All About Afro: charting the evolution of weaves and wigs

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Stylist Team
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London-based hair and beauty journalist Sue Omar is hell-bent on celebrating the black woman's crowning glory: her hair.

She is exploring the beauty of Afro hair in a special six-part series for, with her fifth edition dissecting the rising popularity of wearing wigs and weaves.

Secondary school was probably the first time I was exposed to the wonderful world of weaves and hair extensions. The school I went to was extremely diverse, so secretly sizing up the different hair types in my classroom was, naturally, one of my favourite pastimes.

A good friend of mine boasted braids that were enviably longer, fuller and more colourful than my shoulder-length twisted tresses. When I inquired about the beautiful braids that would have given even Rapunzel a run for her money, I discovered her mother had used synthetic hair extensions during the plaiting process to achieve the look.

Gobsmacked by this hair revelation, I was eager to learn more about hair extensions, and figured a visit to my local Afro hair salon was a necessity.

Despite my own lack of knowledge at the time, weaves and wigs have actually been around for centuries, and can be traced right back to Ancient Egypt 2700 B.C.E. Even Cleopatra was known for enhancing her tresses to signify her royal status within the Egyptian Empire.

During the Victorian era in Britain, false hair pieces were used to create bespoke beehive styles for both men and women who demanded big hair with plenty of volume, to represent beauty and wealth. The 1960s and 1970s was an era of experimentation, and many people used hair pieces and wigs to take on a new persona (think Austin Powers).

By the time my 17th birthday had come around, I had almost grown all of the relaxer out of my hair and was finally starting to retain a healthy length. But chemical straightening had taken its toll - my natural curly hair had broken in several areas.

At this point, I had a lot more knowledge on hair extensions and weaving methods, so I started to entertain the idea of getting my first weave.

Years ago, when I first started wearing hair extensions, I would get mail from young girls and they would say, ‘Tyra you have the most beautiful hair, like I could never grow hair like that!’ And I would say ‘Child, this is a weave!'

- Tyra Banks

Admittedly, I dreaded the thought of the whole world knowing these silky-straight strands don’t actually belong to my Afro-hair-producing scalp.

But then, I wasn’t actually after a full-head of hair extensions; I simply wanted to add volume and length to the areas where my beloved tresses had broken off.

My hair stylist decided it was best to have human hair extensions sewn into the areas were my hair was the most damaged, and the results were incredible. But much like after getting my first relaxer, I felt a new addiction brewing - it was now all about the weave.

A good weave or wig can make any woman feel glamorous, but in the last few years there has been a rise of custom handmade human hair wigs.

- Award Winning Afro Hair Stylist, Charlotte Mensah

Keen to find out more about the evolution of weaves and wigs from an industry insider, I had a chat with British Afro Hairdresser of the Year, Michelle Thompson.

“Weaves are more acceptable in 2016 because we don’t just apply hair extensions for length,” she explained. “It doesn’t matter if you are Asian, Caucasian, European or African, everyone is wearing hair extensions nowadays for the simple reason that it can add instant length, colour, volume and sometimes even texture.

“Many people also wear wigs because they suffer from alopecia or have lost hair due to cancer. So, wigs can be seen as a medical resource, too.

“Back in the day there was a lot of synthetic hair used for weaves and wigs, which require constant maintenance as they easily get tangled and matted. In my 22 years working in the Afro hair industry, I’ve seen weaves upgrade to human hair, to Remi hair and now onto Virgin hair bundles, so there’s been a real progression over the years.”

Often, there is a misconception that everyone who wears a weave or wig is disguising their lack of natural hair, which isn’t always the case. Personally, wearing hair extensions using the weaving method has allowed my natural hair to repair itself in damaged areas.

Wearing extensions has also helped me retain a healthy length and made me feel more confident after experiencing traumatic hair loss. Plus, being able to switch up my hairstyles without committing to bold colours or drastic cuts is a huge added bonus.

Just like makeup, hair extensions for many women are just another way to enhance our natural beauty and express our individuality. However, I also know it’s important to let my natural hair breathe sometimes, so that hair extensions don’t put too much pressure on my scalp and cause damage that can’t be reversed.

On that note, here are five top tips for maintaining healthy hair underneath a weave or wig, courtesy of award-winning Afro hair stylist Charlotte Mensah.

5 top tips for maintaining your wig or weave

  • Moisturise and condition your weave and scalp with light natural oils.
  • Moisturise and braid your hair underneath before putting on a wig.
  • If you're wearing cornrows, bacteria and mildew can grow on your scalp and hair if they remain damp for a long time, so take extra care to completely dry your braids after showering, shampooing or swimming.
  • See your stylist every three to four weeks so that they can groom and refresh your extensions.
  • Never ever leave extensions in for more than three months - they will lock the base if left longer.

Join the Afro hair conversation on social media via @StylistMagazine using the hashtag #AllAboutAfro

Main illustration: Maddy Fresh Upton