Millions of women are using wigs to dress up, dress down, or avoid the hassles of daily hair care.
By Rona Cherry
UPDATED FEB. 9, 2022
For years, Ena Malone, an I.T. expert on Wall Street, was convinced she’d always have a job in her chosen field. But in 2005, Ena, then in her fifties, was unexpectedly laid off. As subsequent job interviews did not lead to offers, the stress of unemployment took a toll on her hair, which began to thin. Ena continued her job search, but recruiters told her that although she was eminently qualified, prospective employers wanted someone with lots of “energy.” “I play tennis and run track,” says Ena. “I soon realized that “energy” was code for wanting someone younger and maybe my thinning hair wasn’t helping me that way.”
Ena decided she’d try wearing a wig. “Once I found a really good one, things seemed to be better. My hair looked fuller and I looked younger,” she says. Ena ultimately landed a job in an educational institution and wore a wig every day until she retired last year. “It became part of my uniform, like a piece of clothing,” she says.
Ena is one of the millions of women who, despite the emphasis on looking natural and wearing casual outfits, are using wigs to dress up, dress down, or simply avoid the hassles of keeping your hair clean, cut, and properly styled. “I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to just put my hair under a wig cap and slap on a wig that’s already done. It’s dress up for your hair!” says Felicity Huffman, film, stage and television actress still known for her leading role in Desperate Housewives.
Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx is also high on wigs. “When I’m bored or tired of being blonde, I’ll throw on a wig. It’s less of a permanent way to change your look, and I have about 10—all different colors, shapes, bobs, long hair, short, feathered.”
But its not only actresses, chemo patients, women with thinning hair, Hasidic wives or women who don’t have the time for weekly visits to hair salons who wear wigs and hair pieces. The popularity of wigs is rising: Wig and hairpiece revenue in the U.S. will climb to $287 million this year, a $23 million increase from two years ago, and is expected to reach $328 million by 2017, according to recently revised estimates from IBIS World, a market research firm. As a result, there’s no shortage of stores where you can buy wigs and hairpieces, including hair salons, wig stores, wig catalogs and online (check out wigs.com).
The growing demand for faux-hair is fueled in part by young celebrities who unabashedly use wigs to change their hairstyles on an almost daily basis. Lady Gaga, Nicky Minaj and Katy Perry all achieve their wildly colorful hairstyles with wigs, while Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez and Kim Kardashian wear them in varying lengths and hues. Actress Kim Zolciak reportedly has more than 60 wigs. And TV personalities who have to appear before harsh lights every day also depend upon wigs to suit their varied lifestyle. “I have hair that I audition with, my sitcom hair, which is a curly wig. I have my long chic hair that I wear to my son’s school so they know I’m not playing around. I always tell people that my husband gets a different woman every night when I come home from The View. Hair makes you feel a certain way, like putting a power suit on,” says Sherri Shepherd.
Hair stylist and wig designer Issac Davidson (Wigbar) doing the hair for Viral Fashion Magazine’s “Mirror Pic” feature (photo by Emin Kadi), and Debbie Harry (photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez). . . . . . . . . . . . .
Synthetic Wigs No Longer Have a Fake Shine
“In the old days, wigs were like hats that sat on your head and looked fake. But today wigs are air light, fun, and young,” says Barry Hendrickson, owner of Bitz-N-Pieces(see below), a leading New York wig and hairpiece salon. “They are now viewed as fashion pieces for women who want to change their look without having to cut their hair or experiment with color.”
If you are interested in a wig or hairpiece, there is an endless array of options, from those that are very natural looking to ones that come in a rainbow of wild colors. But the biggest choice you’ll need to make is between human-hair (natural) or synthetic wigs. Real human hair wigs and pieces are considered the gold standard of wigdom because they can be washed, styled and colored just like your own hair or lengthened with extensions. They come unstyled and need to be cut by a hairdresser. However since human hair is in limited supply, with most of it coming from India, Asia or Europe, human-hair wigs can cost several thousand dollars. Hairdressers can change the color if you prefer a blonde wig to a brunette wig.
