How to choose, wear and care for costume wigs

  • Costume wigs can be used for everything from everyday life to cosplay to drag.
  • Costume wigs can be made with real hair or synthetic hair.
  • We spoke to a Broadway wig maker about how to buy, wear and care for costume wigs at home.

Whether you’re getting ready for a Halloween party, styling your hair for a drag night, or looking to cosplay your favorite character, a costume wig is essential to step into your role. That being said, there’s so much more to wearing a wig than putting one on and calling it a day.

When it comes to choosing a wig, you’ll need to consider whether you want to invest in a human or synthetic hair wig, not to mention the shape and style (think: bangs or long, luscious curls). Then, once you’ve worn it, you’ll need to clean and store it to last. It’s a lot to learn, but we can help you.

We sat down with Anna Kathryn Darling, a Broadway wig maker, designer and hairstylist — she made wigs for “The Cursed Child,” “Cats” and “Ain’t Too Proud” — to learn the ins and outs of the selection of wigs and maintenance. With her guidance and expertise, you’ll be well on your way to, well, who you want to be.

How to Buy a Costume Wig

Before heading to a store or browsing online for pages and pages of wigs, take some time to think about the role you want to play. If your character is historical, Darling suggests going to the library to browse through old magazines or even visiting estate sales to find vintage photos and books. If you’re cosplaying a more current figure, print out a few photos of what you’re looking for and pay attention not only to the hair, but also the makeup and costume.

Although there are so many wigs available for purchase online, Darling suggests shopping in person and trying on wigs if the store allows. This ensures that you won’t be surprised by the texture, color or style when it’s too late. Want to make the shopping experience even more accurate? Darling recommends putting on your full makeup. “Makeup and hair go together,” she says, “and they can complement each other or hurt each other, so it’s important to visually understand how they’ll work together.”

When shopping, you may come across both lace wigs and hard front wigs. If your character has bangs, don’t spend the extra money on an expensive lace-front wig, as the hairline will be largely covered anyway. However, if you go for a style where the hairline is more exposed, a lace-up wig will suit your look better.

Human Hair Costume Wigs vs Synthetic Costume Wigs

Synthetic wigs tend to be a lot cheaper, but that can be a good thing if you’re looking to play multiple roles. In addition, since the hair is melted with steam, the hairstyle lasts much longer. That being said, if you’re looking to style a synthetic wig yourself, it may take a bit of experimentation. Darling recommends using heated rollers as this will mold but not melt the hair.

Human hair wigs can cost at least triple the amount of synthetic wigs, but what you get will be much more natural looking. And since the wigs are made of human hair, you can style them like you would your own hair with hot tools without worrying about damaging them.

How to Style a Costume Wig

When it comes to styling, you’ll want to place your wig on a wig block with a wig clip. To hold your wig in place, secure it with pins. Pro Tip: Preserve the life of your wig block by covering it with plastic wrap to keep moisture out. As we mentioned above, the style depends on the type of hair you have. For real hair, style as you would: part your hair and start at the bottom, especially when straightening, and for curls, part at the top for a hot roller set.

While synthetic wigs can’t handle the same kind of heat, Darling says you can use flocked hot rollers — she likes those of Conair — to give volume and curl to your wig. For straightening, use any spray bottle and a brush (do not touch the spray directly on the hair or it will melt).

For tips on how to style your costume wig, Darling suggests checking out Bobbie Pinz on Instagram for tutorials and tips.

How to Care for a Costume Wig

Why yes, you must wash your wig to keep it in perfect condition. You can use any shampoo or conditioner on synthetic and human hair wigs, although Darling prefers Dr. Bronner’s. “Be sure to run the water straight down your back, as if you were washing your own hair – and without scrubbing!” she recommends. As for the conditioner, she loves Kristin Ess.

If you wear your wig often, keep it on a wig block to maintain its shape. If not, store it making sure it is completely dry, then turn it upside down and place it in an airtight, reusable plastic bag. This will prevent it from molding before its next use.

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