How to Choose, Store, and Care for Costume Wigs

Costumes, Cosplay, and Props Craft & Design
How to Choose, Store, and Care for Costume Wigs
(c) JACK F - Adobe Stock
(c) Jack F – Adobe Stock

A good wig can take your costume from just-kinda-accurate to totally recognizable. But, if your wig is misshapen or worn incorrectly, it can be more of a distraction than anything else. There are a few main types of wigs you can choose from, and learning the proper styling techniques will have you doing the perfect hair flip in no time.

Types of Wigs

Wigs are made using various methods and materials that can impact both price and potential for manipulation. Most of these factors come from two major components of a wig: the cap (or scalp) of the wig and the hair itself.

To understand what style of cap best fits your needs, you must first understand what is going on underneath the hair. Wigs are made by tying either synthetic or human hair onto the scalp of the wig. There are three different ways this is done, using either lace, monofilament, or mesh caps.

TIP: Many wig caps use two or more of these styles in sections of the cap. For example the cap may have a mesh back but a lace front in order for the hairline to look more realistic while still being affordable.

Lace wigs are made by tying strand by strand of hair onto a sheer lace cap. These wigs tend to look more realistic and function most similarly to a real head of hair. Lace wigs are very expensive because the process of making them is long and grueling. Monofilament wigs are made by tying or sewing hair in sections onto a cap. This process is much faster and thus these wigs tend to be cheaper than lace wigs yet still look high quality and realistic. Mesh wigs are the cheapest option both in price and in the general look of the wig. As a costume designer, I must admit that I kind of love bad wigs. Halloween-quality mesh wigs can make a costume more humorous because they tend to come in unnatural colors and make hair look over-the-top and oversized.

Choosing a Wig

Synthetic wigs (c) NITO - Adobe Stock
Synthetic wigs (c) nito – Adobe Stock

All in all, the right wig style for you just depends on your needs. If you want your wig to look natural and realistic, you may want to splurge on a wig with a lace front. If you are cosplaying as Ms. Frizzle on the other hand, a $10 wig from Amazon will certainly do the trick.

A human hair wig (c) GEORGE MAYER - Adobe Stock
A human hair wig (c) George Mayer – Adobe Stock

Next you are going to want to decide whether you want a wig made from human or synthetic hair. The main difference is that heat cannot be applied to synthetic wigs, so using a curling iron or straightener is out of the question.

Styling Wigs

(c) JAYANNPO - Adobe Stock
(c) JAYANNPO – Adobe Stock

When styling wigs, you are going to need a few basic materials. The first and most important tool is a wig form. This will be used congruently with pins to hold the wig in place as you brush and style it, and also works as a safe way to store your wig to assure that any styling doesn’t come undone. If you don’t have a huge budget to work with, I suggest investing in a foam wig form from a wig store or online (they are sometimes as cheap as $3). You will also need some basic styling tools such as a brush, a comb, bobby pins, non-heat curlers (if you are planning on styling a synthetic wig), and it is always nice to have wig setting spray. This is very similar to hair spray but is specifically meant for wigs.

Lastly you will need LOTS of bobby pins, and if you can, invest in a wig pin. A wig pin is a “U” shaped pin that goes through the wig, wig cap, and finally through your own hair in order to help secure the wig onto your head.

Wig pins (c) InterStilist - Adobe Stock
Wig pins (c) InterStilist – Adobe Stock

TIP: Many of these tools can be bought together in kits online or in wig stores.

When styling lace front or monofilament wigs you can (mostly) treat it like styling a human head of hair. Brush and comb where needed but be wary of brushing curls as it will cause the curls to fall or become frizzy. If you want to change the part or direction of the hair, try using a spray bottle with water and a comb to direct the hair how you would like it, pin it in place with bobby pins, spray with setting spray and leave overnight. Repeating this process for a few days in a row can assure that the style stays in place.

If the wig you are working with is cheap, frazzled, or has been poorly maintained (perhaps it’s been shoved in a costume box for years) try your best to tame the wig first by spraying it with water and then combing through the hair repeatedly. If the wig is made with human hair it can be washed in the sink using a mild shampoo and conditioner. Once dry, human hair wigs can be styled using a curling iron or straightener.

CAUTION: Do not use a styrofoam wig head when using heat appliances! Yikes!

Now Wear It!

When it comes to wearing a wig, the more time you take to prep, the better it will look and the longer it will stay on. First, you will want to secure your own hair as flat onto your head as possible. Buns and ponytails are not recommended because they will make your head look lumpy and misshapen. I suggest watching a tutorial on how to style your hair in pincurls, because doing so will make the wig more secure. My favorite method is to combine french braids and pincurls for a perfectly even scalp of hair.

Once your hair is secured, it is best to put on a wig cap. This is different from the cap connected to the wig. A wig cap is essentially a cap made from mesh or nylon that holds all of your hair in place so the pincurls do not fall out. After applying the wig cap you may then put on the wig. The wig itself should then be pinned down to your hair. I like to do this using bobby pins that go through the wig, wig cap and down into pin curls and then crossing another bobby pin over to form an “X”.

Lastly, check for any stray hairs of your own sticking out from the edges of the wig (this is the tell tale sign that it’s not your real hair). These can be tucked in, gelled back, or bobby pinned into place.

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Ellen Howes

Ellen is designer and stylist who has worked in film, theater, dance, and fashion. While she primarily works as a costume designer, she often designs the props and sets for the projects she works on as well.

As a Costume Designer particularly interested in subtle parody and satire, Ellen hopes to someday work for a sketch comedy series, but has been primarily working in live theater and fashion photo-shoots as of late.

View more articles by Ellen Howes


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