do I look? John Sloans Women Drying Their Hair.
Untangling a Social History
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
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.