Wig tips, from Adam and Meredith: 9/3/13

Getting the hair just right often makes the difference between a good costume and a great one, and all too frequently, that would require hours of labor and product to vainly attempt to reproduce some gravity-defying 'do or outlandish color scheme. This is when having a good wig will really help!

Wig Quality and Price

Wigs, like just about anything else, have a really wide range of quality, and generally, you get what you pay for. If you spend $20 on a cheap Halloween wig, it will look like a $20 cheap wig - the hair will be sparse, plastic-looking, and limp, and the wig will not be adjustable. On the other end of the spectrum, you can pay $250 or $400 or $850 (no joke) to get a wig made from real human hair; people who buy these are usually either professional hairdressers working in TV or movies or are people undergoing chemotherapy who want to have a truly convincing hairpiece. The three factors that determine a wig's quality, and thus, cost, are the fiber used, the length of the hair, and the quality of construction. A decent wig that will suit well for costuming purposes should range from about $30 to around $70 (the first for a short wig in a bobbed 'do, the second for a wig with 3 or 4 feet of hair).

Wig Fibers

There are two common synthetic fibers used for medium-quality wigs: Toyokalon and Kanekalon; both of these, like any other synthetic fiber (e.g. polyester), are a form of plastic. Kanekalon fibers are fairly soft and flexible, and have a very “natural hair” look to them. (Nearly all of my wigs are Kanekalon; all of the hair in Mark's Chewbacca costume is Kanekalon). Kanekalon is generally easy to work with, and styles well, although longer hair tends to tangle easily. For a Wookie costume, this is, naturally, a benefit! I have never worked with Toyokalon, but it is reportedly softer than Kanekalon and does not tangle as much, however, it does not look as natural as Kanekalon does; the plastic nature of the fiber is a bit more obvious. Price-wise, there is little to no difference between Kanekalon and Toyokalon; hair length will have a lot more to do with the price of the wig. A lot of these Kanekalon or Toyokalon-fiber wigs are made in Japan.

Wig Construction

The most common method of attaching hair on wigs is in rows. The hair is sewn at its midpoint onto a set of silk or nylon threads, resulting in a long row of hair called a weft. The wefts are then assembled around the wig, tacked in place on a few supporting bands of lace. The more wefts there are in a wig, the denser the hair will be, creating more body, providing more coverage of your head, and generating a more natural appearance. More wefts also translates to a higher price; this is where cheaper manufacturers will skimp, by using fewer wefts spaced further apart. If there are too few wefts on the wig, the hair will often look choppy, layered and thin, and you will be able to look through the wig fibers to see the support lace or the head of the person underneath. The crown of the wig should and will contain the densest amount of hair. The wefts of hair on the crown are anchored into a small lace cap or patch rather than widely-spaced wefts, which would not provide sufficient coverage on top of the head. The direction the wefts are sewn in determines where the part in the hair lies and where the bangs begin.

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It is also possible to get wigs with a skin top, which, instead of a lace cap, have instead a crown patch of latex or rubber or flexible plastic. Instead of weft rows, small clumps of hair are individually rooted into the skin top (like on Mark's Chewie mask or on a doll). Wigs with a skin top have no part or bangs cut into them, giving you more styling options, once you work up the courage to take a pair of scissors to your brand-new $50 wig. Skin tops are more expensive than lace caps. It is possible to add wefts to a wig, insert or change the part line, and insert or change bangs by buying extra loose hair, making your own weft, and sewing the weft in place by hand. I tried it once. Not the most fun thing I have ever done, I have to say.

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Medium-quality wigs, unlike cheap wigs, are usually moderately adjustable. At the back of the wig, there are often a series of shallow loops created by a ribbon sewn in place. At either side, there is a small plastic hook. If a wig seems ridiculously too big, move the plastic hooks to loops closer to the center of the back and try it on again. Most of the time, I never bother adjusting these. Cheaper wigs may have elastic here, if they have anything at all.

