Twists and turns in history of hair

Mkupuk Eba
Image caption Part of the show examines how individuals and social groups display personality through hairstyle

Dyed and curled, slicked-back or straightened, tied in tight little buns or floating out in the breeze like a windsock, human beings have been cutting and styling their hair for an extraordinarily long time.

Cheveux Cheris or Beloved Hair is a new exhibition at Paris' Quai Branly museum that brings together anthropology, art, fashion and philosophy to explore how individuals and societies express themselves through hair.

"People think prehistoric men and women had wild hair," says the curator, the aptly-named Yves Le Fur.

The reality was very different from the caveman image - as some of man's most ancient artworks testify.

The Venus of Brassempouy, which dates back to 21,000 BC, is one of the earliest known realistic representations of a human hairstyle.

"[The ivory figurine] had square hair, and the Venus of Willendorf [a statuette that dates from 25,000 BC] had dreadlocks," Mr Le Fur says.

Hair, he says, is something that differentiates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Animal fur looks great with the occasional lick. For human hair to look good, it requires effort.

There is only one example of neglect in this show - but it is wilful neglect. Some Madagascan widows are forbidden from washing or tending to their hair for 12 months following their husband's death, as a sign of self-mortification and to make them repulsive to other men.

Image caption These blond curls were cut off by a young woman called Emma when she entered a nunnery

Outlandish creations

There are 250 exhibits in Beloved Hair and examples of extravagant hairdressing are common.

In Papua New Guinea hundreds of men convene each year to see who has the best hair, says Mr Le Fur. Their imagination is breathtaking, with accessories including bird of paradise feathers and sweet wrappers.

In the 18th Century, the former Queen of France, Marie-Antoinette, had a coiffeur known, in time-honoured hairdresser style, by his first name - Leonard.

His creations defied nature and beggared belief. Leonard would incorporate fruit and vegetables, live birds and, on one notable occasion, a large scale-model of a three-masted naval frigate, into his clients' hair.

Marie-Antoinette was executed by guillotine. But before her untimely end, she had already lost a lot of hair. And Leonard had to create a new ultra-modest style for her which he named "enfant" (child). Her ladies-in-waiting, needless to say, followed the trend keenly themselves.

There are other stories of hair loss - wilful or not - in Beloved Hair.

From the poignant baldness of William Burroughs in a photograph of the Beat Generation writer taken just before his death, to three blond curls cut off by a young woman called Emma when she entered a nunnery in 1900.

Disturbing footage from 1944 shows French women who, accused of having intimate relations with German troops during the WWII Nazi occupation of France, had their heads shaved and were paraded in front of a jeering mob.

"These women weren't injured - hair grows back. And yet this is truly an act of torture and humiliation. It is extreme evidence of the fact that hair is one of the seats of human dignity," says Helene Fulgence, the museum's director of exhibitions.

Shrunken heads

Shaven heads are also an example of how hair can present individuals' very different agendas.

Image caption The exhibition includes a series of shrunken heads from the Amazon Basin

Holy men - Buddhist and Christian monks for example - shave their heads. So do skinheads.

Long hair too means different things in different places and at different times.

In France in the early Middle Ages, "kings had the right to have long hair but not poor people," says Mr Le Fur.

It was important for them to be beautiful, to be magnificent, he says.

Now the social order has been stood on its head. "It is very difficult for politicians to have long hair. It's very difficult to have long hair if you're prime minister," says the curator.

The last rooms of the exhibition are full of decorative and ritual objects. There are mummified scalps kept as trophies by American Indian warriors, and a macabre series of shrunken heads from the Amazon Basin, some reduced to the size of your fist, some with flowing hair, impeccably brushed.

"Each one of these objects contained… the energy of a human being," says Mr Le Fur.

"Because hair doesn't rot, it provides a gateway between the living and the dead."

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