Beyond Bundles: Black Women Are Using Wigs To Set Their Own Beauty Standards

Neon-green waves, inches down to the floor, an Afro reaching toward the sky — that’s the magic of wigs. Snatched is a week-long celebration of wigs, the people who wear them, and their role in Black beauty culture.
Porscha Weeks' fingers move at a lightning pace as she works her way around the day-glow wig before her. With ashen strands sprouting from its roots, slime-green tips, and a slightly braided texture, there’s a dystopian edge to it that feels like the hair arrived from the future. Anchored to a felt form, the unit appears to be suspended in air, as if it were levitating around this Brooklyn photo studio, its raw, paper-thin lace front lightly fluttering under the breeze of vents above. And in truth, the hair is poised to take on a life of its own — strutting on set for a photo shoot, racing down the street during a morning commute, whipping from side to side on a stage — but for now, it's in the care of its maker. Weeks combs, picks, and smooths each strand with the attention and precision the stylist shows her celebrity clients Teyana Taylor, Lori Harvey, and Lil Mama. Once she’s satisfied with her work, she moves on to fine-tune the next unit.
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From bubblegum pink finger-waves to kaleidoscopic knee-length mermaid hair, Weeks’ creations hardly resemble the store-bought, “church-lady” coiffures you might have once associated with wigs. Completely undetectable, her custom, shade-matched lace fronts melt into the heads of those who wear them — a quality she attributes to an all-consuming passion for the technique that started in 2011. “I was a frontal nerd — I ate, breathed, and slept frontals,” she laughs. “I thought about it before I went to sleep and first thing when I woke up in the morning. How can I make this look more realistic? I looked at people, and I looked at their hairlines.”
She lifts one of the wigs she’s been working on from its form and pulls it over a model’s braided-down hair, the unit settling into place like it had been there all along. “It’s not so much the stocking inside,” she explains to me as she combs the fat, barrel curls into smooth Marcel waves and plucks at the hairline with tweezers — an exacting process that requires the stylist to deftly extract hairs to make the wig’s hairline appear more natural. “It is the person. If you don’t pluck it a certain way, it is going to look really, really crazy. Like a monster, you know?” She stands back and appraises her work with an eagle eye. “A lot of people don’t have that vision to see or even look at what they're plucking for.”
What Weeks specializes in — the skillful styling and application of lace front and glueless, full-lace wigs — is a part of a radical shift in hair, wiggery, and beauty we’re experiencing in 2019. Wigs are no longer discussed in secret or hushed tones, but proudly flaunted as a source of transformation, creativity, and social status. From Cardi B’s ankle-length unit on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar to the 42-inch mane that covered Lizzo’s naked frame on the cover of her upcoming Cuz I Love You album, Black women are shaking off stifling beauty standards and exploring a newfound freedom to experiment — whether that’s with straight, Afro, natural, relaxed, short, or long pieces. And it signals another important shift: As Black women are finally getting recognition within popular culture as style and beauty ambassadors, we’re earning consideration in the $10 billion wig industry that relies on our patronage, but hasn’t before catered to us.
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PHOTOGRAPHED BY DANA SCRUGGS.
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To understand the sudden rise of wigs, you have to consider where we are culturally when it comes to Black hair. For our mothers and the women who came before them, it was an implicit rule, understood by us all, that we were not to speak of our beauty regimens, methodology, or the complex nature of our hair amongst mixed company. After all, Black hair within Western contexts has historically been a tool to shame and undermine our beauty, femininity, and humanity. Take the Tignon laws of antebellum New Orleans, which demanded that free women of color cover their hair in public. Their intricate and eye-catching hairstyles, which were often bedazzled with jewelry and feathers, were said to attract the attention of white men, much to the threat of the social order. Forced to wear “tignons”, or handkerchiefs, their slave status was reinforced and their beauty stifled and criminalized. As historian Virginia M. Gould argued in the 1997 anthology, The Devil’s Lane: Sex and Race in Early South, such laws worked “to return the free women of color, visibly and symbolically, to the subordinate and inferior status associated with slavery.” While humiliating, these laws couldn’t stifle Black women’s preternatural style and flair. Instead, they chose colorful and elaborate textiles to wrap their hair up with — a sartorial rebellion that marked their autonomy and resistance.
But now, thanks to the prominence of social media and the rise of the natural hair movement amongst Black women, remarkable new transparency has emerged. Black women are using their social media pages and channels as a means to share and show off their hair journeys, becoming stars of their own in the process. From step-by-step tutorials to before-and-after videos, Instagram and YouTube are the new beauty salon, where women trade tricks, products, and affirmations. This growing acceptance has helped retire the age-old stigma around “fake hair” that has worked to undermine Black beauty and dismiss Black style as “ghetto” until proven fashionable.
