When supermodel Coco Rocha arrived at the Bonpoint fashion show in Paris last month, she was sporting a very different look than what her 1.1 million Instagram followers had been used to seeing of her of late. Instead of the bleached, chin-length bob she’d been rocking since the release of her Balmain hair campaign in September, she appeared with a long fishtail braid looping casually over one shoulder. Four Instagram posts later, it was gone.
In an earlier decade, Rocha might never have dared to appear in a bob one day, and with bicep-grazing hair the next. Wigs and hair pieces have been around since the Egyptians built their empires and were often considered fashionable, but for the past half-century or so, many women—particularly those who turn to wigs and clip-ins because of hair loss—have regarded them with a sense of embarrassment. As a kid in the ‘90s, I remember the particular shame of one of my mother’s friends, who went to considerable lengths to disguise the fact she wore a wig after losing her hair from chemotherapy. She cut and dyed it to match her natural hair, and further disguised it under baseball caps. But today, taboos around hair pieces are evaporating, thanks largely to greater experimentation among celebrities and increased transparency via social media, as well as improvements in product and application technology.
Dr. Francesca Fusco, a medical and cosmetic dermatologist at Wexler Dermatology in New York, treats patients suffering from scalp issues, thinning hair, and other types of hair loss. Her patients have become much more open about supplementing their natural hair as extensions have entered the mainstream. “Suddenly, because so very many women were wearing them, whether it was for fun or just to amp up a look for an event, it became ‘acceptable’ to wear them and be open about it,” she says. “They are affordable, easy to maintain, and like eyelashes, and nails, it’s easy to find a salon.”
We change our makeup daily, why not our hair?
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Whereas five or 10 years ago a woman might have said her hair simply grew very quickly—or as one former classmate of mine so memorably put it, she “ate a lot of carrots”—today, celebrities treat wigs and hair extensions more like an accessory to change up their look, and few make efforts to disguise it. (Doing so would be almost impossible anyways, given that many celebrities are now photographed hour by hour via paparazzi and social media.) Who could forget when, in 2013, Beyoncé debuted a headline-grabbing pixie cut one week, only to replace it with a new cropped 'do the next? Katy Perry swapped out wigs between the 2015 Met Gala and the after-party a few hours later. And when Zendaya went to Paris fashion week that October, a ready supply of wigs allowed her to change her hair as often as her outfit.
“The attitude towards extensions and wigs has completely and utterly changed,” says Sam McKnight, the esteemed hairstylist who has contoured the tresses of everyone from Princess Diana to Lady Gaga. “It’s as acceptable now as it was in the ‘60s, when people used to wear switches all the time, and models used to do their own hair and makeup. A wig or hair piece is now an accessory.”
“Personally, having worn wigs and hair pieces of all kinds in my line of work, I am totally comfortable using extensions and wigs as a way of accessorizing my look on any given day,” says Rocha. “We change our makeup daily, why not our hair?”
Celebrity endorsements haven’t only altered attitudes towards wigs and extensions—they’ve been good for business, too. In the U.S., sales of wigs and hair pieces were up 5.6 percent per year on average between 2011 and 2016, according to market researcher IBISWorld.
Two years ago, former entertainment exec Lisa Richards and her friend, Monica Thornton, opened RPZL, an express hair extension and blowout salon in New York City. The business has seen a 30 percent increase in revenue year-over-year. Richards attributes much of those gains to celebrities and social media—not only for increasing awareness of the role extensions play in creating their look, but also positioning it as a luxury service. “Everyone talks about [extensions] now, posting shots of their hair lying on the table on Instagram as they ponder what color they’ll choose today,” she says. She also adds the salon often receives a bump in bookings the day after a celebrity reveals a new set of extensions or a major red carpet beauty event like the Golden Globes.
“In a way extensions have become a status symbol,” McKnight explains. “Because it says, ‘Look what I can afford.’ It’s become like a handbag).”
Improvements in the products themselves have also helped, sources say, including extensions that don’t require damaging heat to apply, and more natural-looking edges and parts on wigs. McKnight says the increasing availability of wigs and hair pieces at department stores and online outlets, many priced under $1,000, has also greatly boosted their popularity.
While hair pieces may all be all fun and games for the many models and celebrities who now wear them, their positive, open, and playful approach is having a wonderful impact on the women who seek them out for medical reasons. Dr. Fusca says her wig-wearing friends and patients are “much more comfortable” discussing the fact than ever before. That’s cause to celebrate.