Why Do Irish Dancers Wear Wigs?

By Lilly Taylor
Two Irish dancers wearing wigs and in full costume outside.

Competitive Irish dancers frequently wear wigs of loose ringlets to conform to an internationally expected standard and to stand out during judging. The long, spiral curls emphasize movement as dancers swing and bounce in time with the footwork. Although the wigs are not required for judging, the signature curly hairstyle has become universally popular at Irish dance competitions.

Curls Cascading From Tiaras

The typical wig used by Irish dancers is a partial one, providing a mass of long ringlets that cascade from the top of the head back to the nape of the neck. It covers the rear portion of the dancer's head. The wig is attached to a base covered by a cloth and jeweled tiara headpiece that matches the dancer's elaborate dress. Wigs are selected to match the dancer's natural hair color because some natural hair shows in front of the tiara. The thick mass of curls may end at the nape of the neck or may continue well down onto the dancer's shoulders.

Tradition of Ceili Dances

As legend has it, Irish women in the early 1900s curled their hair on Saturday evenings for church the next morning. Most ceili dances took place after church, so the women who attended were known for their abundant curls. Competitive Irish dancers emulate that style.

In Search of a Perfect Hair Day

Not all Irish dancers have the naturally curly, shoulder length hair for the desired look: Some have short hair and others have straight hair that is difficult to coax into curls. Even Irish dancers who have long natural curls might rather rely on the convenience and predictability of a carefully styled wig instead of risking a bad hair day during a competition.

Ringing Up the Ringlets: The Price of Perfection

High quality Irish dance wigs of human hair can cost hundreds of dollars. Those of natural-looking, synthetic fibers might cost more than $100. The price increases with the length and number of curls. Some wigs arrive styled and trimmed, but others are meant to be custom shaped and set for the dancer.

Rules Have Changed for Younger Dancers

The Coimisiun le RincĂ­ Gaelacha, the main regulatory body for international Irish dance competitions, ruled that as of March 1, 2014, dancers younger than 10 were no longer permitted to wear makeup. Though this ruling did not disallow wigs, many dance schools limit younger dancers to either a natural bun or a small bun wig, rather than the more elaborate curled wigs. This ban comes in response to concerns that young Irish dancers not be encouraged to present themselves in a manner similar to beauty pageant contestants, and that their overall appearance should be age appropriate.