Estie, 18, of Boro Park, Brooklyn is thinking about marriage. She is also thinking about her sheitl, the wig that will denote her status as a married woman. Although Estie’s hair is naturally thick and curly, her sheitl will be straight. “It’s easier,” she says. “Curly hair has to be washed and styled very often. Straight hair can just be brushed.”
What’s more, Estie adds, “I like straight hair better.”
Shaindy, a 25-year-old speech therapist from Long Island, agrees. “I have curly hair, but before I got married I would always blow dry it straight when I was going out or going on a date. It’s a societal thing. You look more attractive when you straighten your hair. When you’re going to spends thousands of dollars on a wig, you want it to look good. It makes sense that you’ll go the straight hair route.”
Sales staff at Georgie Wigs in Boro Park’s heavily Hasidic neighborhood say that their most popular wigs are styled into short, straight bobs. “Most of the human hair comes from Korea. There’s not a lot of curly hair out there to be purchased,” said one clerk who asked not to be identified. “But styles change. Right after ‘Pretty Woman’ came out, some women wanted their wigs permed. Every year or so the designers study what looks are popular and they develop new sheitl styles. Right now page boys, chin to shoulder length, are in demand.”
While Orthodox rabbis and their wives periodically rail against women whose tresses are immodestly flamboyant, many religious people feel they are fighting a losing battle. Although sheitls were originally intended to divert male eyes from the sensual allure of swaying hair, flash forward several hundred years, click on the web pages of most sheitlmachers, and you’ll see marketing that scoffs at this notion. Georgie, for one, sells wigs called Delite, Diva, Nirvana and Passion. Sheitl.com sells Cayenne, FruFru and Celebration.
“I went to a sheitlmacher recently,” says 70-year-old Ethel. “There was a French hairdresser there. He was looking at the women and he said, ‘You Jewish women. I don’t understand. Outside you are ooh-lah-lah, but for your husband you are uggghh.’ It’s true. When I’m home I wear a snood, but when I go out I want to look good so I wear a carefully-styled wig.”
Part of looking “good” involves color, and those walking the streets of Boro Park, Flatbush or Williamsburg — New York’s most frum neighborhoods— will be hard pressed to find grey- or white-haired women.
“Most people don’t look good in grey,” says 63-year-old Chana. “When I started turning grey I decided to stay with a brown sheitl.
Ethel concurs. “No one wants to look aged.”
“We have customers from all over the U.S., Australia, England, Israel and South Africa,” says a Georgie Wigs staffer “And maybe—maybe—we sell two grey wigs a year.”
Fraidy, an Orthodox lawyer, says “When I was a kid in the 1970s, the camp director wore a wig with streaks of grey. I haven’t seen that look since, but who knows? It might make a comeback.”