My first encounter with wigs was on a small scale. It was the 60s and I was in grade school living in New Jersey. I had one Barbie and she was blonde. My mom bought some Barbie hair color and we proceeded to dye her little head. Her hair came out bright orange and looked awful. My mom’s solution to this was to purchase a set of three Barbie wigs, which it turns out, did not fit over Barbie’s sumptuous mane.
It would seem that my mother didn’t realize that there was a special head that you put on the Barbie to accommodate her wigs, so instead she took my dad’s Gillette Safety Razor and shaved my Barbie’s head. She really looked awful but could then wear the wigs.
Why am I writing about wigs? Because in the last month I’ve been wigged out by all of the hair pieces I’ve come across. Last week I read an article in the Trib, Meet Melissa Veal, Wigmaker at Chicago Shakespeare Theater by Christopher Borrelli and listened to NPR’s piece by Jeff Lunden, While Broadway Sings It’s Praise, The Wigmaker Remains Unsung. A month ago, I read Hairy Days Onstage by Erik Piepenburg of the New York Times. Each one of these articles talks about the behind-the-scenes, hard-working wigmaker. If the audience can’t tell the actor is wearing a wig then the wigmaker has done a great job. I get that. Honestly, until I read these articles, I thought of wigs as either something you wore if you had a health issue and had lost your hair or in the case of Dolly Parton, Lady Gaga or Mardi Gras revelers, a party on your head!
In addition to reading these articles last month, I happened to purchase a rather expensive wig when I was in New Orleans over spring break. I had been walking through the French Quarter with my husband and discovered Fifi Mahoney’s on Royal Street. The shop was enchanting. The next day I went with my daughter. The place was full of colorful, fun, creative wigs embellished with all manner of objects. There is nothing behind the scenes going on here, except that the wig fitters won’t divulge how they make and embellish their wigs.
I paid $5 to sit in a hairdresser’s chair and have someone fetch and fit me with wigs. I really wanted the purple wig with the gold-horned unicorn prancing across the bangs but I’m a little old for that sort of thing. I offered to buy it for my daughter but she refused. I regret that I didn’t buy it anyway. Every gal should have at least one fun wig tucked away in her closet. I did settle for a pink bouffanted number with a huge silk lily over the ear. $125 later, I sashayed out of the store with a wig that I have yet to wear.
I thought I overpaid for the wig until I watched a YouTube video entitled Putting It Together by Dragology. It is fascinating to watch this guy tease and curl and basically turn a straight hair wig into a 1980s Dolly Parton number. You really need hairdressing experience to do up a wig. My hair stylist, Irene Pipilas, who styles hair and works with wigs confirmed my suspicions.
For any of you potential wigmakers out there in Chicagoland, DePaul University boasts the only wig program of its kind! They have Wigs and Hair Production and Wigs and Hairdressing and Maintenance Certificate programs. Where does an artsy wig-maker work? Melissa “Maloo” Veal is a full time wigmaker for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Lady Gaga’s wig maker is Charlie Le Mindu and the hot wig-maker, for the Broadway show, starring Neil Patrick Harris; Hedwig and the Angry Inch is Jason Hayes.
I’ve seen a number of Broadway shows in my time but never realized the importance of wigs. In fact, I don’t think I realized the actors were wearing wigs until reading these articles! Historically, on stage, wigs have help establish the character type; black for a villain, blonde for the heroine, and red for a comic character. If one actor is playing several roles, a different wig for each character helps to define them. Some would argue that, in theater, wigs are more important than makeup.
Believe it or not, before these last few months, I’ve had quite a few wig encounters. I’ve probably purchased twenty wigs in my lifetime. I’ve bought junky wigs for Halloween costumes and inexpensive wigs for the two mannequins in my home. I went shopping in a wig store to buy a Styrofoam head for my book club. We had read The Other Bolelyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory and I was going to use it as a centerpiece on my h’ors d’oeuvres platter. I couldn’t resist a blue wig in the shop. I ended up planning a Winter Blues Party, so I’d have a place to wear the wig! As with my blue wig, the one I bought in the French Quarter will be making its debut, on my head, at a party: The Riverside Arts Center’s fall gala, Disco Inferno!
Kathleen Thometz is an artist and writer. She lives with her husband, kids and doodle dogs. You can experience more about her at www.kathleenthometz.com