When I was starting to become religious, the most common question I got was, "So does that mean you are going to wear a wig?"
People asked me this question as if you walk into a women's seminary and they hand you a wig at the gate. This would never happen for two reasons: One is that you have to be married to wear a wig, and most women in seminary are single. The other is that wigs are wicked expensive and most Torah institutions for women really, really need funding (I donate 10 percent of my income to Torah institutions that serve women for that very reason). They could never afford to give wigs to the women who are getting married, even if they wanted to.
My family is "traditional" but not Chassidic (I chose this as an adult), and people always ask if my mom wears a wig. Mostly I think they ask because all they know about Chassidic women is that we wear wigs ("we" = those of us whose community custom is for married women to wear one). There is a lot of fascination with the wig, which is known in Yiddish as a "sheitel." So much of the lives of Chassidic women is private, but the wig is this obvious identity marker.
Therefore, I've taken it upon myself to answer all of your questions about the wig. Well, about my wig. Every wig-wearing lady has her own relationship with her own wig.
Q: Do you wear the wig to look unattractive to men?
A: OK, stop right there. Even if I am going to an all-women event, I wear the wig. It has very little to do with men, and everything to do with modesty. Modesty isn't something I do only when I'm in the presence of the opposite sex. My friends and I don't have a free pass to be like, "We're all girls so it doesn't matter." My friends have not seen my hair since I got married. At home, alone, I am fully dressed and my hair is covered. Divorce your mind from the idea that modesty in Judaism is a gendered activity. It's a full-time awareness, regardless of whose company I am in.
Q: What does modesty have to do with covering your hair?
A: Answering that is a dissertation, so I'll give you the very short answer and you can consult with your local Orthodox Rabbi or Rebbetzin if you want to learn more. Basically, when a Jewish woman gets married, her status (in terms of Jewish law) changes. Her hair becomes a region of her body that has to be covered.
A friend of mine put it well when she said to me, "I couldn't wrap my head around covering my hair. Everyone gave me Kabbalistic explanations and I wasn't buying it. But then Rabbi S. explained it to me like this: 'Would you go out braless? Think of your hair covering as a bra for your hair.' Then I totally got it."
Q: Is your wig more attractive than your own hair?
A: That depends on how ethnocentric your standard of beauty is. My hair is stereotypically coarse curly Jewish hair. Is straight hair cut off from some other lady's head and tied onto a cap more attractive than frizzy hair growing out of my own head? IDK. As I just said, I don't cover my hair to be attractive or unattractive. I cover it because I have to cover it in order to be modest, and the custom of my community is to wear a wig.
Q: Is the wig hot in the summer?
A: Yes, but I find it tolerable. I mean, in NYC the summers get so stifling that you could be wearing next to nothing and you’d still be pining for air conditioning. At a certain point, what I'm wearing doesn't seem to change the tolerability of the climate. In the summer, I wear long-sleeved shirts that cover my collar bones, ankle-length skirts, knee socks, shoes and a wig and I have yet to get dehydrated, get a heat-related illness or melt. I even go hiking in my wig. I just drink plenty of water and I'm fine. As soon as I get home, though, I change from the wig to a cotton headscarf.
Q: So you acknowledge that the wig is not as comfortable as a cotton headscarf. Why, then, do you wear something that's a little bit uncomfortable?
A: Would I be shunned if I went out in a head scarf? G-d forbid, no. I mean, sometimes I am in a rush and need to run outside in a headscarf and I do it. My hair is still covered.
Women in general wear a lot of stuff that is not too comfortable. Whether it is high-heeled shoes, control top pantyhose, tailored business suits … if you're even a little bit "dressed up," you're probably wearing something a little bit restrictive. Some people have a high threshold for high heel shoe pain. I can't wear high heel shoes for more than a couple hours. However, I find the wig to be occasionally restrictive but mostly tolerable. You pick your battles. I have to wear it so I wear it, and that's about all there is to it.
Q: According to the Rabbi/Rebbe of XYZ /insert title of XYZ Jewish law book and XYZ chapter here, wigs are not considered to be modest.
A: Yeah, I saw that one coming. Look, I also read Rav Ovadia Yosef's (he's the former Chief Sefardi Rabbi of Israel) flaming condemnation of wigs. I know those beliefs are out there. You don't have to tell me (but I am sure you will!). I have friends in MANY different communities outside of my own (Sefardi Charedi, Breslov, Religious Zionist, Belz, Litvish Charedi …) and we have something in common: If we're married, it's basic Torah that we cover our hair. How we cover it depends on the custom of the community. The wig is the custom of my community so I wear it, and although I would sometimes prefer to be wearing a hat or a headscarf, I don't question the custom.
Q: How much does a sheitel cost?
A: A new human hair shietel ranges from around $500 to $4,000 retail. The price depends on a few things, namely if it was made by a "sheitel macher" who personally tied the hair herself, or if it was made in bulk by a company. It also depends on the length, color (fortunately I have dark brown hair, which is a common and therefore less expensive color), and quality and origin of the hair. I own two wigs and they were both made by companies, and I bought both at significant discounts. Some women would never buy a mass-produced sheitel, but mine serve me fine. They're comfortable and the hair has not fallen out of the caps.
I looked into super cheap beauty shop wigs just for fun, and found that they do not have enough hair to actually cover my hair. I could see bits of my own hair through the cap, which was also pretty thin. Kosher sheitels have a lot more hair and heavier-duty caps than beauty shop wigs, which somewhat explains the difference in price.
Q: Do you shave your head under your wig?
A: No. That's not the custom of my community. My hair is in a ponytail under my wig. It is just long enough to pull up into a ponytail. Much longer than that gets way too hot in the summer and makes the cap of the wig too tight to be comfortable. Just so you know, the women who shave their heads wear hair coverings full-time. They don't walk around their homes with their shaved heads showing.
Even though I do not shave my head, I also wear a hair covering full time. It's not like having a ponytail gives me license to walk around with my hair showing. We try to dress as modestly inside the house as outside the house, just like we eat kosher inside the house and outside the house.
Q: Who cuts and styles your wig?
A: I wash and set my own wig. I am a DIY kind of gal.
Most women in my community take their uncut wigs to local sheitel machers to be cut (and in general these women are satisfied with the cuts they get), but I opted to take mine to the fabulous Fringe Salon in downtown Manhattan, where a meticulous and extremely well-trained hair stylist named Antonia cut them. She is so deliberate and skilled that I trust her to cut my wigs, which as you know are expensive and the hair does not grow back (hair growing back is the only consolation to a bad haircut, no?). Who cuts and styles your wig is a very personal decision. Due to the fact that I have to wear the wig every single day, I chose my hairdresser very, very carefully.
That's all I have to say about my wig. If you want to know more about it, you can find me on Twitter: @chayakurtz.