TRIED & TESTED: WIG OR WITHOUT

Hair today, gone tomorrow. For the quickest beauty makeover, why not buy yourself a wig? Our panellists step out in a range of styles

FANCY BEING Marilyn Monroe for a day or Jackie Collins for a night? A full wig - or even just a hairpiece - can change your appearance so dramatically that even friends and relatives will barely recognise you. Better still, like a visit to a good hairdresser, a wig can impart new confidence or inspire a complete personality change. One member of our panel recalls a red wig called Scarlet which she used to wear at weekend house parties: "Scarlet was a real extrovert. She used to say the most outrageous things and was frankly a bit over the top. I killed her off when I met my current boyfriend." If this sounds like unusual behaviour, think again: improvements in technology now allow synthetic wigs to be made from many different colour tones, and this has led to a market boom. Look around carefully and you'll realise that wigs are being worn everywhere.

THE PANEL

Hairdresser Flavien Abbas of Michael-john on Albemarle Street, London W1, was our wig expert - and assistant, when required. He was joined by Caroline Harber, Stephanie Rich, Anna MacLellan, Lindsay Stewart, Emma Bartlett, Nicola Scicluna-Warren and Philippa Yeoman. Some of the testers had bought or hired wigs before.

THE TEST

With fashion our priority over necessity, we tried out synthetic rather than natural hair wigs. The latter are cooler to wear (though not necessarily more comfortable, since confidence comes from secure attachment), but they cost around pounds 800 each. And as they require professional washing and setting every week, even chemotherapy patients and alopecia sufferers are often advised to invest in a couple of synthetic wigs which they can wash and style at home. From a large selection of products, the panel chose pieces either to match their own colour (so making it longer or thicker or shorter or curlier), or to contrast with it utterly, allowing the wearer to fantasise about assuming a completely new identity. We looked for glamour as well as realism, ease of styling, good colour ranges, imaginative cuts and reasonable cost. We found the differences between products at the medium price range minimal; but it is worth going to a specialist wig retailer to be fitted by an expert -remember, a wig is not a hat.

****NATURAL IMAGE

Michelle 34 wig, pounds 95; Candy, pounds 95

"I absolutely love this," said Caroline Harber of Natural Image's three- quarter hairpiece Michelle. Attached to the crown with a circular comb, the piece felt "less secure than a full wig," and lost points for being difficult to put on by an amateur. "People presume three-quarter pieces will be easier to wear because they don't cover the whole head," Flavien Abbas commented, "but it takes a lot of practice to attach them." The wearer's own hair (which must be the same colour) is styled to cover the front of the wig. The Michelle is also reversible: turn it over and the dead straight style becomes a layered cascade. "Very Farrah Fawcett Majors," the testers agreed, admiring its versatility. Candy, a sleek brown wig with a fringe, was a radical disguise for Emma Bartlett's natural Goldilocks appearance. But this wig however failed in the twentysomething wearer's main aim, sophistication: "I do want to look more than 12 years old, so I can order drinks at the bar without being asked for an ID card," said Emma.

*****TRENDCO

Short Bob, pounds 55

Our winning wig, a henna red bob, exemplified the instant glamour that can be achieved with a fake coiffure. Astonishingly for such a vibrant colour, it suited several testers, including Philippa Yeoman: "I've always wanted to dye my hair red, but it would never look this smooth and lustrous." It was generally agreed that she bore a sudden, striking resemblance to Linda Evangelista. The price was to everyone's taste, and Flavien Abbas set the seal on our vote by revealing that: "I tend to use Trendco wigs for fashion shoots and film work because they are great across the board: good quality and easy to style. And as we've seen, people can look very different in the same wig."

***SMIFFY'S

Mega Afro, pounds 9.99

Hours of bargain-basement fun are to be had with Smiffy's Party Wigs, which range in colour from lime green with fluorescent blue streaks, to fire- engine red, passing through some natural shades on the way. As the panel pointed out, the construction of these wigs is quite different from that of serious fashion pieces. On a base which is not finely woven lace but something more akin to a stretchy shower-cap, you can clearly see the widely spaced tufts of hair "just like a bedraggled doll's"; but then nobody looks that closely at a party. Because they are so loosely constructed, the Party Wigs are more comfortable to wear; and the natural-looking styles would pass muster if, say, you wanted to appear as Cleopatra. Nicola Scicluna-Warren essayed the huge, brown "Mega Afro", saying excitedly, "Look - I could have been in the Jackson Five!"

***NORIKO

Sally, pounds 83; Angelica, pounds 125

Anna MacLellan, whose hair has been "long, straight and messy since I was 10," felt that wearing the Noriko's black, bobbed Sally was "a revelation"; it caused her to revise her ideas about dying her hair red or blonde, since this colour suited her much better. Unfortunately, as with all the long-haired panel members, she suffered from what was quickly dubbed "the Mekon eff-ect" - an alien-like protuberance at the back of the head caused by so much hair pinned under the wig. Short-haired Lindsay Stewart had no such problems with Noriko's Angelica, which matched her own hair colour so well that the transformation was thought "nice, but not overly exciting." Flavien Abbas declared the Noriko wigs to be of equal quality to Trendco's own brand - but they are imported, and therefore more expensive.

**THE HEAD GARDENER

Hair Genie, pounds 9.95 (plus pounds 1.50 p&p)

Surprisingly, the testers were not inspired by the Hair Genie, a sort of scrunchie (elastic hair tie) covered with curly synthetic hair. Genies are available in 34 colours (including high- lighted) and are despatched by mail order on receipt of a snippet of the customer's own hair (with cheque). The Head Gardener, a London salon which specialises in hair accessories, claims Genies are popular for tying up damaged hair on holiday, while the ends are covered in conditioner. "But a hat protects the top of your head as well," said Anna MacLellan, while general objections were that Genies are unfashionably curly and the hair too sparse. Nobody wanted to wear two twisted together for the "Grecian Look" described in the instruction leaflet. Emma Bartlett reluctantly agreed to model a blonde one, tied as a top- knot. "I feel as though I'm going to a wedding in Essex," she said, adding, "although I'm sure it might look nice on the right person."

STOCKISTS

Natural Image available in London from John Lester, 0171 791 1945, or call 0171 403 2440 for stockist information; Noriko and Trendco both from Trendco, 01273 774 977 for stockists; Smiffy's Party Wigs, 0800 590 599 for stockists; The Head Gardener, 37 Knightsbridge, London SW1X, 0171 235 4995. !

PHOTOGRAPHS BY MURIEL BOUQUET l COMPILED BY SUE WEBSTER

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