If you don’t want the bother of styling your hair on a daily basis, consider a synthetic wig or hairpiece. With a synthetic, you save time on hairstyling because the style stays intact. Plus, with improved technology, synthetic hairpieces no longer have the fake shine of the past. A high quality synthetic wig is made with fibers that look perfectly natural to most people. However, even with a synthetic you’ll want a professional stylist to cut and layer the fibers in order for the piece to look like your own. (Make sure the stylist has experience cutting synthetic hair since special shears are used.)
If you aren’t quite ready, mentally or visually, for a full wig, or mostly want to cover hair loss on your hairline, top of head, or crown area only, there are several faux-hair options called “toppers” or “fillers.” These hairpieces are made with synthetic or human hair and come in different sizes to cover hair loss. If you have enough hair, the piece can be clipped on with clips that attach to your hair. If you have little or no hair in an area, they can be taped to the skin.
A clip-in is a good choice if you want to add volume to the top of your head. There are also clip-in half-wigs that can give you a ponytail or bangs where you had none before. “A clip-in is like lipstick. No one makes a fuss about it if you want to add a little something that helps you transform yourself,” says stylist and wig designer Hadiiya Barbel. (see below)
Bitz-N-Pieces (by appointment) 545 8th Avenue (37th and 38th), Suite 350, 212-397-0711
Once known mostly for helping women with chemotherapy-related hair loss or alopecia, this 29-year-old business is a cheerful full-service salon overlooking Columbus Circle. Most synthetic wigs are pre-made (from $350 to $800); “100 percent natural” handmade wigs can cost from $1,500 to $3,600 depending on the quality of hair. The salon also sells accessories such as hats, scarves, sleep caps, and more.
An Emmy Award winner for hairstyling, Creative Director Hadiiya Barbel owns and operates her eponymous “retail design boutique,” selling a wide variety of human-hair and synthetic wigs (from $300 to $3,500 and up). Custom “crowns,” as Barbel calls her wigs, start at $3,000. They come in a wide variety of styles, but her top seller right now is The Butterfly—approximately 24 inches long and described as “ultra sexy, ultra feminine, parted down the middle and similar to Kim Kardashian’s” crown ($975–$3,500).
Walk into this three-generation family business (no appointment needed) and you’ll see hundreds of wigs and hairpieces on display, along with plenty of hair stylists from around the country shopping the wide mix of readymade wigs. These range from short pixie bobs to loose, flowing styles (synthetics $175–$500, hand-tied human hair $650–$2,000), along with braids, falls, buns and other pieces. Helena customizes the wigs to help clients achieve the cut, color and style they desire.
Wigbar (by appointment) 243 Covert St. #1, Brooklyn; 212-233-0908
Wigbar’s bi-coastal co-founder Isaac Davidson, who learned his craft from Broadway wigmaker Robert-Charles Vallance, is known for his edgy, dramatic, over-the-top styles. Recently, he says, a lot of people have requested styles popularized on Mad Men and want wigs like the hair of Don Draper’s French wife, Megan. Also popular are clip-in pony tails and falls (starting from $150 for synthetic to $250–$300 for human hair). “I love to see the transformation when people wear wigs,” Davidson says. “A lot of people don’t realize that many of the people you see on TV with perfectly full, thick hair are actually wearing wigs.”
Raffaele Mollica (Temporarily closed, please check back) 318 E. 84th St., near Second Ave.; 212-535-6735
Helen Gurley Brown once called Raffaele Mollica “a true caring genius.” For more than 35 years, the Sicilian native Mollica has made beautifully hand-crafted custom wigs and hairpieces. He is especially well-known among Hasidic Jewish women, who are required after marriage to cover their real hair with scarves, hats or wigs, and among oncologists who refer patients suffering chemo-related hair loss. A routine consultation with him will require several visits to select the right texture, color and fit. Prices start at $3,800.
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Rona Cherry has written about health and wellness for The New York Times Magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, Vegetarian Times, and many other publications. She was the editor-in-chief of several national magazines, including Fitness and Longevity. She is currently an editorial and PR consultant with regional publications and nonprofits.