"One wig I had, people would stop me and think I was Whitney Houston," Lucy Patterson says. "I was at the Super Bowl in 1993 and she was singing the National Anthem and someone stopped me and said, 'I know you're Whitney's sister.' "
On this warm Saturday afternoon, Patterson, wearing khaki shorts and an orange T, is manicured and neat, but far from diva. The Whitney story is no tall tale, though. It's a testimonial on the transforming power of wigs.
That's why Patterson is here at Parisian Wigs, one in a cluster of shops on Crenshaw Boulevard that make up Wig Central. It's a cosmopolitan strip, just above Martin Luther King Boulevard, that segues from the ritzy (Bel-Air Touch Salon) to the indigenous (Yaba's Collection of African Imports) to the bicoastal (New York Looks). And, as a complement to ze European flair of the wig-selling Lili and C'est Si Bon, there's a furniture store called Love's.
Parisian is said to be the oldest of the bunch, having opened its doors in 1968. Recognizing a good business when they saw one, the others followed and a marketplace was born.
Some of the stores sell strictly hairpieces and the accompanying maintenance accouterments. In others, false nails, costume baubles and pantyhose--all the makings of a new you--can be had. And that's the point. All those plastic-foam and plastic heads hold not just caps of synthetic and human hair, but the possible building blocks of reinvention. With $300 million in U.S. sales last year, reinvention has become revolution.
Patterson was there when the first shots were fired. The Yorba Linda resident shopped at Wig Central when she lived in Inglewood 25 years ago. Although not on the payroll of the wig forces, she's not shy about promoting them. Her latest convert is Yolanda Williams, 25, a member of the younger, brash wave of wig wearers who regard fake hair as just another fashion tool. As Williams primps, tugs and adjusts, her mentor spouts advice.
"Once people got past the myth that wigs are just for people with short hair, they started wearing them all the time," Patterson says.
Williams is proof of that, with a ponytail that reaches the base of her neck. Problem is, she wants to have her hair done in a head full of braids, a contemporary style that she fears could send the glass ceiling crashing down on her. So she willingly made the trek from her home in Irvine to fashion a compromise: During the workweek, she'll tuck her crown of braids under flowing tresses.
"I think on the first day, I'll be a little self-conscious," Williams says as she tries on "Lora," an off-black, wig of shoulder-length straight human hair for $69.95. "But the people at work think I'm kinda wild anyway. I don't care if they know it's a wig. Other women at the job wear them. Nobody is paying me to maintain my hair, so nobody should have anything to say."
Religious doctrine, illness and convenience have long dictated the wearing of wigs. But high quality, low prices and sheer fun have given them new appeal for many. Made of a new generation of synthetic fibers (combined in varying thicknesses for that natural feel), human hair or a 50-50 split of each, they have the bounce and shine of salon-groomed hair.
Design has also improved, says Marcy Schackne of Revlon General Wig, a manufacturer in Miami Lakes, Fla. "They were made in a capped construction," she says of past models, "meaning they simulated a football helmet." Today, they are lighter and let the scalp breathe.
Other past strikes against wig wearing have been curtailed. Synthetics make for extremely low maintenance (human-hair wigs require the same care as your own hair), and Velcro closures help with sizing. Measuring from the hairline, across the forehead, behind an ear, to the nape of the neck and around, a 21-inch head is considered petite; average is 21 1/2-22 1/2, large is 22 1/2 and up.
Wigs are primarily made in Asia--China, Korea and Indonesia--with human hair coming primarily from India, Schackne says. The United States is hardly a player in the wig-making business, except for custom wigs for the likes of such high-profile wearers as Cher, Dolly Parton and Carol Channing. Although colors range from whitest blond to ebony, at Revlon the top seller is medium brown. But reds are hot. "In the last four years, we've added five new red shades," Schackne says.
Depending on quality, which ranges from machine-made synthetics on the low end to long human tresses on the high, prices can dip to $30--a fraction of what it can cost to bond with the stylist.
That's good news for Stven Han. A shy man with a thick salt and pepper halo of hair, he has owned the cavernous Ebony Wigs for seven years. It stands alone along the Great Wig Way; at 43rd Place, it's about three blocks away from the other stores.