2012 Academy Awards

02.27.12

Why Viola Davis Ditched the Wig at the Oscars

Davis looked stunning with a natural Afro at the Oscars last night. Allison Samuels on how The Help star's bold statement blew the lid off the complicated politics of black women’s hair.

Whether she knows it or not (she does), Viola Davis made Sunday night at the Oscars a teachable moment, giving the world a crash course in the ever-complicated politics of African-American hair.

Davis, a Best Actress nominee for The Help, arrived at the awards ceremony in a stunning emerald-colored gown and a natural, curly Afro, instantly lifting the lid from the bubbling pot of anger, judgment, and debate often directed toward African-American women and the varying states of their textured tresses.

Through most of the awards season, Davis had donned a dizzying array of wigs and hairpieces to complement her tasteful choice of vibrant-hued cocktail dresses and elegant evening gowns. Many were attractive enough, but some of the follicle support had appeared stiff, ill-fitted, and aging to her lean frame and glowing ebony skin.

“She looked younger and more vibrant on Oscar night,” says Karen Mitchell, owner of New York’s popular True Indian Hair. “Her wigs weren’t that great, and it was clear she needed a custom-fitted wig and style that worked better for her face.”

The actress’s long, public journey with her hair is certainly a familiar story in the African-American community. In fact, it’s so familiar that in the days leading up to the Oscars, black Hollywood found itself actively debating whether Davis would in fact “de-wig” and go natural for Hollywood’s biggest night.

Like many women and most African-American women, Davis learned long ago that hair can be either a tremendous source of pride and confidence or an all-too-frustrating beauty burden that chips away at one’s self-esteem over time.

In a mainstream environment and entertainment industry that has well-defined rules of what beauty is and how it should look, long, silky, and flowing locks rate at the top of the list of nonnegotiable requirements. As a rule—and in sharp contrast—African-Americans have a more coarse and curly hair texture.

And while the tone of one’s skin, the shape of one’s nose, or the fullness of one’s lips aren’t so easily altered without invasive medical procedures, additional hair of any type can be purchased online or at a high-end beauty-supply store in a flash. The relative ease of buying such enhancements and the instant transformation they can bring has made the sale of wigs and human hair extensions a nearly $900 million global business.

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“People like to say that hair is no big deal in the black community, but it is,” says R & B singer Mary J. Blige, who’s worn her share of wigs and weaves since first appearing on the hip-hop scene in the early ’90s. “Black women get judged unfairly on many things, and how long your hair is or if it’s your hair just happens to be one of those things. You buy some hair, and you’re considered fake. You don’t have any hair, and you’re not cute. You can’t win.”

Davis seemed to struggle with that very conundrum just a few days before her big Hollywood night. In early February she graced the cover of the Los Angeles Times Magazine sans wig and then last week appeared at several pre-Oscar industry events with her natural ’do as though it were a test run.

“I think it was a bold move, but she is truly content with who she is,” said celebrity stylist Damone Roberts, who’s worked with the likes of Beyoncé and Madonna. “She was making a statement about having power to just be Viola.”

Others felt the reasoning behind Davis’s short new ’do may have gone just a bit deeper. 

“She’s using her hair to say, ‘Don’t be confused. I am not who I play on TV or movies,’” says race and cultural writer Rebecca Walker. “‘I have left the plantation and wait for no one to tell my story.’”

While many applaud Davis’s decision to ditch the wigs and hairpieces last night, experts in the hair industry say they aren’t very worried that the wig and weave industry will take a big hit as a result. They admit that Davis’s hair trajectory may indeed deepen the conversation on the cultural meaning of hair in the African-American community—but ultimately the power and popularity of wigs and weaves will prevail.

“Wigs and weaves give women confidence and the chance for an ever changing alter ego,” says Joshua Brown, a celebrity hairstylist who works frequently for VH1. “I love that Viola didn’t wear a wig to Oscars and did her own thing, but she’ll have one back on again soon. It’s a woman’s greatest accessory. Almost like a great pair of pumps or great handbag. Every woman needs good wig in her closet.”

Brown and True Indian Hair owner Mitchell both insist that the number of celebrities and regular consumers wearing wigs and other hairpieces continues to grow by leaps and bounds each year. They also stress that the list of famous wig wears is by no means limited to just African-American women. Stars such as Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, and Lady Gaga all regularly sport wigs and hairpieces for their film roles, videos, commercials, and other media appearances.

“Celebrities wear wigs for the versatility it allows them as well as to protect their natural hair from the constant abuse of over-styling they endure for work,” says Mitchell. “Celebrities like Mary J. Blige, Beyoncé, and Jennifer Hudson alternate between wigs and extensions. They love wigs because they take less time to style, and today there are so many more options for them to choose from.”

Mitchell says that wigs like the True Indian Hair piece Blige wore in last October’s issue of Elle magazine are often custom-made to fit the exact shape, head size and face of the owner. The best quality wigs made from the finest human hair usually cost between $3,000 to $6,000 dollars each and can last for years with proper care. Celebs such as Serena Williams, Blige and others often buy wigs in bulk and treat them as they would their own hair with high priced shampoos and conditioning treatments to ensure longevity.

“The key is having options,” says Mitchell. “As a woman and as black women the key is having the opportunity to wear your hair however you like, wherever you like, and have it look good. That’s what Viola did [at the Oscars], and she looked wonderful.”