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 icon free“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:

Wigs are not hair.

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.  

A canvas wig block on a wig clamp. The wig clamp holds the head or wig block to the table. T-pins are good for pinning wigs to blocks and rollers to wigs.

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: A fire red "Naomi" from New Look that's been in my wig stash since 2003.

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

Separate out a section of the hair using the handle of the comb.  

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.

Wig conditioner made from 1 tablespoon conditioner mixed in half a cup of water. I dab some of the conditioner onto the ends of the wig after brushing and let it 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.

The wig after being brushed out.

But we’re here to straighten her out, so that’s the next step. 


Straightening a Wig

Section out a piece of hair. I take a section at the nape of the neck and clip the rest of the hair out of my way. I comb the piece to make sure there are no tangles in it, then I use my comb or a paddle brush to pull the section taut while I apply steam to the hair section. 

Be careful here. Steam is hot and can easily burn your fingers or melt a wig, giving it a frizzy, charred look. We start at the bottom of the back because nobody will know if we make a mistake here and damage the wig. 

Start straightening at the nape of the 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. 

Hold the section taut while steaming it for 30 seconds. The section after straightening. Now do the whole thing like that. The straightened wig.
Note on wig selection: While straightening a curly model of wig like the Naomi, it’s often the case that one will find weird little short hairs along the wefts. Those are there to add volume and coverage to curly styles. For this reason, I would not recommend buying a curly wig with the intent of straightening it, while I would highly recommend buying a straight wig to wear curly. Random mystery short hairs can often be found along the wefts of curly models of wigs.


Curling a Wig

The straightened wig is lovely, but I miss that Lizzie Siddal look, so let’s curl it back up again. 

Starting at the front, section off a piece for curling. Do not try to stick too much on a roller. Your section of hair should be no deeper than the diameter of your roller, and no wider than the length of the roller.   Start at the front and section off a piece for curling.
Using end papers will keep the ends of your curls neat and make sure the curl goes the whole way down.   End papers keep ends neat when rolling.
 Put the end paper behind your section of hair. Put the end paper behind your section of hair.
Fold first one side of the end paper over the hair, then the other, so the hair is wrapped up in a neat little tube. Wrap the end paper around the hair.
Put the roller behind the paper. Put the roller behind the paper.
Slide the roller and the paper down to the ends of the hair.  Slide the roller and the paper down to the ends of the hair.
 Roll the curler towards the head. Keep the hair straight as you roll; you want it wrapped neatly over the curler, not twisted around itself.  Roll the curler towards the head.
Pin the roller to the wig block with a T-pin. Make sure to position the T-pin so the T is in the same direction as the hair, like this.  Pin the roller to the wig block with a T-pin. Make sure to position the T-pin so the T is in the same direction as the hair, like this.
 Do not put the T-pin across the hair, like this. When the T-pin goes across the hair, it can snag the hair or leave weird little divots in the curl.  Do not put the T-pin across the hair, like this.
 Cover the entire head like that. The positioning and size of your curlers will depend on the style being reproduced. (You might notice that these curlers are held in place with regular sewing pins, not T-pins. I somehow lost all but one of my T-pins in a recent move, and sometimes you just have to improvise.)  Finish setting the head.
 Holding the steamer about two inches away from the hair, steam each curl for 30 seconds. Be careful not to melt the wig. Then allow the wig to dry completely. Steam each curl for 30 seconds.

 Gently remove the curlers, reshaping the curls with your fingers if necessary. Voila! Curls. 

Because this is a synthetic wig, these curls are now permanent. If I get the wig wet and let it dry, it will still be curly. The curls can be removed by steaming it straight again. 

Remove the curlers and voila! Curls.


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.

Start with a clean, detangled wig. Make sure it is perfectly dry before putting it into storage, or you might well pull out a mildewy wig next time.  Start with a clean, dry, detangled wig.
Braid the wig so it will not tangle. (Skip this step for short wigs.) Braid the wig so it will not tangle.
Tuck the braid inside the wig. Tuck the braid inside the wig.
Cover the wig with a hairnet. It probably came with one, so don't throw that away.  Cover the wig with a hairnet.
Slide the wig gently into a plastic bag (it probably came with one of those, too). Store the wig somewhere it will not be crushed. A box or drawer full of wigs is fine. Store the wig in a plastic bag somewhere it will not be crushed.

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.










thanks ,just in time, off to put some curls in my glow in the dark wig.
Thankd you so much. I look forward to the entire series on wigs. Can you tell me how many we have to look forward to in this series? I particularly await instruction on making our own wigs and wig pieces and knowing where the best place is to purchase wig mesh. Been saving my own hair for just this moment in time.

Charlene Roberts

Wigs series
Hi Charlene, so glad to hear you enjoyed this article! I believe there are tentative plans for four articles in total in this series, but that partly depends on feedback! I don't believe that Liz will be looking at starting from scratch making wigs this time, but we can keep that in mind when we're looking for writers and article ideas in future.

All the best, Cathy

You're quite welcome! It's fun.

Honestly, it could go on indefinitely. If we do cover everything about cutting, styling, and dying wigs, then we can just move on to putting all the skills together and reproducing specific hairstyles.

I've recently moved and currently have no idea where to get wigmaking supplies in my new city, but when I was based out of the U.S. I used to buy my supplies from Alcone.

Thanks so much for this article. I often see wigs in the right length and colour, but they are not in the right style.

I don't have a steamer but I do have a steam generator iron. Would the steam from that be OK if I held it a bit further away?

Hmmm... I've heard of people using a steam iron, but I've never tried it myself. But if you don't have a steamer, there are a couple illicit, underground wig-styling techniques that could work. There's an increased risk of damaging the wig with these, but they can work if you're careful with them.

For curling, you can use a hair dryer instead of a steamer. Start from the back and keep an eye on it so that if the hair starts to melt it won't be as visible. Hold the dryer about 4-6 inches away. (This takes some experimentation to see how much heat your particular wig needs or can take.) Let it cool completely then take one roller out and see if it's curled. If it hasn't, reroll and try again with a little more heat.

For straightening, it's sometimes possible to use a flat iron. Metal on synthetic hair tends to have terrible results, but if you use an adjustable-temperature straightener and use thick socks or sew fleece sleeves to cover the plates, it can work.

Thanks very much for that. I will be wanting to curl straight or wavy wigs so that will be great. Look forward to giving it a go.
There's also the hot water straightening method, which I hate because it takes forever and is messy and monopolizes the bathroom, but a lot of people love it.

Once the hair is combed, take the wig to the bathtub or shower and set it up on a post or something so the hair can hang straight. Then pour a bucket of warm/hot (not boiling) water over it. Leave it until completely dry, then do it again and let it dry. Just keep repeating the process until gravity and the weight of the hair straighten the wig for you. (In my experience, this takes days and days.)

Do you braid your curly wigs for storage? I seems like it might ruin the curls, especially if they're ringlet curls.

This is a great series and I'm really excited to continue learning! Already I'm imagining all the things I'm going to do with my wigs... :) Thanks!

Do you always start at the bottom of your wigs and brush upwards? I have heard from several folks that they do the opposite, so any bushy bits or falling out pieces are at the bottom. Is it just a case of personal choice?

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