Wig Colors and Styles

Just about every basic style of hair in wigs (and then some!) is out there. Curly, straight, wavy, short, long, pig tails, pony tails, punk, China doll… While re-working a wig to perfectly match a specific character may take a bit of work, chances are there really is a good option for a base already out there. Every wig has some level of pre-styling to it; many wigs now are designed to require minimal-restyling after washing in order to maintain the original style.

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Wig colors are somewhat standardized to a numerical code - regardless of company, a wig dyed in color #1 is always black, #24 is always a medium golden blond. In general, the lower the number of the color, the darker the wig is. Keep in mind that there will likely be variation in color shades from company to company, based on the manufacturer. A wig in color #8 will guarantee that you're getting a medium brown wig no matter who you buy it from, but it's unlikely that two different companies will have have the exact same shade for their #8 wig. People who do a lot of wig work and need to be able to match colors will often purchase a ring of color samples, as that is more reliable than looking at wig colors on a computer screen. Wigs can contain more than one color, as well; they can be blended, two-tone, highlighted, streaked, or have tips of a different shade. Two-tone wigs are usually designated by a slash between two color codes: an off-black (1B) wig mixed with burgundy (39) would be described as 1B/39. A wig code of H4/30 indicates that the wig is a base color of dark brown (4) with highlights (H) in auburn (30). Codes may vary slightly from company to company, but they're usually pretty easy to figure out.

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Most wigs of a particular style will come in multiple color palettes, both natural and fun or party colors. Party colors are usually single shades (“dark green” or “hot pink”) and are usually not described by a shade number. Party colors and natural colors may be mixed, as well (a gold-auburn wig with blue tips might be described as 130/DarkBlueT).

Wig Storage and Care

In a perfect world, wigs are best stored on wig heads. These are typically made of Styrofoam or plastic, and should cost $4 or less at a costume supply store or from an online supplier. They're smaller around than a human head in order to prevent stretching the wig, and it is possible to get them with freakishly long necks for long-haired wigs. Wig heads keep the wig from getting messed up in a bag or tangled, and also, you can use pins (U pins, T-pins, tacks, sewing pins, whatever) to pin the wig directly to the wig head and keep the wig immobile while you style it. Plus, you can also put a plastic bag over the whole head to keep the dust off it when you store it. However, this isn't always feasible: wig heads take up a lot of space! For expensive and frequently worn wigs, or wigs with complex or difficult styling, store them on a head. Any other wigs lay flat in a plastic bag and store all together in a box. Prior to wearing one of these, take it out a couple days ahead of time, put it on a wig head, and just let it air out a bit.

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Just like normal hair, wigs will tangle, no matter how careful you are. It happens. Unlike normal hair, wig hair doesn't grow back - so take a little bit of extra care when brushing wig hair! Rough brushing can break or rip out wig fibers. Spend the $10 on a wig brush: these are wide-toothed brushes with short, soft, rubber-tipped plastic bristles designed to minimize damage to wig fibers. Most wig fibers are plastic, so they will stretch if you brush them roughly, and stretched fibers will look curly and frizzy. There is no way to repair this damage; if you want the surface of the wig to look smooth again, you will have no choice but to painstakingly trim each individual hair that has frizzed. For short-haired wigs, you can also use a wide-toothed comb. Regardless of how long the wig hair is, start combing at the bottom, very gently, and work your way up. Don't try to force the comb through the wig, and as you get up to the interior structure of the wig, be careful not to snag the weft lines or support lace on the brush or comb.

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Places that sell wigs usually also sell wig shampoos, and conditioners. If you plan to wear a wig frequently or if you know your head sweats a lot, it's not a bad idea to pick up some wig shampoo or conditioner. I have never used it myself, but I know I should. Many wigs come with washing instructions, which essentially consist of gently rinsing the wig, then either laying it flat (long or short hair) or placing it on a wig head (short hair) to dry. Never put a wig away while it is damp; it will mildew and be ruined.

