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Wigs are everywhere.
Whether you are a card-carrying wearer or prefer to rock your own natural mane, there is no denying their immeasurable influence. In today’s beauty spaces, they trend big, showing no signs of slowing down.
For some, they are versatile; a fun, non-committal way to easily switch up a look. For others, they might be a daily essential for when hair loss sets in. Whatever the reason (and there are many), the conversations about wigs are vast, ranging from easy open dialogue to more complex (and sometimes painful) confidentiality.
Surely, wigs are amazing, but for Black women, our fervent love affair with them runs deeper than the average red carpet sighting or latest viral video. Personally, I am proud of the continued push to destigmatize and normalize wigs right now, but as it turns out, that “good hair day” was just as pivotal to our predecessors as it is to us.
Ancient History: (Yep, We Invented Wigs, too)
The history of wigs (and hair extensions) is a long and interesting one. Their first documented use dates back to around 3400 BC, in Ancient Egypt. Of course, when we think of hair from that era, Cleopatra’s iconic look typically comes to mind but at the time, custom wigs were also worn by both men and women of high society.
There is a great deal of research that suggests how thick, luscious hair was seen as a symbol of wealth and elevated status, often worn by kings, queens, pharaohs and politicians (individuals of lower ranking were not allowed to wear them). Archaeologists have even uncovered remains that show how sheep’s wool, vegetable fibers and the human hair of others (mostly from impoverished women) were either assembled with wax from plants, trees or bees or by lacing them into the wearer’s own, growing hair. Those of this ilk would often elect to shave off their natural hair and have it made into a wig to wear whenever they wished. Not only was the act one of enormous privilege, it also provided practical benefits, especially when the weather was unbearingly hot.
The wigs were elaborate and personalized, embellished with luxurious adornments such as gold and lace that were used to illustrate prestige and aristocracy. Common hair colors were blue, red and gold, often fashioned to enhance naturally dark hair. Actually, rumor has it that Cleopatra’s favorite hair color to wear was blue.
Another fascinating fact is that some Egyptian women also wore wigs on their chins. Queen Hatshepsut, known as one of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs (man or woman), frequently wore a beard-wig which exhibited her station and position. She was noted as having sponsored one of the country’s most successful trading expeditions of gold, ebony and incense, returning great wealth and artistry to her land.
Wig Politics: A Byproduct of Desegregation
Although Black Americans made great strides to gain equality during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, they continued to endure the devastating effects of racism and long-standing, Eurocentric-based grading systems of beauty.
“Pageboy” haircuts, bobs, bouffants, beehives and heavy fringes were all the rage, heavily influenced by famous white figures in film and music. For Black women, these hairstyles were not conducive to their own natural hair, so they used wigs that resembled them to secure employment and gain respectability in the workplace.
At the same time, wigs were also seen in every facet of Black entertainment. Black doo-wop girl groups of the era wore extravagantly designed wigs for creative expression and aesthetic uniformity when their varying, natural textures were too vast to assign singular, consistent looks.
There are several types of hair loss, but according to dermatologists, traction alopecia most commonly affects Black women. The condition is caused by wearing hairstyles that are too tight and by the excessive use of heat and chemicals. In fact, one-third of women of African descent are affected by it and mental health professionals say the shame and emotional toll associated with it are dire.
They note that the pressure Black women typically face to conform to unfair standards of beauty is directly associated with Euro-American culture and many still struggle to fit that ideal. Wigs offer an easy solution to conceal hair loss, but for some, they also provide an opportunity to subscribe to a caste system that still exists for hair, which might support why the majority of wigs Black women wear do not resemble their natural texture.
It’s Quite Complex
People from all backgrounds wear wigs, but somehow the disdain for Black women wearing them is unreasonably more negative, thanks to racist assumptions that we are all self-loathing.
However, as long as Black women have existed in America, at some point, most of us have been put down for our natural hair. When you’re constantly told you aren’t good enough because your hair doesn’t resemble those who are hailed as conventionally attractive, the harm tends to drive how you see yourself and others like you. And while many of us are committed to doing the difficult work so we can overcome it and heal, history tethers our hair to our identity.
Our hair choices will always have a deeper meaning.