Dita von Teese's tweet on 5 May 2009 stated that she was "At home tonight making new Swarovski crystal panties and a merkin, listening to The Presets. Crystal merkins are my new thing." It began a sort of renaissance for the merkin. But what is a merkin?

Their existence can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians who, in an attempt to mimic Cleopatra’s famously long pubic locks, would glue on merkins from their hair, which they were required to shave to prevent lice.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as an artificial covering of hair for the female pubic region; a pubic wig for women. Also: an artificial vagina. Although often now associated with porn, merkins have a darker history. Their existence can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians who, in an attempt to mimic Cleopatra's famously long pubic locks, would glue on merkins from their hair, which they were required to shave to prevent lice.

Merkins gave these women a way to cover the signs of sexually transmitted diseases and their preventative treatment for crabs, to attract their clients.

Long pubic hair was seen as an imitative sign of wealth and status. In the centuries to come, pubic hair would carry similar significance with those most likely to be affected by lice required to shave the necessary areas. This was particularly detrimental for those forced to make a living in prostitution; merkins gave these women a way to cover the signs of sexually transmitted diseases and their preventative treatment for crabs, to attract their clients. Merkins could even be stuffed and shaped into false vaginas. With increased cleanliness and easier treatment of lice though, pubic wigs started to lose their popularity and former necessity.

If you think you have never seen a merkin, or if you are just curious to see whether you can recognise one, look no further than Kate Winslet in The Reader or Anne Hathaway in Love and other Drugs. Then there’s Heidi Klum’s specially made, red, heart-shaped pubic wig in Blow Dry.

That is until the 1960s arrived and in came the porn film industry – merkins were back. Although their use was no longer an advertisement for lice-free intercourse, they still offered a form of disguise. Merkins provided actors with an – albeit small – amount of privacy, and are still used today for nudity scenes where historical accuracy is necessary or actors do not want to commit their real genitals to the big screen.

If you think you have never seen a merkin, or if you are just curious to see whether you can recognise one, look no further than Kate Winslet in The Reader or Anne Hathaway in Love and other Drugs. Then there's Heidi Klum's specially made, red, heart-shaped pubic wig in Blow Dry. Merkins are actually more common on our screens than we think, and with American Apparel's Valentine's Day merkin-clad mannequins in their New York store last year, maybe we should start experimenting more with our public hair? Union Jack dye job, anyone?

Words: Raphaela Ring

Photography: W magazine, March 2000 by Philip-Lorca diCorcia