Exhibition Techniques: Creating Wigs (Part II)

And now for Part II of my short-series highlighting the work of museum exhibition wig-makers, I’m pleased to present this interview with Mela Hoyt-Heydon. I met Hoyt-Heydon through my work with the Costume Society of America, Western Region Board of Directors. She is a union costume designer for the entertainment industry and also the Chairman of the Fullerton College Theatre Arts Department where she has taught for just shy of thirty years. On the side, Hoyt-Heydon creates period millinery for the film industry along with historical re-enactors.

Mela Hoyt-Heydon

Heather Vaughan: How long have you been making wigs for fashion exhibitions?

Mela Hoyt-Heydon: The first time was 1996 for the exhibit “From Bustles to Bikinis” at the Museum of San Diego History.

Vaughan: What kind of materials do you use ? Can you describe your technique ?

Hoyt-Heydon:I usually use both 200 lb gray watercolor paper and 120-260 lb white water color paper. I have used nylon crinoline, nylon tulle, and various textured craft papers. I prefer the watercolor paper. I start with making a paper skull cap of the mannequins’ head and then attach the paper “hair” to the skull cap. Each hair style is individual with the water color paper being cut into sections for each part of the head according to the time period. Curls need to be “curled” with a fish knife, bone knife or wrapped around different size wooden rods (even pencils). Waves are drawn on the paper and cut. Hairdos that need volume such as a Gibson are cut from rectangles and then “strands” cut, leaving a connected baseline and then formed into the desired shape on the skull cap, each “strand” being dealt with individually. I use double sided foam tape and scrapbooking glue dots to attach everything. When using the nylon tulle or crinoline, I often will sew the “strands”. Time consuming!

Vaughan: How do you begin, what sources do you use, what kind of research do you do? What exhibition design aspects do you consider?

Hoyt-Heydon: After 35 years of teaching costume history, I usually know what type of hairdo a gown needs. I do have an extensive library of costume and fashion books and will refer to them when I am dealing with several hairdos that are just a few years apart. Modern hair is based upon the hair style worn by the actress ( Emmy and Oscar exhibits) and then the Internet is the greatest tool for finding multiple pictures and side views. I also check what type of headpiece/hat they may be wearing (no need to put hair in areas if it will be completely covered) and what the neckline is like. Tall collars have to be dealt with along with hoods on capes and tiaras Veils need to be supported and sometimes you need to cheat the hair do to support the veil even more so that the wonderful lace pattern can be seen. Sometimes it is easier for me to do the hair before the mannequin is dressed and other times it is easier the other way around. It depends upon the costume. Sometimes I have no choice as I often come in at the last minute. Then you also have to think how you are going to put the wig on the mannequin without altering the work the dresser has done. Much of the wig is actually created on the mannequin to get the right balance, feature the sides that the viewers will view and make sure everything is in proportion. Ultimately the exhibit is about the clothes, not your hair do.

FIDM 2009 Emmy exhibit, costumes from the film Sense and Sensibility (photo via Mela Hoyt-Heydon)

Vaughan: Are there certain periods you find especially challenging?

Hoyt-Heydon: Men’s modern is either really easy or silly looking. Straight modern hair is also hard to make look attractive. 1930’s finger waves take more time then anything. 18th century can take a lot of planning on what is going to support the upward volume. I often use polyester fiberfill or nylon crinoline. I love doing Regency through 1840’s- especially evening hair dos. Love those curls!

Vaughan: How long does it take you to make a single wig?

Hoyt-Heydon: The shortest time is 2 hours and sometimes up to ten for complicated hairdos. It also depends upon the display area and how easy it is for me to work on the wig.

Vaughan: What exhibitions has your work appeared in ? Or What was your favorite exhibition /time period for which you have made wigs?

Hoyt-Heydon: The bridal/wedding exhibit at LACMA, From Bustles to Bikinis at San Diego, the early Oscar exhibits, the recent Emmy exhibits and for a wide variety of theatre costume exhibits at various Universities, colleges and conventions. I never thought to keep track.

Vaughan: Can you tell me a little about the kinds of wigs that have been historically used for exhibitions? What are the benefits and downsides?

Hoyt-Heydon: I like beautiful styled human hair wigs for exhibits but very few museums can afford to not only own those wigs but have them professionally done by a theatrical wig master. If the paper wigs match the color of the mannequin, then I think they work as it creates a neutral palette that allows the clothing to be the focus. I don’t like it when the wig draws focus positive or negatively.

Vaughan: What has been your favorite exhibition to work on? Is there a particular time period you love? Why?

Hoyt-Heydon: LACMA’s wedding exhibit was my favorite as there were lots of curls- my favorite. My favorite wig was a 1830’s Apollo knot that just came out perfectly.

Vaughan: What advice would you give to students or new museum employees about wig-making?

Hoyt-Heydon: Allow enough time!!  Often the first few you do, even when you have been doing them for a while, just don’t turn out as well as you would like. Also, try various papers. Find the one that works for the bulk of the styles you are doing. No paper works wonderfully for all styles.

I’d like to thank Mela Hoyt-Heydon for taking the time to answer my questions, and hope that readers find this and the past post useful in their work. Next time, we’ll have a final profile on ‘wig-masters.’

Related Articles

Leave a Comment

Monthly Archive


Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at : Amazon.com, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.