Styling Your Wig

So you've got your wig, but it's not quite what you want. Here's where the fun begins: styling it yourself. If you're lucky, you've managed to get a wig in a pre-made style that is already pretty close to what you need. This is the best scenario!

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Styling products: There are a number of styling products specifically formulated for use on wig hair, since the plastic fibers of wigs may not respond as expected to hair products designed for human protein hair, but I have never tried these. I have had good luck with Suave hairspray; I find that AquaNet leaves a sticky-looking glossy sheen that I find a bit gross. I've been told that the Got2B line of products (found at CVS, etc.) is good on wigs, too, but again, I've never tried it myself.

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Heat-Based Stylers: Be very careful with using a hairdryer on a wig, and don't use a curling or straightening iron unless you REALLY know what you're doing - it's easy to completely melt wig fibers into nothing if you're not careful. For reference, when I was working on the Wookie suits, the Kanekalon loose hair started off as fairly curly/wavy. One to three passes with a hot hairdryer over the hair was enough to make it completely straight - heat works VERY quickly on a wig! You can work with hot water, as well: I once put some wave/curl into a wig by wrapping the hair in a spiral down a mop handle and pouring hot water over it to set the hair. Do not use boiling water for this; not only will you scald your hands, but you will melt the wig hair, too. Too much heat can make wig hair frizzy or tired-looking, so if you use a hairdryer, keep the heat moving, and never leave heat directed on one location for longer than a 2-3 seconds.

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Trimming: Once you finally get over the nerve-wracking notion of taking a pair of scissors to your brand-new $60 head of green hair, you can take care of a lot of styling issues by selectively trimming the length of the hair or the bangs. Keep in mind that you can always take more off, but it is significantly more difficult, if not impossible, to add more on. Use a good, sharp pair of scissors or shears that you are comfortable and familiar with, and pin the wig securely to a wig head (3-4 pins is enough). Try the wig on ahead of time and look in the mirror so you know where you want to cut - since the wig head is a different size than you are, what might be too long on the wig head will be just right for you. Take off only small amounts of hair at a time; cutting big chunks is riskier and will result in a choppy-looking hair cut. Comb out the hair frequently, since the cut will appear different depending on where each strand of hair lies.

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Those were the “easy” styling techniques. More difficult: using loose hair to make your own weft and sewing it into the wig (very time-consuming and laborious), and custom dying a wig.

Custom Dying or Tinting a Wig

Wig fiber, like any plastic, is tinted during the manufacture process, which makes changing the color of it difficult and laborious. Commercial dyes designed for human hair or dyes marketed (or improvised, like Kool-Aid) for cotton, wool, silk, or other natural fibers will not change the shade of a wig in the slightest. Tinting a wig requires applying color in a veneer over the strands in such a way to prevent the color from sliding right off again. This will depend on not only the method of coloring, but also on the fibers of the wig: Some fibers will take color better than others, and some wigs have been treated with a finishing chemical to improve shine, which often prevents color from sticking and results in blotchy color patterns.

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It is possible to custom dye a wig with either a special wig dye available from Katie Bair Wigs - Synthetic Wig Dying Kits, but I have never tried this method, nor do I know anyone who has, so I can't vouch for it. There are two methods I have tried, both involving ink. About the most effective cheap method is to use Sharpie markers. If you wish to lightly shade an entire wig at once, buy a bunch (5-10 or so to start; keep in mind that the more intense the color change, the more Sharpies you'll need; also keep in mind that the longer the hair, the more you'll need to ensure adequate coverage), break the markers open with pliers, and drop the ink cartridges in ~90% rubbing alcohol. Let this sit for a few hours until the alcohol has leached all the ink out of the cartridges (you can use a utility knife to slit the ink cartridges down the side to speed up the process). Rubber gloves are really nice to have at this point, unless you don't mind dying the skin of your hands, too. Pour the ink mixture into a clean spray bottle, and squirt the hair with dye, making sure to turn the wig and move the hair around to prevent color blotches. If you want a really intense color or want to create a multicolored design or pattern, your only real option is to use the Sharpies to color the hair directly. This takes a long time, and it takes a lot of markers - 25-30 for a wig just longer than shoulder length.

