Then attach the wig block to a secure surface with the wig clamp.
Comb and detangle. Next comb out the wig and remove any tangles. (Only comb or brush a wig if it is completely, 100-percent dry.) This part is an absolute bear, because the wig was not put away well 10 years ago, so it’s very tangled. As you comb the wig, be very, very gentle and go slowly. Tearing through the tangles can make the ends of a wig look rough and mangy.
Holding the tooth-end of the wide-tooth comb, I section off a small piece of hair by dividing it with the handle of the comb. I separate my section from the rest of the wig by making small, gentle, downward chopping motions with the comb handle. That works out the tangles without making them tighter or tearing the wig fibers. Holding the hair in your off hand, brush the ends and slowly work your way up. Holding the hair while you brush will prevent the hair from ripping out at the roots.
Now that my section is combed, I put it aside and move onto another section. I will do the entire head that way, cursing my 2003-era self for not putting this wig away properly in the first place.
After a large section is combed, I notice that the ends are rough and sticky and getting tangled up again after I brush them, so I make up a little batch of wig conditioner by mixing a tablespoon of regular hair conditioner with half a cup of water. I apply a little bit with my fingers to the very bottom of every section when I’m finished combing it and allow that to air dry.
There, now the factory ringlets and storage tangles are all brushed out, and my stash monster looks like a much nicer wig. Suddenly I feel compelled to cosplay Lizzie Siddal.
But we’re here to straighten her out, so that’s the next step.
Straightening a Wig
Steam the hair straight. Hold the steamer about two inches (5cm) from the hair – more if the fiber starts to melt. (If the fibers suddenly suck in close to each other and look like they’ve been crimped with a tiny, tiny crimping iron, you’ve melted the wig.) Go up and down the length of the hair for about 30 seconds. Continue until the entire wig is straightened and allow it to air dry. The layers built into the original wig will give it a slightly wavy look. If you want it straighter, repeat the previous process.
Curling a Wig
The straightened wig is lovely, but I miss that Lizzie Siddal look, so let’s curl it back up again.
How to Store a Wig
Styled wigs should be stored on wig blocks or styrofoam heads so they will keep their shape. If you have an infinite amount of space in your home, go ahead and store all your wigs on heads. But since most of us don't have infinite amounts of space, it is sometimes necessary to put a wig away into a wig stash.
My own wig stash is a bit of a disaster, because when I was young and foolish I was wont to get tired at the end of the day and just stuff my wig into a bag so I could deal with it later. Now whenever I go to get a wig, there's a chance I'll find it sticky with styling product and tangled up. Sometimes there's even a wig cap and hair pins still stuck to the inside. To save your future self some trouble, store your wigs properly.
Curling and straightening are the basic techniques from which all wig styles will grow. With these techniques, a pair of scissors, and a bit of imagination, we'll be able to get that pouf together in no time.