i-D Hair Week is an exploration of how our hairstyles start conversations about identity, culture and the times we live in.
When the models took the runway at Balmain's fall 2016 ready-to-wear show Olivier Rousteing's "army" was almost unrecognizable. Gigi Hadid had traded her signature blonde locks for a much darker chocolate brown, while Kendall Jenner and Alessandra Ambrosio had gone platinum. While the new colors were a drastic change, the look was so natural it had many assuming that they had dyed their hair. But, Rousteing revealed that his star-studded line-up of models was actually sporting wigs from Balmain's Couture Hair line.
The French fashion house has been in the hair business since 1974, but it recently launched a custom-made hair service to cater to the growing demand for wigs. New advancements in technology and celebrities openly embracing their hairpieces have caused a resurgence in wigs that now rivals the wig craze of the 1960s.
"There was a period of time in the late 60s and early 70s when women were changing their hair with wigs," Jeanna Doyle, a hair stylist and author of Wig ED explained. "A lot of people were afraid that they were going to look like their grandmother or that it was going to be very fake like a halloween costume, but that is from a lack of education around how far wigs have come and what they can offer."
As Kurt Stenn explains in his book Hair: A Human History, people around the world have been wearing wigs for centuries. In the 1700 and 1800s, white curly "periwigs" became an essential accessory for men in Europe as a symbol of their upper-class status. But, long before then, ancient Egyptian royalty were shaving their heads and replacing their natural locks with wigs made of human hair or palm date fibers. The practice was also adopted by wealthy ancient Greeks and Romans.
Between 1600 and 1800, women were experimenting with different hairpieces from towering over-the top hair structures to discrete extensions, but by the early 1900s they were mostly back to rocking their natural hair.
Givenchy is credited with reviving the high-fashion wig in 1958. The Parisian designer was frustrated by the inability to style the hair of each model after they made their way down the runway, so he ordered wigs. The trend took a while to gain traction since human hair was expensive and needed to be cleaned and styled at a hair salon, but by 1962 half-a-million women owned wigs.
Synthetic options were also introduced during the 1960s, as a cheaper and low-maintenance alternative to human hair. Most of the hairpieces were constructed of modified acrylic fibers called modacrylic, which made them soft, but resilient and easy to wash and dry. More women started opting for wigs in order to keep up with the changing hair trends and over-the-top 'dos like beehives and bouffants.
But, the growing wig trend met some resistance. As the Black Power Movement began to take hold in the early 1960s, many black women abandoned their wigs and wore their natural hair as a political statement. Many supporters were also ridding themselves of oppressive practices in defiance of the dominant European beauty standards and to promote the idea that "black is beautiful."
In 1968, when feminists famously protested the Miss America pageant, women threw their wigs, bras, and eyelashes into the "freedom trash can" to protest the event's objectification of women.
Still, wigs were a growing industry in the 1970s. Department stores in New York like Bergdorf Goodman's and Macy's were home to their own wig departments and salons. Men's wigs were also gaining traction, with many males wanting to experiment with the longer shaggy styles.
Popular performers like Cher and Tina Turner were constantly changing up their look with the use of wigs from short afros to long layered locks.
But, by the mid-1970s, the wig craze had already started to die out. For many women synthetic wigs weren't as comfortable and easy to wear as the advertisements had promised. They were often ill-fitting. There was also an aesthetic problem with the unnatural way the hairline appeared, which meant pulled-back styles were not an option.
Eventually, most women decided to go back to sporting their natural hair, but hairpieces continued on as a staple for artists and performers like drag queens and club kids who wanted to change their look. Andy Warhol's messy silver wig became his trademark and during the booming night club scene in New York in the 1980s club kids became known for their outrageous costumes and over-the-top colorful hairpieces.
Wigs also remained a staple in the beauty regimes of many black women. Wigs offer an alternative for those who don't want to use the harmful, time-consuming, and expensive process it might take to straighten their hair. The ongoing contribution of African-American women has helped make wigs and extensions the multi-million dollar industry it is today.
Despite the common use of wigs, for decades hairpieces have carried a social stigma. Instead of society viewing wigs as an easy way for women to change up their look, wigs have often been perceived as deceitful, as if the wearer is hiding something under their hair—a belief that dates back to when wigs were used to cover up balding and head sores during the syphilis outbreak in the 1700s. This misconception is perpetuated by popular culture, where the term wig snatching is often used to describe the act of exposing someone as a liar, and as The Huffington Post points out, it is played out in shows like Scooby Doo where the villain is outed only after their wig is pulled off.
Fortunately, over the past couple years, more celebrities have openly embraced the wearing of wigs, whether it's the natural looking locks worn by Kim Kardashian or colorful costume pieces worn by Nicki Minaj, which has helped break down the shame that can be associated with wearing wigs.
"I think when celebrities are open to talking about it, it helps other women feel okay with experimenting with their hair," said Doyle, who helps educate women about wigs.
Thanks to new advancements in technology, today's wigs are available in an array of dye jobs from subtle ombres to pastels and the hairline is more believable than ever, which offers more flexibility with the styles. Also, with growing rainbow-colored hair trends, wigs can provide women with an extreme look without all the damage.
To purchase a wig from a celebrity stylist like Tokyo Stylez, who is behind looks like Kylie Jenner's blunt Met Gala bob and Nicki Minaj's extra-long pink tresses, it can run around $1,000, but Doyle is adamant that a good wig doesn't have to be expensive.
Aside from the fashion aspect, wigs have been a saving grace for the millions of women who have experienced hair loss, whether it's from chemotherapy or alopecia. Many wigmakers, who once catered to constructing wigs for style, are now helping women feel like themselves again by creating comfortable and natural-looking hairpieces.
"I think there was a real stigma about hair loss that wasn't talked about. Now there are so many reasons women experience hair loss," said Doyle. "There is an identity that is wrapped up in our hair. It is something that has been engrained in women—the loss of that can be hard for some to deal with, but other women are embracing it."
Regardless of why a woman wears a wig, experimenting with hairpieces is about allowing women the freedom to express themselves without criticism. As Doyle explains, "A woman should be able to be a blonde one day, have blue hair the next day, and go bald the next day if she wants to."
Text Erica Euse
Photography Chelsea Lauren for Getty