In 2023 elaborate wigs and extensions are part of nearly every performer’s repertoire. These viral beauty moments now happen regularly, but their popularity can be traced back to hip-hop’s leading ladies. The trend towards outré hairstyles owes much to rap and R&B’s ’90s icons and the outré statements of Mary J. Blige, Lil’ Kim, and Missy Elliott, whose daring coiffures have become a part of their mystique. Kim’s iconic lavender wig at the 1999 Video Music Awards, Elliott’s finger waves, and MJB’s golden bouffant have all become part of popular culture, and now the woman behind all those looks—and countless others—is getting the ultimate honor. Hairstylist Dionne Alexander’s wigs are integral to the Baltimore Museum of Art’s The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century exhibition, which opens today. Tapped by curators to recreate four of the most memorable creations from her extensive career, Alexander’s work now sits alongside heirlooms from the genre’s most influential artists. “It’s such an honor,” she shared on the phone from her Dallas home. “I’m grateful that I’ve been able to impact the culture and share my art in this way.”
How the Hairstylist Behind Lil’ Kim and Mary J. Blige’s Iconic ’90s Looks Changed Fashion Forever
Alexander’s interest in hair started early; the daughter of a cosmetologist, she watched her mother transform clients at her salons in Maryland. “It all came so naturally,” she says. “I would go into my mom’s salon and observe the hairdressers, who were all so glamorous. Being around so many creative women, I was drawn to the lifestyle.” Love of art was in Alexander’s DNA, but her career kickstarted after a fateful trip to Europe. Heading to France after high school graduation to model, Alexander and her best friend embraced the outré style of the era’s haute couture runways and the dynamic editorials she saw in the pages of Italian Vogue. “This was Paris in the 1980s, so everything was over the top,” she says. “I was artistic, but coming from Washington D.C., where it’s more conservative, [the trip] was an eye-opener. I started thinking; differently, I’d always done hair shows and had clients, but when I returned, I knew I wanted to work with celebrities.”
Alexander got a chance to prove herself on the set of the 1992 drama Fly by Night. Working with rap pioneer MC Lyte, she updated the star’s look with elegant new styles like the sleek bob in her “Ruffneck” music video. “A lot of people noticed the difference and were asking ‘who’s doing Lyte?’,” says Alexander. “Once they knew, the artists all started coming to me.” Rising to prominence during a moment when female artists were gaining increasing prominence within hip-hop, Alexander witnessed a shift in how musicians wanted to present themselves. “You have to remember this is the period where we went from New Jack Swing to R&B and hip hop, which was a huge change,” she says. “Women and their contributions were being recognized more, especially once Mary [J. Blige] came around.”
Creating looks for the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul allowed Alexander to expand her repertoire. Blige, with her streetwise self-assurance and blonde bombshell coifs, was an artist’s dream. “Mary with the swoop bang in the ‘I’m Not Gonna Cry’ video is one of my favorite looks of all time,” says Alexander. “We did so many videos together, but that was special.” Likewise, during Blige’s public appearances, they pushed the boundaries with towering updos and vivid colors. “Everyone wanted to be Mary’s hairdresser, but she and I just clicked,” she says. “We stuck together for a long time, which started things for me.” Alexander credits her tenure with Blige for opening doors, and it was on the set of 1997’s “I Can Love You Music Video” that she would meet the perfomer who would become her keenest collaborator and muse, Lil Kim.
Working alongside stylist Misa Hylton, makeup artist NZINGHA, and Kim, Alexander pushed the envelope. “The common goal is making the artist look incredible, and our creativity was just allowed to flow,” she says. “Kim and Misa would come up with outfit ideas when they were talking and just hanging out; then we would find ways to match the hair and makeup to the [overarching] concept.” That meant experimenting with a world of wigs and hair extensions in vibrant colors. Though she’d source from a variety of shops, Alexander didn’t rely on existing pieces. “The one thing I’d never do is just take the wig out and put it on someone,” she says. “I was always shampooing, styling, cutting, coloring, adding tracks, or taking them out. Everything was reconstructed in some way and customized for each appearance.”
In keeping with Lil Kim’s exuberant tastes, these daring customizations often incorporated designer logos, most notably on the Chanel double C wig she wore in the pages of Manhattan magazine in 2001. Though it featured one of the most recognizable luxury symbols, Alexander’s process for creating the piece was charmingly DIY. “I used a Sharpie and a stencil,” she says. “The wig was blonde, and I’d dyed it two colors, turquoise and a nice warm brown, then I created the stencil and just drew it out. This was 20 years ago, so wigs were not as prevalent or elaborate as they are now.” Still, the look remains relevant, so much so that Beyoncé recreated it on Instagram 2017 during a Halloween tribute.
Similarly striking was the Versace logo-covered piece Alexander created for Kim’s trip to the brand’s spring/summer 2001 show in Milan, which became the talk of the collections. “After the show, I got a phone call from another hairstylist who was there, and he said, ‘Girl, everyone is talking about that wig,” says Alexander. “Kim was so excited when she first saw it; she left me this voicemail that I kept for years saying how much she loved that wig. It was such a great moment because I didn’t expect that kind of reaction.”
Twenty years later and both looks have been immortalized in The Culture exhibit. Alexander took a trip down memory lane revisiting the styles and the techniques behind them. The biggest challenge of the undertaking? Sourcing old school materials in her adopted home of Dallas, Texas. “I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” says Alexander. “Now we have much greater access to human hair, but wigs like Kim’s 1999 MTV Video Music Awards were synthetic wigs that I stacked and styled. I started working on this back in December of last year, so constructing and gathering materials was an undertaking.”
The hard work paid off. The pieces that feature in the final exhibition have the same flair as the originals, allowing them to stand out in the museum setting. For Alexander, who has been largely absent from the entertainment world since stepping away from the spotlight to focus on her health while dealing with endometritis, the experience has been heartening. “I have to thank the creator,” she says. “This has been an honor, and I want the people who see the exhibition to be [as] inspired. We have so many tools now, but you must trust yourself and let things flow. Twenty years ago, when we were working on these looks, we didn’t know that they would become iconic, but what we did know was that we were having fun and letting our talents shine.”