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Instead, women like TV host and style authority Kéla Walker are refreshingly open and honest about their wiggery or “wigdom”, as she’s coined it. In between working some of the biggest red carpets in the business, the host can be seen shapeshifting, wearing an edgy chin-length bob one day and elegant shoulder-length waves the next, unabashedly telling her 80K followers how she achieves and maintains every look. In one memorable Instagram story, Walker even documented how she sends her wigs out via Uber to be serviced when she can’t get to the salon. “I don’t want anyone else to come shifting my own wig before I shift it,” she says. “If you try to say, ‘Oh that’s a wig!’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I told you it was a wig. Have you not been paying attention?!’”
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But Walker wasn’t always this confident about wigs — she steered clear of the beauty trend for years out of fear they simply wouldn’t appear believable, relying on sew-in weaves instead. But her own hair health suffered, and she watched on Instagram as the tides began to turn: Innovation in wig production led to more natural-looking units, and more and more women were showing off their own wig collections. “When they became increasingly accessible, and you saw people around you wearing them, it was like, ‘Wow, if she can do it, maybe I can do it.’”
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Walker’s experience also speaks to a truth we knew all along: Black women are beauty’s biggest chameleons. We love the freedom that comes with changing our looks at the drop of the dime, and morphing from one iteration of ourselves to the next. Wigs, in particular, are as detachable as a hat, and mutable as the women who wear them. Just look to Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Cardi B — all of whom are following in the footsteps of Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, and Lil’ Kim — their ever-changing hair not only complements their rotating and highly publicized wardrobes and alter egos, but it also creates a fantasy that isn’t self-hating or buried under the weight that Black hair historically carries.
Fun, playful, and a tool to transport, lace-front wigs are, by no means, a sign of a lack of beauty; they simply amplify what is already there. “It’s like playing dress up! It’s an accessory! It’s like getting a new bag — it’s not seen the way it once it was,” explains celebrity stylist Lacy Redway. The Jamaican-born, New Jersey-bred stylist, who now calls Tracee Ellis Ross, Amandla Stenberg, and Tessa Thompson clients, notes that the interchangeability of wigs encourages people to take more risks and to take themselves far less seriously. “Girls are giving their wigs names, and it comes with that kind of freedom of, ‘Yeah, today I’m going to wear Sasha and tomorrow I’m going to wear Sasha Fierce’ and that’s okay now, because it has become normalized.”
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It’s an attitude best represented by Teyana Taylor’s highly spirited performance in New York City last summer. When her wig popped off during her set, Taylor didn't balk or run off stage; she simply twirled the unit around and made it a prop, with the audience screaming her on. The gutsy move made it clear that the shame associated with wigs has subsided and given way to ownership. Rapper Princess Nokia even penned an unofficial anthem for the wig movement with 2016’s “Mine”. Defiantly singing, “It’s mine, I bought it”, she dares anyone to question or touch the wigs she rocks with abandon. And there’s a certain pride in switching it up often, as Oprah said in a behind-the-scenes clip of a cover shoot, “I name all my wigs so I don’t forget who they are. I’ve had Diana, Chaka, Beyonce, Rihanna, Cicely. I have a lot of wigs. I love it because you can get wigs and save your hair.”
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It’s a transcendent moment in Black beauty, to be sure, but one that celebrity wig stylist Kim Kimble first saw percolating in the early aughts. “Wigs didn’t really get hot until the 2000s,” says Kimble, who is responsible for Beyoncé’s head-turning looks in 2016’s Lemonade. “I was working with a lot of wigs for movies and TV, but I think it was when Beyoncé came onto the scene that people started noticing wigs.” Kimble also recalls looking to drag queens as some of the early innovators in the wig space. “I remember seeing RuPaul. I was wondering, ‘What kind of wig does she have on?’ Because the hairline is flawless,” she says. “I got obsessed with the wigs. I loved the challenge of making it look as natural as possible — 'cause, you know, wigs can look like a wig. I discovered over the years that coloring wigs really helps them. You go in and create roots, lowlights, and highlights, and it makes the wig look more natural.”
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And as the technology and techniques got better, more women began to jump onto the lace-front wave. “It went from all types of women. Not just African-American, but Caucasian, Latina, they all started wearings wigs because they saw how it can save their hair from being damaged everyday,” says Kimble.
