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Spring 2004

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Hair there and everywhere
by Barbara A. Melville

top, l. to r. (details): Portrait of the Count d’Angoulême, attrib. to Corneille de Lyon, c. 1560, Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, N.Y.; Lady with Giraffe-Inspired Hair Style, anon., c. 1830, collection of Alfred L. Chatelaine and Nancy L. Rudick; Head of a Black Man, by Wheeler Williams, 1924, courtesy of James Graham & Sons, New York. bottom (detail): Sunday, Women Drying their Hair, by John Sloane, 1912, courtesy of Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass.

Look up “hair” in a dictionary and you’ll find something like “slender threadlike outgrowthof the epidermis of an animal.” But for humans hair is also a visual shorthand, instantly readby others, that indicates who and what we are.

An exhibition called Hair: Untangling a Social History, on view at the Tang Museum through June 6, illustrates just how complex a cultural symbol hair has been in western society from the Renaissance to the present day.

“We—like our ancestors before us—manipulate our hair to tell the world who we are, or at least who we want to be,” explains art historian Penny Jolly, the exhibition’s curator and Skidmore’s Kenan Professor of Liberal Arts. Social circumstances, she adds, determine the styling and appearance of our hair, a remarkably versatile fiber. She says, “We wash it and dry it, bleach it and dye it. We shave and transplant it, we buy conditioners, wigs and switches, razors, curling irons…” She adds, “Growth of body hair tells us we are mature, and its loss signals our decline.” The array of hairstyles and treatments over the past four centuries, Jolly suggests, neatly indexes our changing attitudes toward sex, social status, power, and faith.

To illustrate the point, Jolly and the Tang staff assembled nearly 150 artworks and artifacts in a visual smorgasbord that blends history, sociology, anthropology, and art. The resulting exhibition merrily juxtaposes a wide range of art with objects of material culture—like Victorian hair wreaths, antique curling irons and razor strops, and one of those multipart Burma Shave road signs: “this cream”…“is like”…“a parachute”…“there isn’t”…“any substitute.”

One of the oldest works, circa 1560, is a six-by-eight-inch oil portrait of the Count d’Angoulême, whose close-cropped hair and wispy goatee make him look startlingly contemporary. A satirical eighteenth-century etching shows a hunter taking aim at a flock of birds flying in to roost in a lady’s towering wig. There are lushly romantic images like the nineteenth-century painting of Venus Lamenting Adonis, in which the goddess’s lustrous tresses float around her like a thick dark cloud, and contemporary works like Carrie Mae Weems’s photograph with text in which a black woman asks her mirror “Who is fairest of them all?” and is told “Snow White…and don’t you forget it!” There is also Bozo the Clown’s frizzy red wig from the Smithsonian, and an album of Hair of Famous Writers, in which daguerreotypes of John Keats, Robert Browning, and others are mounted above locks of their hair, which have long outlived their illustrious heads.

The exhibition took root from simple curiosity, says Jolly. “Among the artworks of a certain period, art historians look for the anomaly, the odd thing, and ask, ‘What does this mean? What’s going on?’” Years ago she noticed that “in Italian Renaissance art, females were presented with no body hair at all but males were shown with pubic hair.” In Northern Renaissance art, however, artists painted pubic hair on females and underarm hair on men. “I go to a lot of museums and keep notebooks,” explains Jolly, “so I kept adding to the list, where hair appeared and in what context, just to see how it would shape into a thesis.” The more she researched, the more clearly hair—including head and facial hair—appeared to particularize the self in society.

“Shifts in hairstyle typically reflect major political and social movements,” Jolly says. The Count d’Angoulême’s short ’do, for instance, was de rigueur at the French court; the king made it so when he himself was shorn after suffering a head injury. In a nearby 1633 portrait, a clean-shaven British lord sports the shoulder-length curls—and longer lovelock—that came to signal Cavalier sentiments. In the “back-to-nature” 1960s and ’70s, hippies grew long hair and beards and black Americans abandoned hot combs and straighteners for Afros.

Hair styling also reinforces class and political differences, says Jolly. In eighteenth-century France, the elaborate powdered wigs worn by aristocrats gave rise to the term “bigwig,” while the shaved scalps of today’s skinheads signal their neo-Fascist politics.

