Mar 31, 2018

Banned Hair: The Case of Dreadlocks / Dredlocs

“Bob Marley is the person who taught me to trust the universe enough to respect my hair.” ~ Alice Walker

In 2016 the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it was not discriminatory to make hiring and firing decisions based on whether someone has dreadlocks.

The suit, brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Catastrophe Management Solutions, argued that dreadlocks are a “racial characteristic” and that using them to deny the hiring of someone is inherently discriminatory and a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s Title VII.

The court of appeals ruled that hair is not an “immutable physical characteristic,” that a person’s appearance is, in this respect, changeable and therefore not protected. I suppose this is true, seeing as today all sorts of folks can don a head of locs regardless of race or ethnicity.

Image of a Sadhu in Varanasi, India, 2009. Via Wikimedia by Pierre-Emmanuel BOITON

Matted hair is a feature of Hindu sadhus and also familiarly associated with Rastafari, who adopted the style in the 1950s as an authentic expression of their faith and to reinforce their non-conformist ideology.1. For the Rastafari, dredslocs were potent symbol of both one’s spiritual commitment and cultural resistance.2.

Angela Davis. Photo by Andrew Stawicki, 1988, Toronto Star Archives

During the 1980s a number of prominent African Americans (such as Basquiat, Tracy Chapman, Angela Davis, Whoopi Goldberg, and Alice Walker) brought attention to the style, contributing to its adoption by the mainstream. There was pushback at the time to this “Americanization of dredlocs,” notably in a 1991 Essence editorial entitled “The Dreaded Decision” by Naadu Balnkson.  Did the fashionability of dreds come at the expense of their religious and cultural significance? Criticism was leveled at black Americans for secularizing a religious practice, and at those outside the African American community for cultural appropriation.3. 

This 2016 court decision shows that regardless of whether dredlocs are considered ‘mainstream’ or not, they continue to be used as an excuse to discriminate, harass, intimidate, and oppress.

L: François Fleischbein, Portrait of Betsy (his housekeeper, a free woman of color), 1837. The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1985.212 /  M: Source /
R: Jacques Guillaume Lucien Amans, Creole in a Red Headdress, circa 1840. The Historic New Orleans Collection, 2010.0306

Afro hair has historically been demeaned -- an affront to white American culture. Laws against the public expression of natural, Afro hairstyles go back at least as far as the late 1700s in New Orleans, when women of African and multiracial heritage were banned from wearing their natural hair in public by Tignon laws.4. These sumptuary laws required Creole women to wear a headcovering (a tignon) and were implemented to curtail the growing influence of the free black population.5.

In The Hair Dilemma, an academic paper published by the Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy in 2007, the authors draw attention to other litigation around Afro hairstyles including McManus v. MCI Communications Corp. (2000), in which McManus, a Black woman, argued that she was fired for wearing her hair in braids and dreadlocks; Hollins v. Atlantis Co. (1999), in which the plaintiff who came to work with her hair in “finger waves” claimed that her employer’s policy prohibiting “eye catching” hairstyles was discriminatory; and Rogers v. American Airlines, Inc. (1981), where a Black woman was fired for wearing her hair in braids. “These cases demonstrate how “ethnic” hairstyles are not welcome in the corporate world.’
In 2013 seven-year-old Tiana Parker was sent home for coming to her Tulsa, Oklahoma school with dredlocs. The school claimed it went against their dress code, which stated, “hairstyles such as dreadlocks, afros, mohawks, and other faddish styles are unacceptable.”

And in Tennessee, you must have a license (acquired at great time and cost) to braid hair or face stiff fines, as reported just this week at Author Minh-Ha T. Pham notes, “White designers like Marc Jacobs put fake dreadlocks on white models and make tons of money - all without permission - but Black women doing Black people's hair are being heavily fined for not having a license.”

Such legislation and work/school policies shame and degrade women for their hair. This institutional racism can lead to internalized racism, whereby women are made to feel their Afro hair is unkempt or unattractive. In order to conform to Western hair ideals and white standards of beauty, these women endure chemical straighteners or expensive weaves or extensions.

However, social awareness can change policy. Tiana’s school reversed their policy shortly after the student transferred. And interestingly, while the Army has long outlawed dredlocs (Army Regulation 670–1, 2014 policy stating: Any style of dreadlock (against the scalp or free-hanging) is not authorized. Braids or cornrows that are unkempt or matted are considered dreadlocks and are not authorized), a 2017 Army directive countered that prohibition with the following language:
Female soldiers may wear dreadlocks/locks in accordance with the guidance in paragraph 3-2a(3)(f) for braids, cornrows, and twists.

