Learned #12: Wig Out

Shag, bi-level, bob, Dorothy Hamill do


Welcome to Learned, a resource for all of us who are trying to understand what makes volcanoes do what volcanoes do when volcanoes do what volcanoes do. In this issue:

  • What We’re Learning: The Transformative Power of Wigs

  • What We’re Reading: Please Kill Me, The Uncensored Oral History of Punk

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Wig-Whig-Wiggin-Wagging-Wagon-WaxOn-WaxOff-Wax

Let’s get to it.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

What We’re Learning:

Marilyn Monroe tapped the microphone with a long, gloved finger. She took a drag from a cigarette - through a cigarette holder, naturally - and said, "This dress reminds me of a cheap hotel. No ballroom*."

"Marilyn" was, of course, a performer in perfect, costumed drag and the show was La Cage Las Vegas. I didn't know, at the time, who a lot of the girls were - names like Liza Minelli and Judy Garland were only vaguely familiar - but I thought they were amazing. The delight they took in performing seemed to eclipse every other form of art I had ever seen, which, admittedly, was not much. But timing is everything.

Over the next twenty years, drag, as an art form, as a way of life, came out of the shadows.* In 1993, RuPaul ordered us all to "work it." The very next year, an Australian film about a cross-country road trip in a bus named Priscilla swept audiences off their feet, as did a slightly less-engaging American movie the year after that. And, as drag came out, so to speak, it brought with it a slew of movies and t.v. shows about the issues the LGBTQ community had to deal with, including an odd, off-Broadway play about a young East German boy who becomes someone else entirely.

In both the musical and the film versions, Hedwig defines herself with a wig. By putting it on, she is able to be anyone else she chooses to be - Miss Midwest Midnight Checkout Queen or Miss Farah Fawcett From TV - and stop being herself for a while.

This concept, this idea, that one could transform themselves into something else simply by donning a wig seemed too easy to be true. After all, real change, real transformation required work. Actors studied for years to be able to become different people on command. Performers like Bowie and Alice Cooper put hours of thought and experimentation into their characters. Even the drag queens that Hedwig emulated sank their time and energy into creating a single, best version of their alternate selves. And, in truth, so too did Hedwig. In the story, she completes her transformations with hours of practice, make-up, costuming, and finally by stripping everything away.

But I liked that idea. Put on a costume, put on a wig, and presto chango, now you're someone else. It never occurred to me that people would wear a wig to continue being themselves.

I'm not much for dress-up, be it for the theater or just Halloween; I've only ever worn a wig a half-dozen times in my life, and those were all joking moments with dime-store props. And I've never gotten involved with drag other than as an audience member.

For all that I enjoy and appreciate artists like the performers at La Cage, and RuPaul, and films and other art that celebrate their accomplishments, it's not how I express myself. But I do admire it.

So much so that when my wife found herself having to buy a wig out of medical necessity, I immediately suggested she get a blue one. Or maybe a mohawk! These suggestions were brushed off. She wanted to buy a wig before it became obvious she needed one; she wanted a wig that looked natural, like she had just gone with a different hairstyle. She wanted to disguise that anything was different.


I knew, of course, that many people wear wigs as a prosthetic. Not all medical, either. Wigs can cover societal issues like tattoos or just having the wrong kind of hair. Wigs are transformative, it's just that sometimes we need to hide those transformations. A kind of hiding in plain sight.

My wife's wig matches her natural hair color and if you hadn't seen her for a while, you might just think she got a slightly different hairstyle than usual. But not different enough to cause comment. Just a change of pace until she can turn back to herself.

Further Reading:

*Still one of my all-time favorite jokes. I compared anything and everything to cheap motels for years afterward.

*My favorite example of a cross-dresser is, was, and always will be Frank N. Furter. Years ago, attending midnight shows was a weekly ritual. And, of course, my favorite show had most of the major roles gender-flipped from the movie for yet another layer of recursion.

What We’re Reading:

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk

by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain

This book came out in 1996. I’ve avoided reading it for over 20 years because, in 1996, I was a snot-nosed college kid who already knew everything. Just ask my parents. But really, though, I had, like, all the records, so I didn’t need an “oral history” to tell me anything. Besides, those guys were probably too stoned to remember anything anyway.

Turns out, I wasn’t wrong. But, the stories told in the book, by the people that lived them are, by turns, fascinating, disgusting, interesting, and, wtf. Still, for any fan of the genre, or modern music history, or just of entertaining reads, this book is a treasure trove.

It’s not for the faint of heart or easily upset by moral depravity though. You’ve been warned.


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Down the Rabbit Hole:

Wig - In the 1520s, a corruption of a Middle Frech verb perruque (which meant "natural head of hair") became the word "periwig," which, as time went on, was shortentened to the modern wig. As a verb, however, wig dates back to 1826 and stemmed from an earlier verb, "bewig" and meant "someone who wears a wig professionally."

Whig - Before our modern Democrats vs. Republicans took the stage, most prominent politicians were either a Democrat or a Whig. The Whigs "advocated the rule of law, written and unchanging constitutions, and protections for minority interests against majority tyranny."

Wigwam - Originally used as houses, modern tribes still use wigwams for important ceremonies. There were several different designs used in differing regions, but they all shared the basic dome shape formed of grass and reeds over dirt floors.

Wiggin - Ender Wiggin is the child protagonist of Ender's Game. The story is a meditation on good vs. evil and to what lengths it is acceptable to go to in order to preserve yourself in the face of an unrelenting antagonist. Back in the real world, the novel is an excellent example of the struggle to reconcile a beautiful work of art with an all too-flawed artist.

Wagging - Dogs wag their tails to show a variety of emotions, but primarily happy ones, like happiness and playfulness. Cats, however, are assholes and only wag their tails to announce that they are planning to attack.

Wagon - Radio Flyer wagons are a hallmark of Americana and nostalgia for the 1950s and 60s especially, which are seen as having been an easier time in which to be a child. In modern works, they symbolize the innocence of youth, idilic summers, and sometimes, just a need to get a lot of people somewhere very fast.

Wax On - Pat Morita did not actually know Karate when he began filming The Karate Kid in 1984.

Wax Off - Neither did Ralph Macchio.

Wax - Southern California, dir. by Spike Jonze. “I’m gonna move to Southern California...”

The Follow-Up:

Since last week’s Volcano write-up, more pictures and videos from Kilauea have continued to come in, each more striking than the last. Here are a couple of the best:

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy, learn something.