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The Definitive History of Hair Extensions

Guide to Hair Extensions For Women With Curly Hair Reading The Definitive History of Hair Extensions 11 minutes Next Best Extensions For Thin Hair

Think you know hair extensions? Think again! As old as civilization itself, our desire to remake ourselves into what we REALLY think is beautiful dates back to the Ancient Egyptians…who wrote the book on beauty. Not just the originators of hair oils, makeup and formal hairdressing…they also were the first culture to fully embrace add-on hair with decorative wigs and hair pieces. Buckle up because we’re going back in time and sharing some milestones, moments and stories from key points in the history of hair extensions!

3400 B.C.: Cleopatra, Queen of Blue Extensions

Cleopatra wearing hair extensions

Of any civilization in history, the Ancient Egyptians wrote the book on many beauty “firsts”, including being the first to rock hair weaves! The first hair extensions have been identified by historians as rising to prominence in Egypt in 3400 B.C. Wigs, sewn-on hair pieces and braided clip-ins made of human hair and dyed sheep’s wool were all available. For more permanent wear, they used resin and beeswax to keep them in. The most popular colors? Bright blue, red, gold…more so than traditional black. Cleopatra herself was never seen without her favorite color: Peacock Blue!

1225: Indigenous Peoples of North America

Indigenous People with Extensions

On a sweltering summer day in 1936, anthropologist Julian Steward stepped out of a car on the shores of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. He was there to spearhead an excavation for the University of Utah on the trail of an elusive lost indigenous North American tribe known as the Promontory. Flashlight in hand, he strolled into the entrance of a massive cave, Cave 1 and after several hundred feet noticed a mat of hair on a rocky outcrop. Shining his flashlight at what he thought may have been a long since dead animal…he was surprised to see it was a woven braid. Even more surprising, he would later discover that it was a hair extension…a braid fashioned in 1225 A.D. out of bison hair and sinew. While Steward would go on to an illustrious career, the recovered artifacts gathered dust in storage until 2011 when their historical significance became more apparent.

Even more surprising…not only were the Promontory lovers of hair extensions, but they also were avid gamblers. Centuries before Las Vegas opened the doors of its first casino, in that cave on the shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake the first North American casino was in full swing!

1768: A Black Market Trade Begins

Black Market Hair Extensions

Today, cheap hair extensions of questionable origin abound (which is why it's important to know where your hair comes from). But did you know that the global trade of hair extensions on the black market dates back over 300 years?

In July of 1768 global trade and a booming population had led to a thriving business for exports of Chinese hair to Europe for hair pieces and wigs. The rise of royal and aristocratic hairpieces and wigs for men and women alike drove global demand to an all-time high. At the time, the population boom occurring in China also led to a massive shortage of lands and employment, creating a rise in peasants wandering city to city looking for opportunities.

In a historical recorded by Chang-ssu, thieves were paid $500 a day (in today’s money) to use a knockout powder on unwary peasants to cut off their hair and ponytail. As horrifying as this today, it is sad to note that in many countries of the world today hair is still harvested via unethical practices such as this. 

1891: The First Mail Order Hair Extensions!

Mail Order Hair Extensions

Over 125 years ago if you wanted hair extensions shipped to you, you’d look no further than Mrs. Valeria Zimmer, founder of the first mail order extensions company in America!

Founded in 1891, the mail order “Hair Switches” (also called “Hair Flashes”) business in Auburn, Indiana by Mrs. Valeria Zimmer…an extension lover herself who grew increasingly frustrated by the inflated pricing and inconsistent stock of hair switches.

1940: World War II Shuts Down Extensions Trade

So common were add-on hair pieces (known then as “flashes”) prior to World War II that even the Sears Roebuck catalog had a whole section dedicated to them. But as World War II tore Europe apart and America joined the Allies, women found themselves tasked with picking up the hammers, pencils and shovels left behind by the country’s men as they went off to war. Necessity catapulted the demand for shorter, more versatile hairstyles that were safer in the factories and on the war front.

1952: Post War Boom and DIY Style with Clip-Ins

Howard Hair Extensions

After the war, when the pageboy style became popular in the early 1950s…hair extension companies went to work! The pageboy (or page boy) is a modern female or male hairstyle named after what was believed to be the "pudding-basin" haircut of a late medieval page boy.

In the early 1950s, the New York City hairdresser M. Lewis popularized this style. Its most notable feature were the bangs made famous by the fifties glamor and fetish model Bettie Page. As this association was not acceptable to women's magazine editors it was sold to the public as the hairstyles worn historically by English pageboys. Major film actresses in the 1950s sported pageboys, and many fashionable women adopted it. A well-cut pageboy is easy to maintain, and in the 1950s it was an edgy, stylish look.

Mail order hair extension company the Howard Wig Company of New York rolled out this multi-piece clip-in set to allow any gal to create the look in a flash!

1955: The Birth of Tape-In Hair Extensions

Prior to the technology that made hair extensions more feasible in the later part of the 20th century, your primary choices for add on hair came only in the form of wigs or clip-in hair extensions. We’re betting you didn’t know that the grandfather of modern tape-ins was born on the head of actor Gregory Peck (aka Anthony Keane in Hitchcock’s, “The Paradine Case”)!

