Everything You Need to Know About Costume Wigs, From a Broadway Wig Maker

  • Costume wigs can be used for anything from everyday wear to cosplay to drag.
  • Costume wigs can be made with real hair or synthetic hair.
  • We talked to a Broadway wig maker about about how to shop for, wear, and care for costume wigs at home.

Whether you're prepping for a Halloween party, getting dolled up for an evening of drag, or looking to cosplay your favorite character, a costume wig is essential for getting into your role. That being said, there's so much more to wig wear than just popping one on and calling it a day.

When it comes to choosing a wig, you'll need to consider whether you want to invest in a human-hair wig or a synthetic one, not to mention the shape and style (think: bangs or long, luscious curls). Then once you've worn it, you'll need to clean and store it so that it'll last. It's a lot to learn, but we can help.

We sat down with Anna Kathryn Darling, a Broadway wig maker, designer, and hairdresser — she built wigs for "The Cursed Child," "Cats," and "Ain't Too Proud" — to learn the ins and outs of wig selection and maintenance. With her guidance and expertise, you'll be well on your way to, well, whoever you want to be.

How to Shop For a Costume Wig

Before you head to a store or look online through pages and pages of wigs, spend some time thinking about the role you want to play. If your character is historical, Darling suggests going to the library to browse old magazines or even visiting estate sales to find vintage photos and books. If you're cosplaying a more current figure, print out a few photos of what you're after, and pay attention not just to the hair but to the makeup and costume as well.

While there are so many wigs available for purchase online, Darling suggests shopping in person and trying on wigs if the store allows. This ensures you won't get surprised by texture, color, or style when it's too late. Want to make the shopping experience even more accurate? Darling recommends putting on your full makeup look. "Makeup and hair go hand in hand," she says, "and they can either complement each other or hurt one another, so it's important to get a visual understanding of how they will work together."

When you're shopping, you may come across both lace-front wigs and hard-front wigs. If your character has bangs, don't spend the extra money on an expensive lace-front wig since the hairline will be mostly covered anyways. However, if you're going for a style where the hairline is more exposed, a lace-front wig will suit your look better.

Human-Hair Costume Wigs vs. Synthetic Costume Wigs

Synthetic wigs tend to be much cheaper, but that can be a good thing if you're looking to play multiple roles. Plus, since the hair is melted into place with steam, the hairstyle lasts much longer. That being said, if you're looking to style a synthetic wig yourself, it can take a bit of experimenting. Darling recommends using hot rollers since that will mold but not melt the hair.

Human-hair wigs can cost at least triple the amount of synthetic wigs, but what you get will look a lot more natural. And since the wigs are made of human hair, you can style them like you would your own hair with hot tools without worrying about damaging them.

How to Style a Costume Wig

When it comes to styling, you'll want to place your wig on a wig block with a wig clamp. To keep your wig in place, block it down with some pins. Pro tip: maintain the life of your wig block by covering it with cling wrap to keep moisture away. Like we mentioned above, styling depends on the type of hair you have. For real hair, style as you would your own: section your hair and start from the bottom, especially when straightening, and for curling, section from the top for a hot-roller set.

While synthetic wigs can't handle the same type of heat, Darling says you can use flocked hot rollers — she likes these ones from Conair — to give your wig some volume and curl. For straightening, use any steamer and a brush (just don't touch the steamer directly to the hair or it'll melt).

For some inspo on how to style your costume wig, Darling suggests checking out BobbiePinz on Instagram for tutorials and tips.

How to Care For a Costume Wig

Why yes, you do need to wash your wig to keep it in pristine shape. You can use any shampoo or conditioner on synthetic and human-hair wigs, though Darling prefers Dr. Bronner's. "Make sure to let the water run straight down the back, as if you were washing your own hair — and no scrubbing!" she recommends. As for conditioner, she likes Kristin Ess.

If you're going to wear your wig often, keep it on a wig block to maintain its shape. If not, store it by making sure it's fully dried, then turn it inside out and place it inside an airtight reusable plastic bag. This will keep it from getting musty before its next wear.