Hair It Is

As COVID-19 shuttered businesses, including hair salons and barbershops, and stay-at-home orders had so many of us working remotely, spending hours on Zoom meetings, our hair became a major focus of attention. Of course, this was really nothing new, as we have long had a complicated relationship with hair, which is rarely left in its natural state. We spend large amounts of money and time grooming it—brushing and combing, cutting and dying, curling or straightening, shaving or covering, braiding and arranging, even enhancing with extensions, hairpieces, and wigs. Our hair, whether styled or “natural,” is both an expression and a projection of our identity.

This year’s New York Antiquarian Book Fair provided curators with the opportunity to acquire Ouvrages en cheveux idéal (1878), a French hair artist’s manuscript album and catalogue.

The hair artist/author Henri Delaplace offers a variety of designs for tokens and memorials made from human hair, which are “Prix Divers: Suivant la grandeur,” that is, priced according to how fancy and hence how involved they were to create.

While some were quite small, others were large and required a great deal of hair to complete the piece. These two designs were clearly intended as gifts for a mother (A ma Mère) and a spouse (A mon Epouse). What the year “1868” represents is unclear–it could be the year it was given, the year the child was born, or have some other meaning now lost to us.

Delaplace completes his album with an illustrated history of hairdressing, suggesting he was both a hairdresser and a hair artist. In addition to the illustrations, many of which contain commentary, sometimes extensive, directly next to the drawings, there are five pages of text constituting a general history written at the end of the volume. This includes a section, “Mélange des Couleurs,” on hair color and hair coloring, that is, what tints are appropriate to apply to what types of hair.

The hairstyles in this history include Delaplace’s renderings of various ethnic or cultural examples (Native American, Chinese, and Turkish), historical French styles, and regional headwear for women.

It also includes some spectacular eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women’s styles.

A popular folk art of the 18th and 19th centuries, hair art was a sentimental expression of love and grief. Human hair from both the living and the recently deceased was used to form flower bouquets, braided jewelry chains, weeping willows, and painted scenes of mourning.

This “Sketch for Human Hair Work,” with the hand reaching upwards, is a disquieting image.

Sometimes incorporating photographs, these were cherished tokens to preserve the memory of a deceased loved one, to chart a vibrant family tree of the living, or to exchange as friendship keepsakes.

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