It isn’t simply the illusion of real hair that propelled the lace-front craze — these units also offer protection for one’s actual hair and freedom from constant styling. It’s why the resurgence of wigs and the height of the natural hair movement coincide: A wig is not a rejection of our hair, but a means to promote growth. With 40% of Black women wearing their hair natural and avoiding heat styling, being able to easily slip a wig on and off allows you to focus on the health of the hair underneath. And the proof is in the #lengthcheck Instagram posts, with celebrities like Cardi B, Beyoncé, and Love and Hip Hop’s Tammy Rivera proudly showing off their healthy manes in between installs. After one such post left people confused, Rivera addressed the frenzy directly, saying, “I seen a lot of men shocked and laughing at that wig video I did. But let me explain something: Don’t get it fucked up — just because we wear wigs, most of us got a head full of hair underneath that motherfucker, okay?”
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But wigs aren’t just creating new opportunities and freedom for the people who wear them. It’s also transformed the lives of the Black creatives who make them. “Our team lineup is now dedicated mainly to wigs,” says Kimble. “I started off as a salon where we did everything, like cutting, coloring, and whatnot. Now, we are a wig styling, maintenance, manufacturing salon, because that’s the clientele that we have drawn.”
Business has been so good, in fact, that Kimble has been successfully growing her own hair line, Hairdrobe, since 2015. “I said, ‘How can I create a wig line that looks natural, wigs that people can actually afford?’” Kimble explains. “At that time I was working with $10,000 custom built wigs for people… of course, I had to research and find a way to manufacture wigs.” With wigs of all textures that start at $400, her creations are now accessible to a larger demographic. Even at that price, units are still considered an investment, but quality ones can last upwards of two years. “It’s not like you can throw it around, toss it in the corner,” Kimble advises. “You have to actually get a nice [wig] head to keep it on. Wash it and let it dry. Don’t put a lot of heat on it. Treat it like a real person’s head.” Kimble will even wash and treat wigs for her clients, a service that is becoming standard for stylists throughout the industry.
Similarly, Weeks launched a line of wigs called B.A.P.S. Hair in 2017, and she also leads all-day wig classes in London, Paris, Miami, Atlanta, Chicago, and Los Angeles, with a New Orleans class set to come next month. These day-long sessions allow Weeks to teach a new class of stylists how to achieve financial independence through this booming market — and in turn, spread her gospel. “My classes started really small and then started getting bigger and bigger, and then people wanted one-on-one classes,” she says. Now, Weeks’ classes draw upwards of 200 participants. “At the end of the day, my class is full of knowledge. That’s my thing: love and knowledge.”
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The classes, along with social media and YouTube, have democratized the world of wigs and opened up opportunities for even more entrepreneurs — including the ones who don’t count Beyoncé and Teyana Taylor as clients. Young YouTubers like Ivy Powell Dear of @ivyleaguestyles or Khadijat Sanni of @peakmill fame, are teaching themselves how to install and color lace fronts at home. These content creators are then, in turn, teaching their collective two million subscribers, who are likewise empowered to create their own businesses. It’s a burgeoning sector of the wig market that allows women to experiment in a way that is wildly cost effective — not to mention imaginative.
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In that same breath, it’s equally inspiring for established stylists to watch as the new wave of wigslayers emerge. Redway notices how social-media savvy up-and-comers sport their own attention-grabbing wigs, all in the hopes of attracting the right eyeballs to their page, and she finds their strategy inspiring. “I see all these young, talented kids that are 18 years old and doing hair out of their house, and making these wigs look like they are literally growing out of your scalp, and doing it with such small resources, and it’s so amazing and inspiring to me as an artist who has been in the game longer. It just pushes me to be better because it makes me want to step my game up.”
It is also inspiring celebrities to take more chances on unknown talent, helping propel new faces to the forefront of an industry that can be insular. “Kudos to the celebrities like Cardi B or Nicki Minaj that are not afraid to discover a new artist on social media,” says Redway. “Even Kylie [Jenner] and Kim [Kardashian] discover new talent that might not have had the opportunity to be in the room, to be seen, and they have created their own avenues.” Circumventing beauty industry gatekeepers — some of whom can be withholding of opportunities to stylists of color — these wigslayers have managed to quickly climb the ranks in celebrity styling, opening up a new path to success for budding talent.
And through it all, one thing has become abundantly clear: Wigs aren't going anywhere anytime soon. The freedom they represent, both financially and creatively, is changing the way we look at hair altogether. “Typically you’d say, ‘Oh, my hair doesn’t do that!’ But if I want Tracee Ellis Ross’ hair, I can have her hair. If I want Nicki Minaj’s hair, I can have her hair. I want dreads? I can have that," says Walker. "You can do a variety of things, you’re no longer limited to what your [hair] can do. There are no limits."