One Army Captain noted, via a New York Times article, “It caused a lot of unnecessary stress. It was an exhausting 14 years.”
Even when she worked to stay within the regulations, there was constant scrutiny by higher-ups, she said, adding that black women felt as if they were “walking targets” because the regulations were subject to interpretation.

But, without a doubt, written and unwritten rules about “grooming” and “dress codes” serve as means to discriminate and devalue Blackness. These rules have allowed schools, corporations, and even the United States military to distort social norms and limit the beauty of Blackness by condemning hairstyles such as cornrows, braids, twists, and dreadlocks.

Hair “not only symbolizes the self but, in a very real sense, it is the self since it grows from and is part of the physical human body.”6.

1. Barry Chevannes in Rastafari and Other African-Caribbean Worldviews, Rutgers University Press, 1997, p77 and p82)
In the late 1940s a Rastafari group called the Youth Black Faith believed leaving hair uncombed was the truer reading of the scriptures. (The Nazarite Vow in the book of Numbers states: “'All the days of his vow of separation no razor shall pass over his head. He shall be holy until the days are fulfilled for which he separated himself to the LORD; he shall let the locks of hair on his head grow long.”
Chevannes asserts that Rastafari embraced dredlocs to maintain associations with the unkempt and outcast and in opposition to White and mainstream Jamaican cultural identity. Another historical interpretation is that dredlocs were adopted by Rastafari “out of admiration and reverence for the fearless resistance of the Kikuyu soldiers of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya.” (see Hair Story page 121)

2. I use the spelling dredlocs over dreadlocks, in deference to those who ascribe the word’s derivation as being from the description of arriving slaves as “dreadful.” However, Chevannes explains that dreadlocks comes from The Dreadfuls (or the Warriors), named for those more aesthetic and disciplined. “The term Dreadful and Warrior reflected the manner in which the ascetics behaved: constantly ‘at war’ with the neglectful, in whom they inspired dread.” p84

3. Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps, Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014, page 123.

4. The word tignon, pronounced tiyon, was a regional term in New Orleans for headscarf. It derived from the French word chignon which, in the late 18th century, referred to a hairstyle where the hair was pulled back in twists or knots.

5. The tignon laws were intended to “force the free women of color to symbolically reestablish their ties to slavery by wearing the kerchief, the garment traditionally worn by slave women to signify their status as workers. (Plaçage and the Louisiana Gens de Couleur Libre: How Race and Sex Defined the Lifestyles of Free Women of Color” by Joan M. Martin in Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana's Free People of Color edited by Sybil Kein, p. 62.)

6. Anthony Synnott, ‘Shame and Glory: A Sociology of Hair,’ British Journal of Sociology, 38 (3), p404.

Apr 9, 2017

The Art of the Wig

“An undescript head of hair is the most difficult thing to accomplish.” 

Raffaele Mollica has been making wigs since the 1970s. The New York Times stepped into his studio, where he weaves "the hair one strand at a time" to create pieces that sell for thousands of dollars. “It’s tremendous labor and all that labor is art.”

In their accompanying piece about wig-making in New York City, The New York Times tells us about other artistes, such as Nicholas Piazza. It is the story of a fascinating but dying world – one that I have wondered about for some time because I have walk past the numerous, cubbyhole shops selling human hair in midtown for years.

Wigs at Nicholas Piazza’s studio in Manhattan. CreditDemetrius Freeman for The New York Times

It's great to see the writer included the deeper, political story of hair by referencing the work of Emma Tarlso and the FTC's brief regulatory guidelines (1970-1995) on labeling hair.

Jan 11, 2017

Fleas in My Hair

WWII U.S. Army Corp Nurses Washing Their Hair, 1945.
from the collection of U.S. Army nurse Joy Lillie at Grand Rapids.Historical Commission
"Joy went for 30 days without taking a bath when she first arrived."

"I do not mind not washing for a week or more, but I do hate getting fleas in my hair." 

Clare Hollingworth,
the war correspondent who broke the news of the outbreak of World War II, in her memoir.
Ms. Hollingworth died at 105 on Tuesday, January 10, 2017.

