Exhibition Techniques: The Wig-Masters

Julien d’Ys Creates Heads and Wigs for The Model as Muse

After attending a recent visit to a museum exhibition on fashion, I became fascinated with the rather involved process of creating wigs for fashion installations. The Powerhouse Museum in Australia provides this short blog entry giving a quick discussion of the skillful yet simple creations of curator, Lindie Ward and textile conservator, Suzanne Chee. Both the Powerhouse Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art offer unique ancillary digital products (videos) to help visitors understand the art and skill that goes into the creation of the exhibition.

I wanted to know more. And so I’ll be presenting a series of interviews with three museum professionals discussing how they create the often amazing sculptural pieces that top the heads of display mannequins. Those profiled work primarily in West Coast institutions, and most often use paper to create the wigs (This is in stark contrast to wigs made for the Costume Institutes exhibitions as seen in the video above).

Installation specialist Sophia Gan dresses mannequin for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s exhibition, “Fashioning Fashion.” (photo courtesy of Sophia Gan)

First up, is a brief interview with Sophia Gan, discussing her work on creating wigs in a number of exhibitions. I first met Gan while we were students in NYU’s Visual Culture: Costume Studies program at New York University in 2003. Gan is a dress historian and costume installation specialist. She has worked on such exhibitions as, “Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700-1915” and “Skin and Bones: Parallel Practices in Architecture and Design”. Her current post is at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s costume and textiles department.

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

Sophia Gan: The materials used were fibre rush, starched buckram, poly-fil and hot glue:

  • Step 1: Soften buckram with warm water and stretch it over a hat block and let dry completely.
  • Step 2: Once dry, remove molded buckram and trim into a cap.
  • Step 3: Flatten the fibre rush and cut into strip
  • Step 4: Using a curling iron or pencil, wind strips of paper to produce curls and hot glue the curled paper onto the outside of the buckram cap.

We manipulated the paper into many hairstyles that included knots, buns, braids, and waves. Some of the wigs were filled with poly-fil padding to maintain their structure.

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

Gan: Most of the hairstyle research was done by the curatorial staff at LACMA before we began to create the wigs. We used portraits, fashion plates and photographs to determine the historical accuracy of the hairstyles. And we considered the purpose or occasion that the garments would have been worn and whether or not the mannequin would be wearing a hat.

Hairstyles on display in LACMA’s exhibition “Fashioning Fashion.” (Photo via Sophia Gan)

Vaughan: Are there certain periods you find especially challenging?

Gan: I found it difficult to make simple hairstyles that look “natural” yet visually interesting, such as the Denise Poiret hairstyle of the 1910s.

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

Gan: Two to three days.

Vaughan: What was your favorite exhibition /time period for which you have made wigs?

Gan: I really had fun with the Apollo knot hairstyles from circa 1830. It’s interesting to see the hairstyle complement the silhouette of the garment. For example, the wide exaggerated curls of the Apollo knot style matched the fullness of the leg of mutton-shaped sleeves of the same period.

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?

Gan: Since the 1980s, the aesthetic of costume displays has changed a lot. For LACMA’s “Fashioning Fashion” exhibition, we used white fibre rush (a paper product) to construct the wigs. The white-colored wigs blended well with the white mannequins forming a backdrop for the museum objects. Also, the paper was easy to manipulate in to various shapes. The downside is that the starched buckram and hot glue can be messy.

Hairstyles on display in LACMA’s exhibition “Fashioning Fashion.” (Photo via Sophia Gan)

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

Gan: As a freelancer, I had a great time working on the traveling exhibition, “Skin+Bones”. It was so interesting to see how different museums operate and how they interpret the same subject. Most recently, I worked on a project at LACMA for the upcoming “California Design” exhibition, so I am feeling quite inspired by West Coast leisure wear.

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

Gan: Wig-making requires attention to historic details, as well as a bit of theatricality in order to make a visual impact. I think it helps to remember that the wigs will be seen from a distance, so in this case, big hair is not such bad thing.

Vaughan: What happens to the wigs after the exhibition is taken down?

Gan: After the exhibition comes down, we will gently stack them in storage boxes and when possible, we can re-use them.

I want to thank Gan for participating in the series – it was a pleasure to share her insights with you and I look forward to seeing her work in an exhibition soon! Stay tuned as I’ll be presenting similar interviews with two additional “wig-masters” in the coming weeks.

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    March 16, 2011 - 7:09 pm

  • Tove Hermanson March 19, 2011 08.26 am

    Interesting post– I always wonder about the crazy world of wig styling (especially at the Met, which seems to have especially extravagant examples)! I wanted to recommend a wonderful blog that deals with all sorts of curatorial behind-the-scenes musings http://www.exhibitingfashion.com/ — written by an awesome woman who works for the FIT Museum and Cooper Hewitt (whose amazing Sonia Delaunay exhibition just opened).

  • Charlotte Bloxham March 30, 2014 11.55 am

    I am making paper wigs for my art project and i was wondering where i can get some fibre rush and starched buckram. I have looked at a lot of website and i was wondering if you can help.


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