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How do I look? John Sloan’s Women Drying Their Hair.

Hair We Are
By Pam Barrett-Fender

Hair: Untangling a Social History
Tang Teaching Museum, through June 6

Hair is personal. Literally, it is part of our person; the part that, because it’s not living tissue, we can most easily sculpt—or decidedly not—into a statement of character or personal expression. And we do. We subject it to all sorts of products, processes and treatments. We cut, curl, tease, bleach, dye, straighten, tweeze, shave, braid, bind, and otherwise manipulate it. We define it. And it defines us.

While hair serves all kinds of biological functions, from maintaining our brain temperature to attracting mates, it has also, through the ages, served to identify us socially. A person’s hair, on head and body, offers an indicator of personality, social status, gender, sexuality and politics. The personal, as they say, is political. And what exists primarily as a biological imperative, in the end, is fodder for social construct.

An exhibition currently on view at the Tang Teaching Museum tackles these notions head on. Curated by Penny Howell Jolly, Hair: Untangling a Social History addresses the significance of hair in the evolving cultures of Europe and America over the past several hundred years. Containing more than 150 pieces of art and material culture, Hair represents history’s major political and social movements through the signifying shifts in treatment of our most personal accessory.

This exhibition is an ambitious undertaking, to say the least. It covers a lot of ground, and requires a certain amount of commitment to really look at it. The accompanying wall text, which is excerpted from the hefty, text-dense catalog, offers cohesion to an otherwise potentially overwhelming collection of art and objects. It is an academic exhibit, but not inaccessible.

Upon entering the Malloy Wing Galleries, where the exhibition takes place, you are greeted by a display of what appears to be rudimentary torture devices, but turns out to be vintage early 20th-century hairstyling implements. The machines represent the earliest days of the hair salon as we know it. Until the late 19th century, women cared for each other’s hair in their homes, while men went to barbers to be shaved and shorn. It marks the beginning of a new level of complexity in women’s relationship to their hair. Looking at the machines, it seems that the notion of progress, in this arena, is questionable.

The complexity doesn’t begin or end there. The exhibition illustrates a historically schizophrenic relationship between society’s ideal and its fear, regarding women’s hair. There are two ideals, as the curator states in one of her essays, that “have had remarkable longevity in western society: it should be long and its color should be blonde.” Long hair was historically a given for women, and was conceptually associated with feminine beauty and fertility. The art Jolly displays in support of her assertion includes a 16th-century Verones painting depicting an unlikely blonde Rebecca at the Well, with a suggestion that the artist idealized his model by lightening her hair. She also includes various samples of visual culture, including ads for hair strengthener featuring models with floor-length hair, an array of implements and accessories for long hair, 20th-century ads for hair lightener and images of blonde-by-choice glamour queen Marilyn Monroe.

These “ideals” have long coexisted with the equally enduring notion that those very characteristics embody a woman’s dangerous nature, specifically, her powers of seduction. The curator cites supporting examples from literary and visual artists, including Milton, Shakespeare, Goethe, Durer, Beardsley and Munch. This notion of the dangerous woman has also consistently been projected onto redheads, whose hair color has symbolized shamelessness and uncontrolled lust. Vik Muniz provides a contemporary reference to the “femme fatale” stereotype in his Medusa Marinara, a playful take on a Caravaggio painting of the same myth, painted with spaghetti, and photographically reproduced on a dinner plate.

In the early 20th century, women began to present society with a whole new kind of danger, a freedom, and it was expressed in their new short hairstyles. Women bobbed their hair, freeing themselves from the burden of their long tresses and its required maintenance. It reflected a new notion of femininity, and a new threat. There was a societal fear that the gender line was becoming too blurry, and that fertility, symbolized by long hair, would fade. This symbol of emancipation is represented in the exhibit by two images of Mary Pickford, an actress known for her long ringlets, who used the style to reinvent herself when she appeared in the 1928 film Coquette with her newly bobbed hair.

Hair, in its various lengths, shapes and styles, has also served as symbol of male power, the ideal of which has ever shifted with the fickle agendas of society’s leaders, and with the necessities of health, economics and war. The exhibit follows these changes in fashion: from the Renaissance beard to the 18th-century powdered wigs, long hair with clean-shaven faces to the inevitable resurgence of facial hair’s popularity. Throughout history, the cultural undercurrent has acknowledged the presence of facial and body hair as a sign of male strength and virility. Whether shaven or allowed to grow, facial hair undeniably distinguishes men from women, and from boys. The Tang displays a whole host of visual and material references to this distinction, from straight and “safety” razors and ads for shaving foam, to products designed for the taming or dyeing of the beard. It also includes portraits of men with innumerable combinations of facial and head hair as well as various types of wigs.

The exhibition’s most notable examples of hair’s intimate nature are the 19th-century family hair wreaths and mourning jewelry. Fashioned from real human hair, these pieces were intricately crafted in honor of family members and loved ones. The wreaths served as family portraits, of a sort, their fabrication spanning decades, and including lockets from multiple generations of relatives. The mourning jewelry, which sometimes included miniature painted images of mourning figures and willow trees, represented an individual who had passed away, and were worn in remembrance by their beloved. They are testaments to the versatility and lasting durability of human hair, as well as the sentiment of their makers.

This exhibition goes on to untangle a good deal more social history, including that related to body hair, male baldness, the identity and politics of African-American hair and the ’70s naturalism. It refers very little to the current trends in hair identity. Perhaps that is because the significance of hair as a political statement, or a social badge seems somewhat diffused in contemporary culture. Some meanings are softened, some are turned around completely and some lost all together. It does offer a relatively diverse material history of a broad range of cultural issues. It poses the question: Is it possible, within the current social context, to make a strong statement through a hairstyle? Hmmm.

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