Jul 17, 2016

Hair by Sam McKnight

There is another exhibition on hair coming. (I failed to write up the one in Utrecht earlier this year, but will one of these days....) This one, Hair by Sam McKnight, will feature fashion photographs!

The exhibition will be on view at the Somerset House in London from 2 November 2016 – 12 March  2017. Here's the press release. Of course, I question the claim I've formatted in boldface below. I predict a bunch of fashion photos on the wall with some brief didactic text introducing the exhibition. Call me cynical.

This autumn, Somerset House is proud to present Hair by Sam McKnight, a major exhibition celebrating the master hairstylist’s remarkable 40 year career, from the late 1970s to the current day. An integral part of the fashion industry, Sam has been instrumental in helping to develop the images of Kate Moss, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell and Princess Diana among many others. He is one of the first session stylists to have carved out a career solely within fashion, having worked on hundreds of fashion editorial shoots, advertising campaigns and catwalk shows. He has shot over 100 covers for British Vogue alone, as well as numerous other magazines and worked with most international fashion designers from Chanel to Vivienne Westwood.

The exhibition will unveil the little-known creative process behind the craft of hair styling within fashion and explore the relationships between McKnight and key, long-term collaborators; photographers such as Nick Knight and Patrick Demarchelier, models including Kate Moss, Stella Tennant and Christy Turlington, stylist Lucinda Chambers, and designer Karl Lagerfeld.

This will be the first exhibition of its kind, looking at hair from a new perspective and contextualising its wider cultural significance and the role of the session stylist within fashion. It will include some of the most iconic images in popular culture and some of fashion’s most memorable looks, from Princess Diana’s short, slicked back style to Madonna’s Bedtime Stories, and Tilda Swinton channelling David Bowie, tracing different movements and hairstyles, from nostalgic to androgynous, romantic to sexy, red to platinum, cataloguing the transformative nature of hair within the image.

Exhibiting pieces from Sam’s extensive archive, gathered over his 40 year career, the exhibition will feature photography, magazines, catwalk and behind-the-scenes footage, private photographs and full outfit looks as well as commissioned wigs and hairpieces. Grouped into thematic sections, the exhibition will explore process, relationships and collaboration, movement, transformation, the shoot and the catwalk. Throughout the exhibition a visual timeline will trace not only Sam’s career from the late 1970s to today, but also track changing styles through time; exploring the relationship between fashion shoots and the street in influencing contemporary hair styling.

To be published at the same time as the exhibition, there will be a book by the same name, Hair by Sam McKnight with texts by Tim Blanks, Alexander Fury, Amanda Harlech, Nick Knight, Camilla Morton, Anna-Marie Solowij, Jerry Stafford and commentary by Sam McKnight featuring images spanning his entire career. Richly illustrated, it features photographs by leading fashion photographers and styles commissioned by Vivienne Westwood, Balmain, Chanel, and many others.  A unique reference book that offers a glamorous tour through the past forty years and a style bible for glorious looks, the book is published by Rizzoli and priced at £35.00.

The exhibition is curated by Shonagh Marshall and exhibition design is by Michael Howells.

Jul 2, 2016

Cutting Hair

Photographer Wallace Kirkland - "Cutting hair" - 1947. Public domain image.

Every summer from 1912 until 1963, children from the steamy and congested streets of Chicago's Near West Side ran and played amidst the wildflowers and trees at the Joseph T. Bowen Country Club. Located on 72 acres of forest, field, and ravine near Waukegan, Illinois, the Bowen Country Club was the summer camp of the world famous Hull-House social settlement house. Financed by philanthropist and social activist Louise deKoven Bowen, the camp sought to provide a sojourn in the country as a necessary antidote to the stresses of city life. Prominent Chicagoans donated funds to build sleeping cottages and children and mothers were invited to the camp for two-week rotations. Days were packed with activities such as swimming in the camp's circular pool, team and individual sports contests, classes in folk or rhythmic dance, games, parties, and art lessons. After a hearty meal in the Commons dining room, a campfire and sing-a-long often ended the day.

~ Via University of Illinois at Chicago Library

Jul 1, 2016

David Hammons

While some of the best known works by artist David Hammons are ephemeral performances (like Pissed Off 1981 or his Body Prints made by rolling his greased body on paper), Hammons spent a great deal of his career making art from found materials, including hair.

