Maybe you recall the minute 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 is eventually forced into prostitution. It could be nice to think that her experience was no more an actuality, that the business of human hair had gone just how of your guillotine – but the truth is, it’s booming. Modern marketplace for extensions made from real human hair keeps growing in an incredible rate. In 2013, £42.8 million amount of human hair was imported to the UK, padded out with a small amount of animal hair. That’s thousands of metric tons and, end to end, almost 80 million miles of hair, or if perhaps you like, two million heads of 50cm long hair. And our hair industry pales in comparison with that relating to the US.
Two questions spring in your thoughts: first, that is supplying all this hair and, secondly, who in the world is buying it? Unsurprisingly, both sides of the market are cagey. Nobody wants to admit precisely where they can be importing hair from and ladies with extensions want to pretend their brazilian hair could be the own. Websites selling human hair will occasionally explain that this locks come 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 in the world, so there’s plenty of hair to flog.
It has been identified as ‘happy hair’ – and it’s certainly a suitable 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 large amounts of hair, so where’s that from? The veracity behind this hair may well be a grim one. You will find reports of female prisoners and ladies in labour camps being made to shave their heads so those in charge can market it off. Even if your women aren’t coerced, no person can make certain that the hair’s original owner received a reasonable – or any – price.
It’s an unusual anomaly within a world where we’re all obsessive about fair trade and ethical sourcing: nobody seems at all bothered in regards to the origins of the extra hair. Then again, the industry is hard to regulate along with the supply chain is convoluted. Bundles of hair can pass through many different countries, that makes it challenging to keep tabs on. Then your branding can be purchased in: Chinese hair is marketed as Brazilian, Indian as European. The truth that some websites won’t disclose where their hair arises from is significant. Hair is sourced ‘all over eastern Europe’, says Kelly Reynolds, from Lush Hair Extensions, but ‘we would not know specifically’. Several ‘ethical’ extension companies exist, but in most cases, the customer just doesn’t want to know where the hair is harvested. In the FAQ sections of human hair websites, most queries are stuff like ‘How will i care for it’ or ‘How long will it last?’ instead of ‘Whose hair will it be anyway?’ One profoundly sinister website selling ‘virgin Russian hair’ boasts the hair ‘has been grown in the cold Siberian regions and possesses never been chemically treated’. Another site details how to distinguish human and artificial hair: ‘Human hair will consider ash. It can smell foul. When burning, the human hair will demonstrate white smoke. Synthetic hair is a sticky ball after burning.’ As well as not melting, human hair styles better. Accept no imitations, ladies.
The most costly option is blonde European hair, a packet in which can fetch a lot more than £1,000. So who buys this? Well, Beyoncé for starters. Her hair collection was once estimated being worth $1 million. And the Kardashians have recently launched a range of extensions under the name ‘Hair Kouture’, designed to give you that ‘long hair don’t care attitude’.
Near where I live in London, there are a variety of shops selling all types of wigs, weaves and extensions. The signs outside advertise ‘virgin hair’ (which is hair that hasn’t been treated, rather than hair from virgins). Nearby, the local hairdresser does a roaring trade in stitching bundles of hair into the heads of ladies seeking to 33dexjpky like cast members from The Only Method Is Essex. My hairdresser tells me she has middle-aged, middle-class women asking for extensions to ensure they look ‘more like Kate Middleton’. She even suspects Kate may have used extensions, which is actually a tabloid story waiting to happen: ‘Kate wears my hair!’
Human hair can be a precious commodity because it takes time to develop and artificial substitutes are considered inferior. There are actually women ready to buy and then there are women willing to sell, but given how big the industry it’s about time we learned where it’s all from and who benefits. Fantine seemed to be fictional, but her reality still exists, now on the billion-dollar global scale.