The Victorians were renowned for keeping locks of hair of lovers, relatives and the departed, sometimes lovingly stuck into albums or incorporated into jewellery. By wearing someone’s hair close to skin, intimacy could be maintained.
Collaborating with my local hairdresser, Hacketts, I’ve collected hair from over 30 people along with comments about their feelings towards their hair. The exhibition also contains the long auburn hair of a mother and daughter, one in the form of a bunch cut in the 1940s against her father’s will, the other in the form of a plait cut off in the 1970s – both lovingly kept wrapped up in scarves.
For some people the act of offering hair clippings triggered memories of their love-hate relationship with their hair, such as the journalist Isabel Berwick’s struggles with her curly hair.
Hair is not something people like to throw away. To chuck out a hair clipping from a mother, grandchild or baby feels like an act of violation. Personal identity seems to linger on in hair even after it has been removed from the head. It is no surprise then that in many cultures hair has been used in magic, the idea being that person can be harmed through manipulating something that was once a part of them.
A LIFE OF ITS OWN
And yet every day our hair leaves us. On average we shed between 50 to 100 hairs a day. This means that the more hairy among us shed over 30,000 hairs a year. In most of Europe fallen hairs are ignored unless a person is suffering from alopecia or some other form of hair loss and, even then, we are more likely to pay attention to its absence from the head than to where the hair once detached ends up.
But this is not the case in many parts of Asia, where long-haired women carefully collect up hairs that fall out during brushing or washing because such “combings” have a market value. In India, 100 grams of dusty hair balls sell for 100 rupees (about £1). In many Asian countries hair peddlers travel on foot, by bicycle or boat, door-to-door collectors of waste hair, which they sell to traders who export it to hair untangling workshops, situated in some of the poorest regions.
In the exhibition we see pictures of women and teenagers painstakingly untangling, sorting, de-licing and combing the hair for upcycling into products such as wigs. Combings are just one strand of the hair market: hair also comes from women who sell it directly into the trade, or through donations made for religious or charitable reasons. Once gathered into perfect bunches it is sent to hair factories in China and used for making the cheaper range of wigs and hair extensions for the world market.
WATCH | Hair India trailer (A documentary about the journey of a young Indian woman's hair, donated to the Temple to be then converted into hair extensions)