“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” hair department head Mia Neal had never worked with horsehair before until she needed to create wigs for the new Netflix film starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman.
Few photographs existed of the real Ma Rainey, known as the “Mother of the Blues,” but costume designer Ann Roth pointed to reading material that suggested Ma’s social status meant she would use wigs imported from Europe and they would be made of the highest quality horsehair.
Both Roth and Neal decided they would keep that authentic and Neal, who previously worked on “Uncut Gems,” sought out horsehair to make Ma Rainey’s “performance wig.”
Below, Neal shares her mood board and breaks down how she created wigs for the film while staying authentic to the Black hairstyles of the period.
Composer Branford Marsalis said there were only seven photos of Ma Rainey that existed, so what went into your process in creating Ma’s look?
A lot came from reading. The books said her performance wigs were made from horsehair, and that was something costume designer Ann Roth had found in her research, and we decided to keep that authentic.
I had never worked with horsehair before. I sourced it on Google and had no idea what I would find when I opened that box. In my mind, it was close to human hair, and when I got that box, it was nothing like human hair at all. They tie thread from the top to the bottom of the tail, and they chop it off and mail it to you. And you know where that tail lies, there was manure and lice eggs. Nothing was alive and active, but it was crusty, wiry and coarse.
I pulled out sections that prolonged the wig-making process. I also realized that the foundation lace that I used for the wig had tiny holes and the hairs could barely fit through it.
I ended up building that wig, strand by strand. And every time I pulled those little hairs through, I had to scrape off the manure. It was a challenge, and that was the first time I had ever built a wig with horsehair. I had plastic everywhere. I boiled that wig several times to clean it, and it as a process. The whole thing was a learning process.
I spoke to Ann earlier this year, and she had mentioned those wigs – and that the high courts of England still use horsehair on their wigs. Where did you find the horsehair?
I found them via an Etsy seller. They came from Europe. It was an independent seller and you could pick the colors. So, I chose dark brown. Ma had two wigs – the show wig, and that was made of horsehair. The second wig was made from European hair.
How did the era influence that look when there weren’t many products for Black women in the ‘20s?
This was a Black woman traveling in the ‘20s, so who knew what salons are going to be in that town at the time? It’s not like women of color could walk into any hair salon. She needed that show wig and she needed to be show-ready. I think that’s why she would use that horsehair wig because of the memory, you could put it in a box and it would be ready.
The other wig, which she wears in the studio, is her everyday wig. Viola commented and said, ‘This is the wig she just throws on and is like a hat.’ That wig was made out of European hair because during that time, that’s what you would have found.
She wore a lot of jewelry. This was a woman who wants you to see her stature and her place in society. She was this woman who came from Georgia from nothing. Achieving the European style of the wig was a status symbol. She has created this persona, and Ma Rainey gets what she wants. If she wants a wave like the white girls in the magazine, she’s going to make it happen because she has the money to make it happen.