Perhaps you recall the second 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 believe that her experience was no more a real possibility, that the business of human hair had gone the way from the guillotine – but the truth is, it’s booming. The current marketplace for extensions made of real human hair is growing in an incredible rate. In 2013, £42.8 million worth of human hair was imported to the UK, padded out with a bit of animal hair. That’s thousands of metric tons and, end to terminate, almost 80 million miles of hair, or maybe you like, two million heads of 50cm long hair. And our hair industry pales in comparison to those of the usa.
Two questions spring to mind: first, that is supplying all this hair and, secondly, who on this planet is buying it? Unsurprisingly, either side in the market are cagey. Nobody would like to admit precisely where these are importing hair from and girls with extensions prefer to pretend their brazilian virgin hair is 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 for a blessing. At Tirumala Venkateswara Temple in southern India, tonsuring is customary and it’s one of the most-visited holy sites worldwide, so there’s plenty of hair to flog.
This has been referred to as ‘happy hair’ – and it’s certainly a satisfactory story to know 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 truth behind this hair is probably a grim one. There are reports of female prisoners and women in labour camps being made to shave their heads so those who work in charge can sell it off off. Even if the women aren’t coerced, no person can ensure that the hair’s original owner received a fair – or any – price.
It’s an unusual anomaly within a world by which we’re all enthusiastic about fair trade and ethical sourcing: nobody seems whatsoever bothered about the origins of the extra hair. However, the industry is tough to regulate along with the supply chain is convoluted. Bundles of hair can go through a variety of countries, which makes it challenging to keep tabs on. Then a branding comes 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’. Several ‘ethical’ extension companies exist, but typically, the client just doesn’t want to find out where hair is harvested. From the FAQ sections of human hair websites, most queries are such things as ‘How do you take care of it’ or ‘How long does it last?’ instead of ‘Whose hair would it be anyway?’ One profoundly sinister website selling ‘virgin Russian hair’ boasts the hair ‘has been grown inside the cold Siberian regions and it has never been chemically treated’. Another site details the best way to distinguish human and artificial hair: ‘Human hair will use ash. It is going to smell foul. When burning, the human hair shows white smoke. Synthetic hair might be a sticky ball after burning.’ In addition to not melting, human hair styles better. Accept no imitations, ladies.
The most expensive choice is blonde European hair, a packet in which can fetch more than £1,000. So who buys this? Well, Beyoncé for just one. Her hair collection used to be estimated to get worth $1 million. Along with 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 reside in London, there are many of shops selling all types of wigs, weaves and extensions. The signs outside advertise ‘virgin hair’ (that is hair that hasn’t been treated, instead of hair from virgins). Nearby, a nearby hairdresser does a roaring trade in stitching bundles of hair in to the heads of ladies looking to 33dexjpky like cast members from The Only Method Is Essex. My very own hairdresser tells me she has middle-aged, middle-class women asking for extensions so they are look ‘more like Kate Middleton’. She even suspects Kate may have used extensions, and that is a tabloid story waiting to take place: ‘Kate wears my hair!’
Human hair can be a precious commodity mainly because it will take time to grow and artificial substitutes are thought inferior. There are women willing to buy where there are women ready to sell, but given the actual size of the current market it’s time we found out where it’s all from and who benefits. Fantine could have been fictional, but her reality still exists, now on a billion-dollar global scale.