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Wigging Out

How do Brooklyn's Orthodox women choose this year's hottest hairpieces?

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A smiling girl with a Yankees cap perched atop her blonde bob bounds down the runway, followed by an elegant woman who sweeps through the room in a floor-length black cape, tossing trademark Courteney Cox tresses -- dark-brown choppy layers, middle part.

The audience watches closely, all the hatted and wigged heads moving in unison, as each model takes her turn strutting down the catwalk. On a recent weeknight, what is being called the first-ever wig fashion show (a Jewish Reclamation Project fund-raiser) has drawn 400 Orthodox Jewish women to the El Caribe Country Club, a party hall decked out with strings of tiny lights. Southeast Brooklyn -- Borough Park, Flatbush, Midwood, Mill Basin -- is the heart of New York's largest Orthodox community and consequently one of the world's biggest wig-wearing populations. According to tradition, a married woman must cover her hair, reserving it for her husband's eyes only. Some wives opt for scarves, hats, and snoods; many prefer wigs.

The event's mane macher is Claire Grunwald of Claire Accuhair, who has flipped Brooklyn's wigs for half a century, filling custom orders by hand in Midwood. The Orthodox community makes up 90 percent of her client base. Her typical customer is an 18-year-old bride who buys two wigs that cost as much as $4,000 each, featuring custom hairlines, custom color blending, and a pseudo-scalp. Her most popular styles echo the natural dos of fashionable women -- these days that means straight locks, a few inches below the shoulders, with a severe middle or side part. "When an Orthodox girl gets married," says Grunwald, "she wants her wig to look just like her hair."

On one trip down the runway, the mannequins show off looks their mothers, grandmothers, and older sisters might have chosen, from the Gibson Girl's chaste bun to the frizzy French-fry coif of the eighties. But then it's back to the target audience: For the show's grand finale, a classic bride is sent out in a blonde number whose Shirley Temple curls end halfway down her back. The effect is electric. After all, these are no ordinary models, as the yenta of an emcee keeps reminding the audience. They are all members of the community, and all of them, except that last bride, are single


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