The Asiatic vs. Italian fake hair showdown

When Japan annexed Korea, wigmakers across the world felt the ripples

By Andrew Leonard

Published April 11, 2008 2:43PM (EDT)

And you thought cut-throat competition from East Asian industrial powers was something recent? A hundred years ago, global prices for "false hair" plummeted, as Japan and Korea conspired together to dump cheap human hair on the wigmakers of the world.

Well, perhaps "conspired" is the wrong word. From The New York Times, published on Dec. 25, 1910, as spotted by Gusts of Popular Feeling.


Due to the Cutting off of Their Top-Knots by the Koreans

LONDON, Dec. 17. -- There is a glut in human hair, and its cause is a political one -- the annexation of Korea by the Japanese. Since that event so many Koreans have cut off their "top-knots" that in one small town over ten new barbers' shops have been opened, and the price of human hair has fallen so much that the best quality is now selling at 20 cents an ounce, the former price of the cheapest, and cheap varieties are now fetching only 12 cents.

"The average amount spent on false hair by a 'smart' woman is $10 to $150 a year" a well-known ladies' hairdresser said, "and she usually has $8 of foreign hair on her head at a time. This glut of Korean hair will probably so cheapen curls, switches, $c., as to bring them within the reach of all."

A well-known theatrical wigmaker agreed that the increased supply of Korean hair may indirectly effect the false hair fashion in society circles. "It is quite possible that this glut in Asiatic hair will cheapen the prices of the best quality switches and puffs," he said. "This does not mean that it will be worn in preference to European hair, of course, but that it may extend the fashion of wearing false hair to those who have hitherto been unable to afford to do so. In such an event the demand among smart women might fall off, and thus prices would drop. Asiatic hair can never seriously compete with that from Italy, however."

I wouldn't be so sure about that last assertion.

In contrast to the Chinese queue, a token of submission to conquering Manchu overlords, the Korean top-knot was a symbol of national pride. But in 1896, the Japanese forced through a series of "reforms" that included top-knot decapitation. More detail than you probably want to know can be found here, including this directive from the Acting Home Minister at the time.

In the Proclamation which His Majesty graciously issued to-day (11th moon, 15th day) are words, "We, in cutting Our hair, are setting an example to Our subjects. Do you, the multitude, identify yourselves with Our design, and cause to be accomplished the great work of establishing equality with the nations of the earth." At the time of reform such as this, when we humbly peruse so spirited a proclamation, among all of us subjects of Great Korea who does not weep for gratitude, and strive his utmost? Earnestly united in heart and mind, we earnestly expect a humble conformity with His Majesty's purpose of reformation.

(Signed) YU-KIL CHUN
Acting Home Minister

504th year since the founding of the Dynasty, 11th moon, 15th day.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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