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Another method I used was to purchase a small bottle of concentrated waterproof artist's ink from an art supply store. I used the built-in eyedropper to drip bits of dye into the wig, then used my fingers to work the dye through the fibers. This type of ink may work with the alcohol and spray bottle, but I have not tried it. I was only trying to slightly redden a brown wig, and this worked pretty well. I don't know how successful it would be for a more drastic or brighter color change.

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After coloring (either by spray or directly) and letting the wig dry for a day or two, rinse the wig thoroughly in cool water to remove the excess ink. A LOT of the color will come out, and even after all the rinsing, you may still end up with color transferring off onto garments or skin, so store dyed wigs in plastic bags, away from anything they might rub color onto.

Wearing a Wig: Wig Caps

There are a few cheap and simple things you can do to improve the appearance of a wig that is on your head, and most of it has to do with preparation.

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First, get a wig cap. Wig caps cost about $2 at a costume supply store, and are made of nylon, like women's stockings. In fact, if you're in a pinch, you can cut the legs off an old pair of nylons and use those. Get a wig cap that roughly matches the color of the wig you're wearing - get a brown cap for any brown or blond wig; get a black cap for a black wig, and so on. Wig caps are available in party colors for those funky colored fun wigs, too, but you may need to order those online. So why wear a wig cap?

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Wig caps keep your own hair out of the way and out of the picture. Nothing ruins the illusion of a wig like seeing natural hair sticking out from under it. It is much easier to position a wig on your head properly if you don't have to worry about your own hair getting in the way, too. By keeping your own hair slicked down close, wig caps do a lot to prevent the wig from looking like a fake wad of big hair swathing your head.

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Wig caps provide an anchor for the wig. If you've pinned up your own hair under your wig, your hair may shift or begin to sag out of its bindings, which can cause the wig to shift and sag, too, or look lumpy. Wig caps tightly hug your head, and shift only minimally, which helps your wig stay in place. The bobby pins you'll need to hold your wig on will stick into the wig cap to hold the wig in place. Even if you are nearly bald, still wear a wig cap.

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Wig lace supports itch like ANYTHING. The less hair you have, the less you've got separating your scalp from the itchy itchy lace cap of your wig, although having a lot of hair is, too, no guarantee that the lace won't drive you nuts. Wig caps make a lovely non-itchy barrier between your skin and the wig.

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Colored wig caps provide a properly colored base. Even in good-quality wigs, it might be possible to catch a glimpse between the wefts of what's beneath the wig - and this is especially true in a light colored wig on top of dark hair. Wearing a light blond wig over dark brown hair can look bizarre, obvious, ruin the illusion, or may even make the blond hair look dingy. By wearing a pink cap beneath a pink wig, though, anything beneath that is revealed by shifting hair will still look pink, and will be much less noticeable.

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Wig caps keep your wig clean. Even if you've just washed your hair, there's still residues and oils on it, and if you intend to tromp around a parade or a convention in your wig, it's pretty much a guarantee that you'll be sweating straight into your hairpiece. A wig cap provides just a bit of a separation between your own hair - which you can wash easily later - and your wig, which might be more of a project to clean.

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There's really not too much to putting a wig cap on. If you've got short hair (ear length or less), pull the wig cap on and tuck all your hair up under it. If you've got long hair, you'll probably need to tie your hair back to keep it manageable. If you do this, do NOT pull your hair into one ponytail at the back of your head - you'll end up with an uncomfortable lump which, under the wig, will make you look like you've got a misshapen head. Put your hair in 2 or 4 pigtails. Do not twist them up into buns (see: uncomfortable lump), but pin them up with bobby pins, distributing your hair equally as much as possible. Then pull the wig cap over your head, and tuck up any stray hairs.

costuming/wig_primer.txt · Last modified: 2013/09/03 12:35 by stormtrooperguy