Maybe 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 actually is eventually forced into prostitution. It might be nice to believe that her experience was will no longer a reality, that this business of human hair had gone how of your guillotine – but the truth is, it’s booming. The modern niche for extensions created from real human hair is growing at an incredible rate. In 2013, £42.8 million worth 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 terminate, almost 80 million miles of hair, or if you want, two million heads of 50cm long hair. And our hair industry pales in comparison with those of the united states.
Two questions spring to mind: first, who may be supplying this all hair and, secondly, who in the world is buying it? Unsurprisingly, each side in the market are cagey. Nobody desires to admit precisely where they are importing hair from and girls with extensions like to pretend their brazilian virgin hair is their own. Websites selling human hair will occasionally explain that this locks are derived from religious tonsure ceremonies in India, where women willingly swap hair in return for the blessing. At Tirumala Venkateswara Temple in southern India, tonsuring is customary and it’s one of the most-visited holy sites in the world, so there’s a good amount of hair to flog.
This has been referred to as ‘happy hair’ – and it’s certainly an acceptable story to know your client as you may glue another woman’s dead hair to her scalp. But countries like Russia, China, Ukraine, Peru and Brazil also export considerable amounts of hair, so where’s that from? The veracity behind this hair is most likely a grim one. You can find reports of female prisoners and ladies in labour camps being compelled to shave their heads so those who are in charge can sell it off off. Even if your women aren’t coerced, no person can make certain that the hair’s original owner received a good – or any – price.
It’s a strange anomaly inside a world in which we’re all obsessed with fair trade and ethical sourcing: nobody seems at all bothered about the origins of the extra hair. But, the market is tough to manage and the supply chain is convoluted. Bundles of hair can go through many different countries, that makes it hard to keep tabs on. Then this branding is available in: Chinese hair is marketed as Brazilian, Indian as European. The point that some websites won’t disclose where their hair comes from is significant. Hair is sourced ‘all over eastern Europe’, says Kelly Reynolds, from Lush Hair Extensions, but ‘we would not know specifically’. A few ‘ethical’ extension companies exist, but generally, the individual just doesn’t want to find out the location where the hair is harvested. Inside the FAQ sections of human hair websites, most queries are stuff like ‘How should i care for it’ or ‘How long can it last?’ instead of ‘Whose hair could it be anyway?’ One profoundly sinister website selling ‘virgin Russian hair’ boasts the hair ‘has been grown inside the cold Siberian regions and contains never been chemically treated’. Another site details the best way to distinguish human and artificial hair: ‘Human hair will turn to ash. It can smell foul. When burning, a persons hair shows white smoke. Synthetic hair will be a sticky ball after burning.’ Along with not melting, human hair styles better. Accept no imitations, ladies.
The highest priced choice is blonde European hair, a packet of which can fetch a lot more than £1,000. So who buys this? Well, Beyoncé for one. Her hair collection used to be estimated to be worth $1 million. As well as the Kardashians recently launched a variety of extensions under the name ‘Hair Kouture’, designed to provide you with that ‘long hair don’t care attitude’.
Near where I live in London, there are many of shops selling a myriad of wigs, weaves and extensions. The signs outside advertise ‘virgin hair’ (that is hair that hasn’t been treated, rather than hair from virgins). Nearby, a local hairdresser does a roaring trade in stitching bundles of hair in the heads of ladies seeking to 33dexjpky like cast members from The Only Way Is Essex. My very own hairdresser tells me she has middle-aged, middle-class women looking 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 occur: ‘Kate wears my hair!’
Human hair is a precious commodity since it takes time to develop and artificial substitutes are believed inferior. You will find women ready to buy and there are women willing to sell, but given the actual size of the current market it’s about time we discovered where it’s all from and who benefits. Fantine could have been fictional, but her reality still exists, now over a billion-dollar global scale.