In 1950 Warner Brothers began filming their epic, “Moby Dick” in Wales and had chosen a young Gregory Peck for the role of Captain Ahab. To age him, they contacted a firm of wig specialists in London to create removable gray streaks that could be added and removed from his hair daily. They created “hair flashes” that could be easily added to Peck’s hair with spirit gum. During the filming, one of Peck’s female assistants borrowed one of his flashes for a dance and it caused a sensation. By the end of 1955 salons in the UK and America were getting calls by the dozens from women wanting the “new Vogue”

Seen here in this lost footage, hair stylist Bertram Goodwin is riding the trend by showcasing his latest in salon service on South American actress Alicia Lotti. Watch as he selects different colors to compliment her dress and then applies them with spirit gum to her hairline…and then thank your lucky stars that we had adhesive now for something that blends in a little more naturally. This, is how tape-in hair extensions were born into the world!

1958: Breakfast At Tiffany’s Brings Extensions to Wedding Hair

Tiffany with Hair Extensions

By 1958, author Truman Capote was a rising star with his novella “Breakfast At Tiffany’s”. Paramount Pictures purchased film rights and immediately cast Hepburn in the role. At present her character Holly Golightly as the modern, eccentric café society girl, famed Hollywood hairdresser Grazia de Rossi created a full, bouffant backcombed hairstyle with hair pieces called “flashes” at the time. Making waves in 1961, Heburn’s dark brunette with light blonde streaks was practically unheard of and caused a sensation. It became the #1 style for weddings, proms and special occasions for decades and still remains a timeless classic. It was the start of brides going all in for their special day with hair extensions.

1966: The Cold War Led To The Popularity of Hair From India!

The Red Scare

Here's a shocking fact you’ve probably never heard: prior to the mid-1960’s, hair extensions and wigs were fashioned from hair exclusively from China. In 1966 however, the xenophobic fear of the rise of communism had fueled a frenzy of mistrust for any products from communist countries, including China and Russia. In 1966, the United States banned the import of “Communist Hair” from China, causing shortages in human hair that drove the prices of hair extensions and wigs through the roof.

The same year, a brand new source for human hair was discovered: Hindu temples in India, where pilgrims had their heads shaved during a ritual act of tonsure. “Hair of High Quality Plentiful There, American Says,” The New York Times reported on October 26th, 1966; “$22 Million Deal Made.” By the end of the decade, the United States was the biggest importer of hair, re-exporting it to more than 60 countries!

Then, something strange happened…hair extensions went underground. While still used by celebrities, women were looking for more discrete solutions and wouldn’t openly admit to using extensions for decades.

1980s: Soap Operas and Big Hair

For the decade of excess, hair went bigger and bigger…almost as voluminous as the pompadours of the 1950s and 1960s. TV shows like Dynasty, Dallas and MTV would present women with hair too big to be their own (and it wasn’t). Though discrete via hair extensions that were glued, taped or clipped on hair extensions were always on set.

1990s and 2000s: The Pop Superbabes Drive Extensions Craze

As MTV and later VH1 exploded on television, modern era female pop stars arrived on the scene. Hair extensions were more widely used than ever before, but in colored combinations with bleach blondes and it didn’t stop there! For the first time, feathers and beads were woven into the hair to create a grungy texture and a rebellious, punk individualistic look rose.

Pop stars such as Christina Aguilera in her breakout hit “Dirrty” with Redman rocked hair extensions and openly admitted to loving them. She wasn’t the only one as iconic blonde Britney Spears arrived on the scene and would become known around the world for her use and love of hair extensions to give her that mermaid hair. 

2011: Lady Gaga Kicks Open the Hair Extensions Closet

Lady Gaga Hairstyles
Lady Gaga Hair Extensions

When Lady Gaga first emerged onto the music scene, the world wasn’t sure what to make of her. Her music was spectacular, but her fashion she rocked at events made headlines for being so completely out there and unexpected. None more so than in 2012 when she went through a “hair dress phase” for over a year. She kicked off her Born This Way tour in Hong Kong with a floor length gown made out of purple hair in 2012 and the year previous had worn a black hair hat and v cut dress also made out of hair.


Today: Perfect Locks Celebrates 15 Years

The history and lineage of hair extensions stretches back millennia and Perfect Locks has only existed for a fraction of that time as we celebrate our 15th year of business. Today, hair extensions are mainstream, no longer hidden or unspoken. There are limitless solutions for any desire of wear, any lifestyle and to fit any style desire. In all the textures, colors and lengths you could ever want, it’s also become far more known to only buy ethically sourced extensions. Here’s to the future of add-on hair!

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Priyanka Swamy, Founder of Perfect Locks LLC

Priyanka Swamy

Author and Founder of Perfect Locks LLC

Priyanka Swamy, the visionary founder of Perfect Locks LLC, is a passionate advocate for empowering women and promoting cultural diversity. With an unwavering commitment to ethical sourcing and quality craftsmanship, she redefined the hair extension market and created a supportive community that celebrates individuality. Priyanka's dedication to sustainability and social responsibility continues to inspire positive change within the industry. Her journey with Perfect Locks remains an inspiration, unlocking the true potential and confidence of countless individuals worldwide. Connect with Priyanka on Instagram and LinkedIn.

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