Sep 21, 2011

A Tale of Long, Long Hair

Miss Grace Sutherland, ca. 1890, albumen print, George Eastman House Collection

It is generally agreed that women’s hair is a symbol of sexual power, seduction, and eroticism. Was it not the luxuriant long hair of Medusa that threatened the goddess Minerva’s own claim to be most beautiful? When contrasted to being tied-up atop the head, long hair signifies being sexually ready, as the time to go to bed.
The more abundant the hair, the more potent the sexual invitation implied by its display, for folk, literary, and psychoanalytic traditions agree that the luxuriance of the hair is an index of vigorous sexuality, even of wantonness. ~ Elisabeth G. Gitter, The Power of Women's Hair in the Victorian Imagination. 
The spectacle of hair that is the Sutherland Sisters' was, and continues to be, hard to ignore.
I first learned about the Seven Sutherland Sisters at the 2008 Whitney Biennial where the video installation piece Cheese by Argentinean artist Mika Rottenberg was on view. Ms. Rottenberg alludes to the Sutherland Sisters in her work which consists of a dilapidated, wooden barn-like structure with video monitors visible amidst its architecture. The monitors display longhaired “maidens” in white nightgowns “working” on a farm. Their seductive hair is a natural gift yet also the cause of their labor. The women are objects of desire and exploitation, their hair a product to be consumed both visually and materially.

This wonderful artwork simultaneously suggests grooming, farming, production, fairy tales, and carnival sideshows. The women’s toil is an amusing and sinister mixture of an elaborate hygiene ritual, magic ritual and seduction ritual as they “milk” their locks and the goats they live with to generate cheese.

In one sense, this piece refers to Marxist ideas. Rottenberg has said she was thinking about “this creepy idea of the body as this land, or this territory, and growing stuff of the body and extracting value from nature and this idea of labor as a process between a person and nature, making this kind of product.”

In another sense, however, this piece is more magical. One thinks of the fairy tale Rapunzel, of a woman whose freedom is gained through her hair, by her body. Rottenberg investigates feminine magic as related to Mother Nature, “the ability to ‘grow things out of the body’ as she says, as the ultimate, wondrous physical mystery.” 1.

The women represented in Ms. Rothenburg’s video were based on the Seven Sutherland Sisters of Cambria, New York (Niagara County). During the late 1800's and early 20th century the sisters were an illustrious singing act with the Barnum & Bailey Circus (c. 1892-1907).  However, the Sutherland Sisters were likely known more for their exceptionally long hair than for their musical talents. They would notoriously end their performance by letting down their hair to thunderous applause. It is said that the collective length of the sisters’ hair measured 37 feet!
Having garnered a modicum of fame, their father, Fletcher Sutherland, developed “The Seven Sutherland Sisters Hair Grower,” a mixture of alcohol, vegetable oils, and water. Having an intuitive sense for marketing, Mr. Sutherland sent the Hair Grower to a chemist for endorsement, receiving the following testimonial:
Cincinnati, Ohio, March, 1884: - Having made a Chemical Analysis of the Hair Grower prepared by the Seven Long Haired Sisters, I hereby certify that I found it free from all injurious substances. It is beyond question the best preparation for the hair ever made and I cheerfully endorse it. -- J.R. Duff, M.D., Chemist.

In its first year, the Hair Grower made the family $90,000 (as it was likely most popular with balding men!). They followed it shortly thereafter with a Scalp Cleaner and Hair Colorator. These hair products eventually made the family wealthy but their lavish spending and the vogue for the bob after World War I would leave the family penniless.

The curiosity of the Sutherland Sisters’ hair has inspired other artists besides Mika Rothenberg. Alyson Pou developed a performance/installation called A Slight Headache, a work presented in the manner of a 19th century dime museum/sideshow at the South Street Seaport Museum.

Replicating a carnival sideshow, an introductory gallery displayed freaks-of-nature / wonders-of-the-world in glass bell jars. Specimens such as the bearded piranha and the mummified alligator were presented in good humor to prepare you for the forthcoming performance, which itself revolved around a mother and daughter connected supernaturally by their exceptionally long hair.

A Slight Headache and Cheese both use the device of freakishly long hair to elicit connotations of the erotic and the strange as they relate to a bygone era. However, the fascination with women who have exceptionally long hair did not end with the PT Barnum act of the Sutherland Sisters. Today the internet brandishes a trove of sites featuring women with floor-length tresses. Woman’s long hair has been (and still is) seen as a source of beauty and temptation.

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