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 think that her experience was no longer a real possibility, how the business of human hair had gone the way of your guillotine – however, it’s booming. Modern market for extensions manufactured from real human hair is growing with an incredible rate. In 2013, £42.8 million worth of human hair was imported in to the UK, padded by helping cover their a small amount of animal hair. That’s a thousand metric tons and, end to terminate, almost 80 million miles of hair, or maybe if you favor, two million heads of 50cm long hair. And our hair industry pales in comparison with that from the united states.
Two questions spring in your thoughts: first, that is supplying this all hair and, secondly, who in the world is buying it? Unsurprisingly, each side from the market are cagey. Nobody wishes to admit precisely where they may be importing hair from and ladies with extensions love to pretend their brazilian hair is own. Websites selling human hair will occasionally explain the locks come from religious tonsure ceremonies in India, where women willingly swap hair in turn for any blessing. At Tirumala Venkateswara Temple in southern India, tonsuring is customary and it’s one of the more-visited holy sites worldwide, so there’s a good amount of hair to flog.
It has been identified as ‘happy hair’ – and it’s certainly an acceptable story to inform your client as 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 may well be a grim one. You will find reports of female prisoners and ladies in labour camps being compelled to shave their heads so those in charge can market it off. Whether or not the women aren’t coerced, no person can make sure that the hair’s original owner received a fair – or any – price.
It’s a strange anomaly in the world in which we’re all obsessive about fair trade and ethical sourcing: nobody seems whatsoever bothered about the origins of the extra hair. Then again, the market is hard to control and the supply chain is convoluted. Bundles of hair can pass through several different countries, which makes it tough to keep tabs on. Then a branding is available 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’. A number of ‘ethical’ extension companies exist, but generally, the consumer just doesn’t want to know where the hair is harvested. From the FAQ parts of human hair websites, most queries are such things as ‘How should i take care of it’ or ‘How long does it last?’ instead of ‘Whose hair is it anyway?’ One profoundly sinister website selling ‘virgin Russian hair’ boasts how the hair ‘has been grown from the cold Siberian regions and contains never been chemically treated’. Another site details how to distinguish human and artificial hair: ‘Human hair will consider ash. It can smell foul. When burning, the human hair shows white smoke. Synthetic hair will be a sticky ball after burning.’ In addition to not melting, human hair styles better. Accept no imitations, ladies.
The most costly option is blonde European hair, a packet which can fetch more than £1,000. So who buys this? Well, Beyoncé first. Her hair collection used to be estimated being worth $1 million. And the Kardashians recently launched a variety of extensions within the name ‘Hair Kouture’, designed to give you that ‘long hair don’t care attitude’.
Near where I live in London, there are numerous of shops selling a myriad of wigs, weaves and extensions. The signs outside advertise ‘virgin hair’ (which is hair that hasn’t been treated, as an alternative to hair from virgins). Nearby, a local hairdresser does a roaring trade in stitching bundles of hair in the heads of females seeking to 33dexjpky like cast members from The Only Method Is Essex. My own hairdresser tells me she has middle-aged, middle-class women asking for extensions to ensure they look ‘more like Kate Middleton’. She even suspects Kate could have used extensions, which is actually a tabloid story waiting to happen: ‘Kate wears my hair!’
Human hair is a precious commodity as it needs time to cultivate and artificial substitutes are viewed inferior. There are women happy to buy and then there are women willing to sell, but given the actual size of the industry 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 with a billion-dollar global scale.