Stories Feature
A Brief Herstory of Drag Wigs

By Helena Madonna

"Spirit Gum, Bobby Pins and a Prayer" was RuPaul's Drag Race season 8 runner-up Naomi Smalls answer when asked what her best advice was on securing a wig.

A queen whose signature look is characterised by her model-like features and wigs with generous inches. Like many queens, the story behind Naomi Small's iconic runway looks is further perpetuated and dramatized by the hair she chooses to wear with them. Some feature flowing, voluptuous curls with Beyonce volume and others are sleek and flat to the scalp with glossy, thigh-grazing length. Each wig brings a different element of fierceness and flair to each of her looks. Monet X Change put it best when she said: "A wig is what type of diva that you're going to be that day."

I'll never forget the moment when my fascination for all things wigs and drag started. I was in my early teens, spending another late night flicking through TV channels on the couch when. something fabulous, glamorous and very pink caught my eye. It was the runway for RuPaul's Drag Race 'Hello Kitty Girls' challenge. Violet Chachki was sashaying down the main stage in her bubble-gum-tinted teeny tiny corset, riddled with Hello Kitty trinkets and figurines. However, it was the hot pink fur-lined headpiece encasing her baby pink blushed wig that piqued my aspiring hair stylist's interest. I was hopelessly mesmerized, a boundless obsession and admiration for drag queens (and their wigs) was born.

Always yearning to delve deeper into the topic of drag wigs and their wig-making process, I leapt at the opportunity to write about it. Any excuse to re-watch episodes of Drag Race and one of my favourite documentaries of all time, Paris Is Burning, you know, for 'research purposes'.

Early Wigs

Wigs have existed for centuries, however, they didn't gain popularity until the 17th and 18th centuries. Used for both practical and fashionable reasons, in ancient Egypt, they were used to protect their shaved heads from the harsh sun and to prevent lice outbreaks. Wigs were also a symbol of social status, the women fashioned theirs with braids and decorated them with gold and Ivory.

A modern version of a wig of the period. Crown and wig ornaments of Princess Sit Hathor Yunet (1887- 1813 BC)

In more recent years, we've had our own reasons for wig-wearing, some also practical and fashionable in their own right. In the early 90s, many gay men wore wigs to conceal their hair loss from chemotherapy. Similar to the wearing of wigs, the practice of cross-dressing has been around for centuries but didn't gain full popularity in the LGBTQ+ community until the 20th century.

Drag queens have been wearing wigs to elevate their looks since the early 1900s. In the 1950's, two legendary queens, Divine and Rupaul played a huge part in popularising wigs to exaggerate and glamourize their very different drag personas. RuPaul for her glitzy gowns paired with very clean, mostly blonde, full-bodied wigs, and Divine for her fabulously dishevelled, sometimes scalp-baring wigs to compliment her trash-glam charm.

The queen Divine, who was the inspiration for Disney's fabulous villain Ursula, herself fashioned her signature scalp-baring high-pony wig.

Gorilla Glue and Floor Shellac:

Beneath the bright stage lights and below the glittery surface of the kind of drag audiences see on the main stage is a lot of gritty hard work and not-so-glittery blood, sweat and tears.

Post-runway scenes from RuPaul's Drag Race's 'Werk Room', show many painful demonstrations of duct tape peeling, eyelid tugging false eyelash removal and scalp pulling de-wigging. In an interview, Trixie Mattel says "Working in bars for $40 whilst stepping over bridesmaids puke and taking the public transit home- that's drag."

Similar to the not-so-glamorous underlayer of drag, there's a similar underlayer to the wig-making process. A lot of what may seem like unlikely materials can be used to construct the most polished and ornate-looking wigs. In an Insider clip, wig stylist Edward Sizzahandz talked viewers through his wig-making process whilst creating one for Trinity The Tuck. "Nothing is off limits," he says when asked about what materials he uses. Explaining that he's used chicken wire, Mod Podge, Gorilla Glue and even floor shellac.

Did someone say body? Volume-hungry wigs like this are structured and built by stuffing, sewing and stacking others on top of and inside each other, resulting in ginormous mother of all wigs such as this one worn by Lady Bunny.

Human Hair vs. Synthetic

Whilst some queens wear human hair wigs to offer a more authentic and natural look, most seem to reach for synthetic. In a YouTube clip, Trixie Mattel can be seen fixing her blonde Moschino-inspired wig- a wig that is made up of a whopping eight others to create its colossal sky-high volume, she explains that she prefers synthetic over human hair because human hair wigs can literally fall apart if they get wet or humid. She also goes on to say that plastic strands have incredible hold, explaining that if a curl pattern is set, that same one will hold completely until changed.

However, unlike human hair, plastic strands aren't porous and won't absorb product. Trixie says that queens using oil sheen on their wigs will end up wearing it all over their costumes by the end of the night because the oil will slide right off.

A human hair wig's advantage is that they're heat tool safe, meaning you have the freedom to use curlers, irons and wands to create your desired look. But much like the hair on our head, you have to treat human hair wigs as though they're growing out of the scalp, if unconditioned and untreated, the hair can become damaged and even fall out. If properly looked after and maintained a human hair wig will last longer and will give off a more natural finish.

When it comes to synthetic wigs, the heat styling process looks a little different. Regular heat tools will melt and overheat synthetic fibres, so instead a practice called 'steaming' is commonly used to set a styling pattern. As the name suggests, once in rollers or perming rods and encased in a hair net, the wig is placed in a wig oven or in a literal pot on the stove to steam. A technique that allows the heat to penetrate the hair evenly.

Beneath the Silky Fibres

For many queens, the importance of wigs runs much deeper than their amount of backcombing and layers of hairspray. They use their hair to shape and create their identity, to relish in and celebrate their culture and heritage.

First trans contestant of Drag Race UK, Dakota Schiffer said "Hair was where Drag started for me, my hair means so much to me." Fellow series four queen, Le Fil also opened up about the importance of her hair, saying "When I was four or five, I already started experimenting with different ideas about what gender was. I always wanted to experiment with hair but I never could. (When) I left home that's the only time I started growing my hair and it was almost like rebellion, in a way, to let it grow. I feel like my drag was an evolution of growing my hair."

Here are some extra wiggy pics of some extra gorgeous queens for your viewing pleasure because we just can't get enough of all this fabulousness...

YouTuber, sculptor, English drag queen sporting her signature blue-tinted beat and red-manicured rubber
dishwashing gloves.

Sweet treat anyone? Or maybe some Kimchi? How about both? South Korean Drag Race season 8 queen and live-action anime character Kimchi.

Naomi Smalls also known as the "legs of season 8", in her Prince-inspired look for the Angelic White runway of Drag Race All Stars season 4.

Astonishingly distorted drag queen Hungry, stunning us with their out-of-this-world, extra-terrestrial almost mythological vibes.

Just a simple wig. RuPaul's Drag Race UK season 3 winner Krystal Versace showing us why she won the crown, in wig form.

Gottmik was the first transmasculine queen to compete on RuPaul's Drag Race, encapsulating the hearts of fans worldwide.

Beaded, braided goodness. Just one of MANY iconic wigs (and overall looks) from RuPaul's Drag Race season 13 winner, and a personal fav of mine, Symone.

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