Wigs for “Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk”: Part One

~ Nine of the eleven wigs I was commissioned to make for the “Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk” exhibition

Today (Thursday 27th August 2020) the current exhibition, “Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk”, reopens at the Victoria and Albert Museum after a period of closure due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

This exhibition will present the kimono as a dynamic and constantly evolving icon of fashion, revealing the sartorial, aesthetic and social significance of the garment from the 1660s to the present day, both in Japan and the rest of the world.”

Earlier this year I completed a project for this exhibition, making eleven “wigs” for the fibreglass mannequin heads in hairstyles to represent different periods in Japanese history.

~ Courtesan wig (Image credit: Rachael Lee, Textile Conservation Display Specialist in the Textile Conservation Department at the V&A)

The wigs for this exhibition were intended to be abstract and an impression of the silhouette, rather than incredibly detailed, so as not to distract too much from the costume displayed on the mannequins. When wigs are requested for mannequins, they are often made in house at the museum by the Textiles Conservation and Mounting Department, but due to restrictions on time they were outsourced on this occasion. I was involved in a similar project for another V&A exhibition back in 2018, “Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up”, which involved making three headdresses constructed from paper flowers. One of my previous blog posts details the making of these.

~ Two of the paper flower headpieces I was commissioned to make for the “Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum

The wigs for the Kimonos exhibition were to be made from milliners crinoline, or “crin” for short, which in its nature is really springy and easy to make into voluminous shapes. Crin is an extremely versatile fabric that can be used for millinery, craft and haberdashery as well as fashion and dressmaking. The intention was to form shapes by manipulating it and stitching it together, then attaching these pieces to a Rigiline frame which would sit on the head of the mannequins. Rigilene is a type of boning made of woven nylon rods and can be stitched directly to fabric, without a casing.

~ Crinoline and rigilene used to make the wigs

The concept of these crin and rigilene wigs was not new, in 2011 an article was published in the V&A’s Conservation journal entitled, “Keep Your Hair On – The development of conservation friendly wigs”:

One of the challenges we regularly encounter when displaying head wear is how to achieve a good fit with proper support when headdresses are designed to be worn upon elaborate hair styles. The solution to this quandary would appear easy enough; give heads hair. This seemingly straight forward answer was not as easy to apply as one might think largely due to exhibition designers and curators desire to display objects on non-realistic, abstract mannequin forms. This current trend is considered least distracting to the audience’s appreciation of the costume itself.

My contact at the museum was Rachael Lee, a Textile Conservation Display Specialist in the Textile Conservation Department, who had been working for many months displaying numerous kimonos for the exhibition. She and some of her colleagues had already worked on a couple of protoypes of the wigs that were sent to me to get an idea of the forms they wanted. I was however told that I was to have creative control over the wigs and to have fun with them!

For the eleven wigs that they wanted I was supplied with reference images to work from.

~ The reference images for the eleven wigs to be made for the exhibition

The wigs were to be built on to Rigilene frames. I first measured the circumference of the fibreglass head at approximately the point where I wanted the hairline of the wigs to sit. I left a bit of slack knowing that the frame would get packed out a bit when the crinoline layers were attached. I cut a strip of Rigilene that was overlong so that it could be overlapped and joined together to form a circle, I drilled a series of small holes through the overlapped pieces and then stitched through them to hold the loop together. A second piece of Rigilene was then cut to span the top of the head, and it was joined to the first ring, slightly off centre, in same way using thread. Finally, a shorter piece was cut to tether the outer ring and the central bar together at the back.

As the Rigilene was quite springy, initially I temporarily joined the overlapped pieces using a dab of superglue and held them in place with a bulldog clip whilst it set. This then helped as the two pieces of Rigilene were set in place and held together for me to drill the holes using my Dremel. This process was reproduced a number of times to give me enough frames to experiment with and work from.

~ The rigilene frames made for each of the wigs

As I was working remotely from home, I sent many images of the wigs at various points in their construction to Rachael Lee, who in turn showed them to the curators who gave me feedback during the making process. I had never worked with either Rigilene or crin before so it was a learning curve, manipulating the crin into different shapes and forms to make the 2D images I had into three dimensional forms was a fun challenge! 

Further blog posts will follow about the steps I took to create these flamboyant wigs, from the subdued “Gibson Girl” through to the elaborate “Courtesan” with some more modern “Memoirs of a Geisha” characters thrown in I feel I have learnt a lot about Japanese hairstyles along the way!

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