Maybe you recall as soon as in Les Misérables when Fantine chops off all her hair? The destitute young mother sells her long locks, then her teeth (a detail often excluded from child-friendly adaptations) before she actually is eventually forced into prostitution. It might be nice to consider that her experience was will no longer a reality, how the business of human hair had gone the way of the guillotine – however, it’s booming. Modern niche for extensions manufactured from real human hair is increasing at an incredible rate. In 2013, £42.8 million worth of human hair was imported in the UK, padded out with a bit of animal hair. That’s thousands of metric tons and, end to finish, almost 80 million miles of hair, or if perhaps you want, two million heads of 50cm long hair. And our hair industry pales in comparison to that from america.
Two questions spring to mind: first, who seems to be supplying this all hair and, secondly, who on earth is buying it? Unsurprisingly, either side of the market are cagey. Nobody wants to admit precisely where they are importing hair from and girls with extensions prefer to pretend their brazilian hair is the own. Websites selling human hair will occasionally explain how the locks are derived from religious tonsure ceremonies in India, where women willingly swap hair in exchange to get a blessing. At Tirumala Venkateswara Temple in southern India, tonsuring is customary and it’s one of the more-visited holy sites on the planet, so there’s lots of hair to flog.
This has been referred to as ‘happy hair’ – and it’s certainly a sufficient story to inform your client when you glue another woman’s dead hair to her scalp. But countries like Russia, China, Ukraine, Peru and Brazil also export huge amounts of hair, so where’s that from? The reality behind this hair may well be a grim one. There are actually reports of female prisoners and females in labour camps being required to shave their heads so individuals in charge can market it off. Even when the women aren’t coerced, no one can make sure that the hair’s original owner received a good – or any – price.
It’s a strange anomaly inside a world through which we’re all enthusiastic about fair trade and ethical sourcing: nobody seems whatsoever bothered regarding the origins with their extra hair. But then, the marketplace is hard to control as well as the supply chain is convoluted. Bundles of hair can go through a number of different countries, making it hard to keep tabs on. Then a branding can be purchased in: Chinese hair is marketed as Brazilian, Indian as European. The reality that some websites won’t disclose where their hair originates from is significant. Hair is sourced ‘all over eastern Europe’, says Kelly Reynolds, from Lush Hair Extensions, but ‘we would not know specifically’. A few ‘ethical’ extension companies exist, but in most cases, the customer just doesn’t want to find out where hair is harvested. Inside the FAQ sections of human hair websites, most queries are things like ‘How do I take care of it’ or ‘How long does it last?’ as opposed to ‘Whose hair would it be anyway?’ One profoundly sinister website selling ‘virgin Russian hair’ boasts that this hair ‘has been grown from the cold Siberian regions and has never been chemically treated’. Another site details how to distinguish human and artificial hair: ‘Human hair will choose ash. It can smell foul. When burning, a persons hair can have white smoke. Synthetic hair will be a sticky ball after burning.’ And also not melting, human hair styles better. Accept no imitations, ladies.
The highest priced option is blonde European hair, a packet in which can fetch a lot more than £1,000. So who buys this? Well, Beyoncé for one. Her hair collection used to be estimated being worth $1 million. As well as the Kardashians recently launched a range of extensions beneath the name ‘Hair Kouture’, designed to provide you with that ‘long hair don’t care attitude’.
Near where I reside in London, there are a variety of shops selling all sorts of wigs, weaves and extensions. The signs outside advertise ‘virgin hair’ (which can be hair that hasn’t been treated, as opposed to hair from virgins). Nearby, the local hairdresser does a roaring trade in stitching bundles of hair in to the heads of women planning to 33dexjpky like cast members from The Only Way Is Essex. My hairdresser tells me she has middle-aged, middle-class women seeking extensions to ensure they are look ‘more like Kate Middleton’. She even suspects Kate could have used extensions, which is a tabloid story waiting to take place: ‘Kate wears my hair!’
Human hair is really a precious commodity because it needs time to work to increase and artificial substitutes are viewed inferior. You can find women willing to buy where there are women willing to sell, but given the size of the market it’s time we found out where it’s all from and who benefits. Fantine seemed to be fictional, but her reality still exists, now with a billion-dollar global scale.