Perhaps you recall the moment 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 think that her experience was will no longer possible, that the business of human hair had gone the way of your guillotine – but the truth is, it’s booming. The present day market for extensions manufactured from real human hair is increasing with an incredible rate. In 2013, £42.8 million worth of human hair was imported into the UK, padded out with a bit of animal hair. That’s a thousand metric tons and, end to terminate, almost 80 million miles of hair, or if perhaps you prefer, two million heads of 50cm long hair. And our hair industry pales in comparison to that relating to the usa.
Two questions spring to mind: first, who may be supplying this all hair and, secondly, who in the world is buying it? Unsurprisingly, either side of your market are cagey. Nobody wants to admit precisely where they can be importing hair from and women with extensions prefer to pretend their brazilian virgin hair is the own. Websites selling human hair will occasionally explain the 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 just about the most-visited holy sites on the planet, so there’s lots of hair to flog.
This has been referred to as ‘happy hair’ – and it’s certainly a satisfactory story to inform 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 reality behind this hair is most likely a grim one. There are actually reports of female prisoners and ladies in labour camps being forced to shave their heads so those who work in charge can sell it off. Even if the women aren’t coerced, no person can be sure that the hair’s original owner received a decent – or any – price.
It’s an unusual anomaly in a world through which we’re all passionate about fair trade and ethical sourcing: nobody seems at all bothered regarding the origins of the extra hair. Then again, the marketplace is tough to regulate and the supply chain is convoluted. Bundles of hair can pass through a variety of countries, that makes it difficult to keep tabs on. Then the branding will come in: Chinese hair is marketed as Brazilian, Indian as European. The fact that some websites won’t disclose where their hair arises from is significant. Hair is sourced ‘all over eastern Europe’, says Kelly Reynolds, from Lush Hair Extensions, but ‘we would not know specifically’. A number of ‘ethical’ extension companies exist, but generally, the client just doesn’t need to know where hair is harvested. From the FAQ sections of human hair websites, most queries are stuff like ‘How will i look after it’ or ‘How long does it last?’ as opposed to ‘Whose hair will it be anyway?’ One profoundly sinister website selling ‘virgin Russian hair’ boasts how the hair ‘has been grown inside the cold Siberian regions and possesses never been chemically treated’. Another site details how you can distinguish human and artificial hair: ‘Human hair will use ash. It can smell foul. When burning, a persons hair will demonstrate white smoke. Synthetic hair is a sticky ball after burning.’ And also not melting, human hair styles better. Accept no imitations, ladies.
The most costly option is blonde European hair, a packet which can fetch over £1,000. So who buys this? Well, Beyoncé for starters. Her hair collection used to be estimated to be worth $1 million. And the Kardashians recently launched an array of extensions beneath the name ‘Hair Kouture’, designed to give you that ‘long hair don’t care attitude’.
Near where I live in London, there are a variety of shops selling all sorts 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 into the heads of girls planning to 33dexjpky like cast members from The Only Way Is Essex. My very own hairdresser tells me she has middle-aged, middle-class women requesting extensions to ensure they are look ‘more like Kate Middleton’. She even suspects Kate may have used extensions, and that is a tabloid story waiting to happen: ‘Kate wears my hair!’
Human hair can be a precious commodity as it will take time to develop and artificial substitutes are believed inferior. You can find women prepared to buy and then there are women prepared to sell, but given how big the current market it’s about time we found out where it’s all from and who benefits. Fantine may have been fictional, but her reality still exists, now on a billion-dollar global scale.