Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Trimmed, Tousled. Perfectly Styled, Tang Untangles Hair’s History

by Thomas Dimopoulos

Ian Berry was standing in a small private room at the Tang Museum filled with Victorian hair wreaths and 16th century oil paintings, vintage shaving kits, old curling irons and wonderfully obsolete hair dryers.
Moving through the room, Berry motions to a table displaying small clear bags filled with swatches of hair from the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his author-wife Mary. They are dated Dec. 3, 1820.

‘This looks very Frankenstein-ish,’ jokes the museum’s curator pointing to the swirly mesh of hair that came from Mary Shelley. Sifting through the bags of tresses, Berry comes upon the one particular display he was looking for. ‘And this,’ he says, holding up a swatch of historic locks, ‘This belonged to George Washington.’

The Tang Museum at Skidmore College is putting the finishing touches on its upcoming exhibition, ‘Hair: Untangling a Social History,’ its curator, Penny Jolly, is also a professor of art history at Skidmore.

‘We manipulate hair to tell the world who we are,’ Jolly says. ‘We wash it and dry it, bleach it and dye it,’ she says of the woven threads that range from the subtle to the complex. ‘We shave and transplant it; we buy conditioners, wigs and switches, frosting kits, blow dryers, razors, curling irons, powders and sprays.’

More than 100 works will be on view, including paintings, prints, photographs and vintage products. The purpose is to explore the meaning of facial, head and body hair in western society, from the Renaissance to the present.
More than simple fashion, social and cultural mores have been identified by hair styles and the era in which they were worn - from the powdered wigs of the 18th century French bourgeoisie to the bearded followers of Fidel Castro, whose appearance was in deliberate contrast to the defeated, clean-shaven Cuban army.
The cutting and keeping of a lock of hair was common practice during the time of George Washington, especially of friends and relatives in their final days. The clipped hair would serve as a memento of the departed. There were also decorative uses of the finely threaded hair jewelry painstakingly woven with intricate detail into 19th century hair wreaths.

The displays at the Tang have come from museums around the country and include a number of contemporary artists alongside vintage works. The earliest piece is a 6-inch by 8-inch oil portrait from the mid-16th century of a young Count d’Angouleme depicted in his wispy goatee and high Elizabethan collar.
Another striking portrait displays an 18th century woman with a rising crest above her skull in the shape of a big bow, inspiring visions of early Patti LaBelle.
‘That one,’ Berry laughs, ‘is called Lady with Giraffe inspired hair style.’

A trio of wigs was brought in for the exhibition from the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. They belonged to the late Latin music icon Celia Cruz, Harpo Marx and the white-top with orange wings on either side that belonged to Bozo the Clown.
‘That is the one and only - the real thing,’ says Berry.

The Saratogian, Jan. 23, 2004


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