An assortment of wigs constructed strand by strand. Can you spot the yak hair?
An assortment of wigs constructed strand by strand. Can you spot the yak hair? Credit: Andrea Bauer

Nan Zabriskie belongs to a subset of the population that really “geeks out” over wigs. It comprises mostly hairdressers and theater people, but every now and then you come across what she calls “wig hobbyists”—people who just really like wigs. And they’re apparently really patient.

She’s met more than a few wig hobbyists at Wigs & Hair Chicago, a series of five-day programs that teaches wig maintenance and from-scratch wig building. A part of DePaul’s Continuing and Professional Education department, the program was cofounded and is run by Zabriskie—a veteran costumer and DePaul theater professor—and Richard Jarvie, who has been the Lyric Opera’s wig master since the early 80s; they offer the program only a couple of times a year because it’s so intensive. The first step is learning how to style the wigs—particularly into complicated period styles like pin curls—and, in the final two courses, students learn how to ventilate and build a wig strand by strand, knotting each tiny, flaxen piece of the keratin protein into lace form. At the end of the five days, students will have created a realistic mustache and/or beard.

You’d be surprised, Zabriskie says, how many wigs are required for a single production. She brings up Wicked, which she estimates requires around 85 lace-front hairpieces, each built in this meticulous manner. (“There’s not really a machine substitute for what we do,” she says.) In fact she’s had students move on to Wicked (and other big shows and companies), some who just loved wig making and others who set out to be costumers, but weren’t suited for the stress or the pace. They were, however, suited for the calm concentration and solitude of wig making.

And where do they get the hair? The human hair comes from India and China, mostly. And for facial hair? “Yak hair,” says Zabriskie. “It’s stiffer.”