Hammons was one of a number of African-American artists creating assemblages in Los Angeles in the 1960s and '70s. (Others of note included Betye Saar and John Outterbridge.) Primarily using found materials, such as discarded chicken bones or barber shop hair clippings, Hammons's work rejected the 'clean' aesthetic of American Minimalism and embraced an aesthetics of refuse.

Untitled - 1992 - human hair, wire, metallic mylar, sledge hammer,
plastic beads, string, metal food tin, panty hose, leather, tea bags, and feathers
- Whitney Museum of Art, 92.128a-u
"The artist has often been characterised as a sophisticated junk dealer who breathes new life into paper bags, bottle caps, frizzy hair, snowballs, rocks, broken appliances, old clothes, rugs, grease and half-eaten ribs." 1.
The detritus Hammons collects is specifically selected "to evoke aspects, attitudes and sensibilities of black American culture.” 2.  His spider-like sculpture, Untitled 1992, consists of African-American hair wrapped around wires, that emulate the look of dreadlocks. There is no actual body represented, only a reference to the body, created by amassing discarded, kinky hairs. Artists that utilize human hair in their work evoke, consciously or unconsciously, the uncanny by re-contextualizing something with which we are so intimately familiar.
Pieces of hair inevitably fall beneath and around the work, evoking natural processes of change and decay. Like much of Hammons’s art, Untitled summons an uncanny sensation of the strangeness that often lies just below the surface of the familiar. 3.
Hammons frequently uses the visual trope of hair as a marker of African American racial identity. This is evident in his rock heads, works that combine a head-sized stone with hair collected from the floors of black barbershops and affixed to the stone in a manner resembling a head of hair. Art historian Blake Gopnik notes that "in its obvious echoes of Brancusi’s smooth forms, it takes modernism’s Africa fetish and reclaims it for black America." 4.

 Untitled (Rock Head) - 1998 - stone, hair, and shoe polish container
- from the collection of the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris

Much of Hammons's work circles around representation, addressing a "politics of visibility, of who and what can be seen and explained." According to artist Lorraine O’Grady, “Hammons tries to make art in which white people can’t see themselves.” 5.  
Old dirty bags, grease, bones, hair … it’s about us, it’s about me. It isn’t negative. We should look at these images and see how positive they are, how strong, how powerful. Our hair is positive, it’s powerful, look what it can do. There’s nothing negative about our images, it all depends on who is seeing it and we’ve been depending on someone else’s sight … We need to look again and decide. ~ David Hammons, 1977 6.
 Rock Head - 2000 - stone, hair, metal stand - RISD Museum, 2001.31.1

If the hair on his rock heads clearly addresses racial identity, using hair on these balanced monoliths also nods to something more universal the delicate dance of that which decays (the ephemeral) with that which appears to live on forever (the eternal).

While Hammons predominately employs hair for its symbolic, rather than personal, value using African American hair from anonymous sources in one of his earlier artworks, Flight Fantasy 1978, he used his own hair to offer a "critique of the dislocation of the black body in American society." 7. 

Flight Fantasy - 1978 - phonograph record fragments, hair, clay, plaster, feathers, bamboo, colored string.  Walker Art Center, 1995.24

Hammons's work often offers sight-gags visual one-liners that riff off dominant cultural signifiers. "He's distorting all of these stereotypes to produce something which is a critique of the way this community has been seen." 8.  One of his most powerful works in this vein is Hair Relaxer, a visual pun that plays with ideas of power, privilege, art history, sex, and ideals of beauty. 

In Hair Relaxer, African American hair rests-reclines-relaxes on a recamier an item of furniture associated with western European luxury, and by extension privilege and power. 9.  It's an ironic statement since the black struggle against oppression and injustice can never rest. Hair Relaxer addresses many contested positions for African Americans in art history, culture, and society.

 Hair Relaxer, 1998 - chaise-longue and human hair.

This item of furniture also recalls a specific painting by Jacques-Louis Davida painting of Juliette Récamier who was considered one of the great beauties of her day. The painting, from 1800 depicts Juliette reclining on a divan and epitomized an ideal of feminine elegance. It inspired painters and poets, and came to be riffed-on by artists, such as Magritte and Manet, in particular. 10.  In ironic homage, Manet's Olympia 1863 was famously provocative for the sexually aggressive gaze of its reclining odalisque, despite how she hid her public hair with her hands (addressed in an earlier blog post). Hammons joins the art-historical-parody party, arranging curly hairs in the seam of the recamier down its crack, so-to-speak—playing with the cultural inappropriateness of publicly visible pubic hair.

