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 will be nice to think that her experience was will no longer a real possibility, that the business of human hair had gone just how of your guillotine – however, it’s booming. The current market for extensions created from real human hair keeps 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 one thousand metric tons and, end to end, almost 80 million miles of hair, or maybe if you want, two million heads of 50cm long hair. And our hair industry pales in comparison with that of the united states.
Two questions spring in your thoughts: first, who seems to be supplying all of this hair and, secondly, who on the planet is buying it? Unsurprisingly, either side of your market are cagey. Nobody wishes to admit precisely where these are importing hair from and girls with extensions prefer to pretend their brazilian hair is their own. Websites selling human hair will occasionally explain that the locks come from religious tonsure ceremonies in India, where women willingly swap hair in turn for a blessing. At Tirumala Venkateswara Temple in southern India, tonsuring is customary and it’s just about the most-visited holy sites worldwide, 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 tell your client while you glue another woman’s dead hair to her scalp. But countries like Russia, China, Ukraine, Peru and Brazil also export large amounts of hair, so where’s that from? The truth behind this hair may well be a grim one. There are actually reports of female prisoners and ladies in labour camps being compelled to shave their heads so those in charge can sell it off off. Even when the women aren’t coerced, no one can be sure that the hair’s original owner received a good – or any – price.
It’s an unusual anomaly in the world by which we’re all enthusiastic about fair trade and ethical sourcing: nobody seems by any means bothered concerning the origins of the extra hair. But then, the marketplace is hard to regulate and the supply chain is convoluted. Bundles of hair can pass through several different countries, making it difficult to keep tabs on. Then the branding will come 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 customer just doesn’t need to know where the hair is harvested. Within the FAQ sections of human hair websites, most queries are things such as ‘How should i care for it’ or ‘How long will 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 possesses never been chemically treated’. Another site details how to distinguish human and artificial hair: ‘Human hair will turn to ash. It would smell foul. When burning, the human hair will demonstrate white smoke. Synthetic hair might be a sticky ball after burning.’ Along with not melting, human hair styles better. Accept no imitations, ladies.
The most costly choice is blonde European hair, a packet of 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 underneath the name ‘Hair Kouture’, designed to provide you with that ‘long hair don’t care attitude’.
Near where I live in London, there are numerous of shops selling all types of wigs, weaves and extensions. The signs outside advertise ‘virgin hair’ (which can be hair that hasn’t been treated, rather than hair from virgins). Nearby, a nearby hairdresser does a roaring trade in stitching bundles of hair in the heads of females looking to 33dexjpky like cast members from The Only Method Is Essex. My own hairdresser tells me she has middle-aged, middle-class women looking for extensions so they are look ‘more like Kate Middleton’. She even suspects Kate may have used extensions, that is a tabloid story waiting to happen: ‘Kate wears my hair!’
Human hair can be a precious commodity as it needs time to develop and artificial substitutes are thought inferior. You can find women prepared to buy there are women prepared to sell, but given the dimensions of the marketplace it’s about time we learned where it’s all from and who benefits. Fantine seemed to be fictional, but her reality still exists, now over a billion-dollar global scale.