- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 12, 2002

Big, small, straight, curly, white, brown and blond wigs have been part of people's attire since civilization began; the ancient Egyptians wore wigs to protect their skin from the sun. Today wigs are mostly used to hide bald spots; a few hundred years ago, in Europe and the American Colonies, they signified fame and fortune.

"You could tell someone's social position as well as profession from the wig they were wearing," says Betty Myers, wig maker and supervisor for the wig shop at Colonial Williamsburg. "They were worn by the gentry, doctors, merchants and professors."

A preacher wore a curly, white "cauliflower wig" and a brigadier wore a brown, braided wig. And usually, the rich and famous wore big wigs hence the term "big wig" that could be several feet high, long or wide. Dark wigs were generally for day use, while white wigs were for evenings and special occasions.

While the use and purpose of wigs have changed through the years, the basic technique of wig making has stayed the same.

The customer's head is measured from the hairline in the front to the hairline in the back. Another measurement from ear to ear is also taken.

In the 18th century Colonial Williamsburg depicts life in 1774 the measurements would then be used to create a silk cap, also called the foundation of the wig. The wig maker would nail tape, made out of silk, on a blockhead to outline the hairline of the wig. The wig maker would then stitch a silk mesh to the tape to create a mesh cap.

Sometimes the cap would be outfitted with an adjustable strap, so that the wig could be tightened and loosened. Today's wigs sometimes feature Velcro straps at the nape of the neck so the wig wearer can adjust the fit. Also, the caps of present-day wigs are often made out of nylon or another synthetic material that is elastic and will fit snugly on the head.

Once the cap is completed, which could take weeks, the 18th century wig makers would start weaving tresses of hair using about three to five hairs at a time. A tool called a hackle a small wooden board with hundreds of nails attached to it (it looks like a large, spiky hairbrush) would be used to keep the hair from tangling.

This piece of equipment is still used today to either keep the hairs separate or to blend hairs of different colors.

The hair used in the 1700s came from humans, goats, yaks and horses and was almost always imported. The human hair came from Europe since Northern European hair was known to be of the best quality, Ms. Myers says.

The yak hair was imported from Asia, while the goat and horse hair was sometimes domestic.

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Human hair has always been expensive, and still is. In fact, few wigs are made out of human hair anymore, says Young Chun, owner of Empire Wigs, a wig shop in Rockville.

"Synthetic hair is much easier to wash and style," Mr. Chun says. "You have more choices about colors, but it doesn't last as long as human hair."

A synthetic wig can cost less than $100, while a wig with human hair will cost several hundred dollars, in some cases thousands.

The human-hair wigs are seldom made out of European hair anymore. Instead wig companies go to India and China for human hair. It's cheaper and more durable than European hair, Mr. Chun says.

The hair, which is either black or dark brown, is stripped (or bleached) of all its color so that it can be dyed to become any color desired.

Not only is the human hair from abroad, but the wig making itself is done in East and Southeast Asia where labor costs are lower, Mr. Chun says.

"The best wig makers are in Korea," he says.

Jerry Roman of wig maker Louis Feder/Joseph Fleischer in Manhattan, agrees that the art form is dying in the United States.

"It's true that most of the leading salons, whether it's in Paris, Rome or here, are dependent on Korea to make the product," Mr. Roman says.

However, Mr. Roman, who is in charge of the men's division of Feder/Fleischer, has been making wigs for about 35 years and despite hair replacement products and cheap labor in Asia has not seen a decrease in customers at his studio through the years.

"We probably have 500 to 600 customers a year, and most of them are repeat customers," Mr. Roman says.

Mr. Roman personally made hair pieces for Frank Sinatra, and his colleagues at Feder/Fleischer have made wigs for Bruce Willis and Sean Connery.

•••

In order to achieve a natural look, Mr. Roman or one of his associates will look at the existing hair of the customer (if there is any) to establish what kind of color and texture blend they as wig makers need to create. They will use the hackle to make the blend. They use only Italian "virgin" hair, meaning the human hair is imported from Italy and has never been colored or curled.

"Italians have the best hair of all people," Mr. Roman says, contradicting the wisdom of 18th century Virginians, who claimed Northern European hair was the best. "The quality of the hair is great. Plus you have the range of colors you need without dyeing the hair," he says. "Dark in southern Italy and red and blonde in northern Italy."

Also important in achieving a natural look when someone needs a partial hairpiece is to establish the exact pattern of hair loss. The wig maker will place a piece of plastic wrap on the client's head to outline with a pen where the hair loss is most severe.

The lace, as in the 18th century, is called the foundation. It is into this foundation that the hair is knotted. But unlike in Colonial times, the wig maker does not weave the hair into tresses to later be sewn to the foundation in layers. In modern wigs, the hairs themselves are knotted into the foundation.

Hair on a person not suffering from hair loss is the thickest on the sides and in the back and the thinnest on top and in front. The wig maker mimics this look by sewing in three to five hairs at a time on the sides and in the back, while threading through only one hair at a time in the front. Each hair is double knotted, Mr. Roman says.

A wig nowadays may not signify fame and fortune, but having a bad hair day is never a good thing.

"I love doing what I do," Mr. Roman says. "After the heart surgeon, the person responsible for your hair is the most important," he says. "We can help you get the confidence that you rightly deserve."

•••

Wigs that are handmade in the United States can cost thousands of dollars, and many of those in need of wigs are only temporarily suffering hair loss, such as women who are undergoing radiation and chemotherapy treatment.

"We don't recommend that [cancer patients] get the custom-made wigs because their hair will grow back," says Wilma Scheuren, a spokeswoman at the American Cancer Society. "Why spend that much money if you only wear the wig for a few months?" Ms. Scheuren says.

However, the price of a wig today is much less than it was in the Colonial era, if one accounts for inflation. A simple wig back in the late 1700s could cost about two English pounds, which could buy a half an acre of land in the Williamsburg area.

The very well-to-do would show their wealth by owning several wigs, the way modern-day people collect expensive cars, or jewelry.

Payton Randolph, the speaker of the Virginia House and the president of the Continental Congress, for example, had nine wigs, and John Randolph, his brother, had 11 wigs.

"A wig could cost up to 45 English pounds, which could buy maybe 20 acres of land," Mr. Myers says. "A wig really stated who and what you were."


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