From Sampson and Delilah through the Age of Aquarius

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It has been long, short, straight, curly, teased, coiled, plaited, waxed, powdered, dyed, woven, oiled, bleached -- what hasn't happened to hair? Seemingly just about everything, and not all of it necessarily in the name of fashion, as anyone who lived through the Age of Aquarius with its protests of sprouting beards and scraggly manes will readily acknowledge. From the legend of Samson and Delilah in biblical times onward, nature's crowning glory has taken on many forms and meanings.

Most of these have been brought together for absorbing study in a fascinating exhibition called "Her" (now on view, through Aug. 17, at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Design).

Not to be confused with the 1960s Broadway show of the same name, "Hair" deals in a scholarly yet entertaining manner with the significance of human hair. It is seen, through prints, drawings, sculpture, and artifacts, as a symbol of divinity or wisdom, an indication of virtility, a source of design, a display of vanity, a mark of great beauty.

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This intriguing historical survey is thought to be the first ever devoted to the subject by a major US museum. In its scope, the exhibition ranges from fine art to kitsch, and delves into the so-called primitive as well as supposedly highly civilized cultures.

Undulating waves of long hair were integral to the flowing attenuated designs of Art Nouveau, and they are shown in Charles Dana Gibson's Gibson Girl wallpaper and in elegantly carved French combs of the 1900s. Shortly thereafter , pictures and photographs of pretty girls with actual ribbons and crimped real hair pasted on were popular as colored souvenir postcards.

Among the most eye-catching examples of imaginative flights in coiffure is the Nigerian two-faced mask, as stunning as a piece of African sculpture. The headpiece, an exaggeration of the hairstyle of women of the Ekoi tribe, is adorned with great hornlike spirals of antelope skin over wire. Worn by men in ceremonial dances, the mask represented strength.

What the outrageous coiffures of 18th-century European sophisticates represented was sheer vanity. Period engravings illustrate the heights to which English fops and ladies of the French court went in building up their wigs, and to wear a pair of foxes raiding a chicken coop in one's headdress was not too much.

Along with such cultural and aesthetic symbols as Milton Glazer's psychedelic rendering of Bob Dylan's hair for a famous 1960s poster, much space is devoted to the paraphernalia associated with hair. Ornaments, combs, tiaras, bandeaus, curling tongs, wigs (including a Lord High Chancellor's), and wig stands -- many of them minor works of art -- fill several cases.

As a pictorial inspiration, we find hair as a theme for the embellishment of vases, match cases, snuff boxes, cameo bracelets, and other ephemera. For sentiment, a lock of hair was popular in the 19th century as a keepsake in a piece of jewelry and in the actual weaving of necklaces and wristlets. Lately, hair has been used functionally, as a craftsman's fiber for textile weaving. One of the oldest items on display is a "found objects" wall decoration, hand-loomed from various shades of hair.

The people whose beards, sideburns, and hairdos made history are not overlooked. Vintage photographs show Abraham Lincoln before and with his beard, Irene Castle as the first in World War I days to bob her hair, Veronica Lake's memorable style, Yul Brunner's hairless head, and debutante Brenda Frazier's 1938 glamour-girl tresses -- among many others whose looks are associated with their hair.

No new hairstyles are turly new, because the Greeks, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, or the Chinese appear to have sported them centuries ago. Certain Tang and Han Dynasty tomb sculpture figures, for instance, wear both Afros and ponytails.

The snood moved around in time from the Italian Renaissance to the American Civil War South to "Gone With the Wind." After Vivian Leigh wore it as Scarlett, fashionable women did, too -- witness the 1940 Lily Dache snood.

As for today's fad for the Bo Derrick hairdo, not only do the braided locks she wore in "Ten" have a precedent traceable to African corn-rowing. That ropey look was a favorite with the Greeks centuries before Christ and, curiously, the look turned up again in Peruvian Indian communities well before AD 1500.

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