But Hair Relaxer is far more than part part of an art-historical running joke about beauty ideals. African Americans have long endured exorbitant pain trying to accommodate Caucasian standards of beauty. Hair straightening treatments (relaxers) use toxic lye and cause great pain and suffering.
I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair. I had joined the multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are “inferior” — and white people “superior” — that they will violate and mutilate their God-given bodies to try and look “pretty” by white standards. ~ Malcolm X 11.
Like most of David Hammons's artworks, Hair Relaxer works on many parallel tracks to address a shared black experience and situate it against and within both black and white cultures. Hammons "works off familiar, highly charged iconography ... and his puns conjure up some of the more contradictory and even painful aspects of contemporary black life." 12.

In a 1986 interview, the art historian Kellie Jones asked David Hammons why he makes art. Because, Mr. Hammons offered, art is about symbols and “outrageously magical things happen when you mess around with a symbol.” 13.  Hair, which is imbued with magical properties from cultures throughout time and place, is a significant medium for Hammons and serves as a versatile fiber for art-making.

For further reading about David Hammons, I invite you to explore the Mnuchin Gallery website, where the recent exhibition, Five Decades (March 15 - May 27, 2016) generated many articles about the artist and his body of work.

1. Coco Fusco, “Wreaking Havoc on the Signified”, Frieze online, May 7, 1995.
2. ibid.

3. Collections record from the Whitney Museum of Art.
4. Blake Gopnik on Art, Tumbr, Jun 5, 2014.
5. From Andrew Russeth, “Looking at Seeing: David Hammons and the Politics of Visibility”, ARTnews, February 17, 2015.
6. From the label text from the exhibition Art in Our Time: 1950 to the Present, Walker Art Center, September 5, 1999 to September 2, 2001.
7. From the label text for David Hammons, Flight Fantasy (1978), from the exhibition Black History Month, Walker Art Center, February 1999.
8. Philippe Vergne, curatorial comment, Walker Art Center, September 1999. 
9. Other names for this item of furniture are a divan or a chaise lounge. 
10. Philippe Segalot, Carte Blanche, Phillips auction house, November 8, 2010. 
Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, New York 1965, p. 64.
12. Coco Fusco, “Wreaking Havoc on the Signified”, Frieze online, May 7, 1995.
13. Holland Cotter, "David Hammons Is Still Messing With What Art Means", New York Times, March 24, 2016

Jun 17, 2016

Bygone Beehive

My husband says everything great and wonderful comes out of Chicago. Hometown pride, of course. So it wouldn't surprise him at all to learn that the beehive was the creation of a Chicagoan, Margaret Vinci Heldt, who passed away Friday, June 10 at the age of 98.
 dotpolka - beehive - 2005 -Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 unmodified
 Caryn Rousseau/Associated Press

Margaret invented the beehive in 1960, when she was asked by Modern Beauty Shop magazine to create a look to mark the new decade. The bouffant was already a popular style for women, but Heldt's beehive took the bouffant to new heights.

'They told me: "We want you to come up with something really different."' Her invention was published in the February, 1960 issue.

The beehive, nor the bouffant, could have been possible without the postwar invention of aerosol hair spray. The hairstyle requires backcombing the hair and setting it. According to Heldt, it was a salon favorite because "it would hold its shape for a week between appointments."
“I started building up height from a basic updo by winding hair over Pepsi cans, back-combing at first and then – inspiration, I spiraled a layer of hair smoothly around the form. This was then followed by a major session of hair spraying to hold it all in place.”

What's so interesting is that the hair-do was not inspired by the honeycomb house for bees, but rather by a hat – a black, velvet fez-style cap.
“I always would look at that little hat and say ‘Someday, I’m going to create a hairstyle that would fit under the hat, and when you take the hat off, the hairstyle would be there.’” New York Times
The cap was decorated with two beads resembling bees, and the hairstyle was ultimately named by the magazine's editor who felt the bee beads fit the 'do. While that hat has yet to make its way to a museum, Heldt's “Lady Bee” hair mannequin is in the collection of the Chicago History Museum.

The hairstyle might have germinated in Chicago, but it certainly became an international sensation.

 L: Dusty Springfield, 1966 NME Pollwinners Concert / R: Ronettes, 1963

 Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, 1961