Before the Tang opened in 2000, Jolly’s findings might have taken the form of a scholarly article or book. But since then, faculty research has inspired Tang exhibitions on mapping, American Indians, the death penalty, and other subjects. In Jolly’s case, her background gave her the chops to curate an exhibition on her own. She shopped collections from the Historical Society of Saratoga Springs to the Smithsonian Institution and museums as far afield as Texas and California; she was delighted to find a rare 1925-vintage Vibra Shaver electric razor in the collection of a local hairdresser.

In mounting the widely diverse works, Jolly and Tang curator Ian Berry organized them by themes such as male and female hairstyles, vanity, and African-American hair. Body hair makes for a particularly striking display, starting with a perfect example of the white-marble academic nude admired since the Renaissance, says Jolly, for its “ideally smoothed flesh, creating no hint of imperfection—or hair.” Then there’s a colorful and shocking Edward Kienholz assemblage from 1963 called Bunny, Bunny, You’re So Funny. Censored in its day, it’s a horizontal female torso that flaunts a steel-wool pubic bush. Birgit Dieker’s naked, life-sized, blue-eyed Beasty Girl stands nearby with hands on hips—and body entirely covered with soft, dark, real hair. A wall text quotes John Bulwer’s 1654 pronouncement that “Woman is by Nature smoothe and delicate; and if she have many haires she is a monster.”


Throughout the exhibition, Jolly’s brightly written wall texts and labels provide both historical context and memorably quirky details. We learn that red hair traditionally represents both clowns (Red Skelton, Lucille Ball) and villains (Cain, Judas), that blonde hair connotes infantilism, and that the CIA once tried to poison Fidel Castro in hopes that his beard, a powerful symbol of machismo, would fall out. The label for a 1952 Halsman portrait of Marilyn Monroe reveals that “Monroe’s face was covered with unusually rich silvery down—lanugo hair.…By manipulating lighting, makeup, and wardrobe, she enhanced its luminous effect.”

Of all things hair signifies, the twining of love and death may be the most poignant. “I love this part of the show,” Jolly sighs, near the display of nineteenth-century mourning jewelry. “You could buy this jewelry ready-made, braid the hair of your loved one, and inset it yourself, or you could have a jeweler do it.” Two large brooches featuring weeping willow trees and sorrowing ladies were, she says, “actually painted in hair that had been dissolved in the paint medium.” Similarly affecting are two dark locks of a young George Washington’s hair displayed near the iconic Gilbert Stuart portrait of the more familiar white-haired Washington. The dark, shiny ringlets are, as the label notes, “surprisingly powerful…like a bone displayed in a medieval reliquary for meditation.”

Lively and loaded, the disparate images speak to each other across the room and across centuries, sometimes strangely, always provocatively: A pastel Breck girl; the huge beehive on a barbershop patron in Kerry James Marshall’s 1993 painting De Style; the Robert Capa photograph of a Nazi collaborator, her head shorn bald, carrying her child through a jeering crowd. Happily, the exhibition neither limits nor answers all the questions it raises. This is social history. We get to untangle it for ourselves.

Barbara Melville admits to spending more time grooming her horse’s mane than her own.

Homo hirsutus

The Hair exhibition catalog is as witty and erudite as the show itself, featuring essays by Skidmore faculty in several fields. Below is an excerpt from “Homo Hirsutus: The Evolution of Human Hair Growth Pattern,” by Gerald Erchak (anthropology):

Indeed humans were once upon a time hairy beasts, or at least our ancestors were. Now, with some exceptions—like Alec Baldwin, Robin Williams, and Frida Kahlo—we are smooth.

[Jonathan] Kingdon notes that “it is uncertain when and why people became ‘naked’ but selectively ‘tufted’ on top of the head, over the brows, in the groin, and under the arms.” One theory argues that body hair is related to sex differences and to sexuality. Remember we are speaking of a prehistoric world in which everyone is nude all the time. The appearance of body hair on the developing child is a visible sign to the community that the individual is ready for sex and reproduction. The greater hairiness of the male, or the greater hairlessness of the female, also evolved to intensify and clarify—and announce to the community—that the individual is indeed a man or a woman.

In addition to being a sign of sexual maturity and sex difference, body hair is patterned as it is in order to concentrate and diffuse body odors, specifically pheromones, into the air more readily. Apocrine glands are the major source of human odor, and the location of these glands coincides with the main areas where hair is retained: on the chest, under the arms, around the navel, around the genitals, and around the anus. And scent may play an important role in sexual stimulation. Despite our diligent efforts to eliminate and conceal these odors, they may still be part of the silent language of sex.


© 2004 Skidmore College