Hairy Thing

People have been combing it, cutting it, styling it, dying it, covering it up, extending it, and shaving it off, since the beginning of recorded history. It clogs up our drains, smells pretty awful when set alight, and lasts longer than our flesh. I am, of course, referring to hair.

Curly or straight, buzz cut or ponytail, our hair is one of the primary signifiers about who we are and how we feel about ourselves. Historically, particular hairstyles have indicated rites of passage into adulthood, denoted piety, social status, and even been reserved for specific people. There were all kinds of rules in the Japanese warring period about who could wear what kind of topknot. Often overlooked in the maelstrom of personal identity issues is the fact that hair is also a natural material used by crafts women and men to make stuff. Most commonly, of course, these are hairpieces or wigs, and in the Horniman Museum anthropology collection alongside a number of wigs, there are also objects that are not wigs, that use human hair for decoration.

As the anthropology galleries are shut for renovation, it was back to the stores, where Helen Merret, Collections Officer, had very kindly laid out some objects that I was keen to see, on an archive table.

This is a mid-19th Century man’s wig from Fiji in Western Polynesia. ‘Ulumate’, literally translated as ‘dead head’ were worn for a number of reasons: to cover natural hair loss, or heads shaven during mourning. They were also in some instances a ‘badge of office’ for men with specific tasks to perform. Human hair is woven into coconut fibre strands.

This sperm whale ivory and human hair necklace, or lei liho palaoa, is from Hawaii. Literally a whale (palaoa) tooth (niho) necklace (lei), these distinctive pieces of jewellery were worn by both male and female chiefs. It is likely that an entire head of hair went into making the intricately woven braids that form the body of the piece. They are especially rare because Hawaiian people did not hunt whales. Only drowned, beached, or washed up whales could provide ivory for niho palaoa lei.

The whale tooth has been carved into the shape of a licking tongue.

And the detail of the braided hair, tied together with twine, is extremely satisfying.

This ceremonial hat or helmet is from India, possibly from the Naga culture. It is made with thin cane strips that have been woven in the diagonal. The plume of dyed red hairs has been identified as ‘possibly human’.

It really is a gorgeous object. The inside shows the deftness of the intricate twill.

The date is uncertain, listed in the catalogue as ‘before 1949’. It looks barely 70 hours old, let alone 70 years.

Perhaps the quirkiest thing in this little human hair line-up is this man’s costume tail, also from India, possibly from the Angami, a tribe of the Naga people. It would likely have been used in a ceremonial dance. It was donated to the museum in 1916.

This piece inverts the way in which we use materials from animals to adorn our bodies. Here it is human hair that goes to make us become animal. A cane loop at the top of the tail allows it to be strapped to the body.

Close up you can see the plaited basketry and way the human hair has been woven into the cane.

I am using my residency at Horniman Museum to take inspiration for a series of false noses, and I have wanted to make one that uses human hair in this ornamental way. For the last 30 years, I have kept my mother’s ponytail, which she had woven into a secure weft when she decided to have a short hairstyle.

My plan is to use this hair to make a hairy nose. I carved a form out of oak onto which to mount the hair.

The next step was to look for a wig maker who would take on the task of knotting a nose wig. (Actually, my initial plan was to see if I could do it myself but the investment of time and money into a wig making course proved a bit too much of a stretch for a one-off hairy nose. Of course, if I were to make a series of hairy noses, it might be a different matter.)

Founded in 1899, Raoul is the oldest wig-making company in the UK, and was the first to offer wigs through the NHS in 1949. As it is so labour intensive, a lot of knotting is subcontracted to countries with cheaper labour costs, but Raoul does almost everything in-house at its studio in Paddington, London. Their client list is long and illustrious. Up until her death in 2002 they made the hairpiece for the Queen Mother.

The odd thing about a wig maker is that their customer base exists at polar ends of the spectrum of human need, from desperate people who have lost their hair when their life is in jeopardy from illness, to someone needing a period ‘do’ for a play or film shoot. I was a little apprehensive about approaching them for a nose wig but I shouldn’t have worried. Liz Finan, who owns and runs Raoul reassured me. “We love a challenge and anything a bit different.” So there we were in one of the private client rooms discussing how to best make a wig for my oak nose with the ponytail my mother had cut off when I was still a teenager.

Even for those of us with a full head of hair, these protein filaments growing out of the follicles on our scalp are a cause of emotional instability: of satisfaction, of upset, at the very least of bad hair days. This emotional instability has to be increased dramatically if you are in the position of loosing your hair, or you have a condition that means you simply don’t grow any. Liz has set up Raoul to be as much like a normal hair salon as possible, with the kind of public shop at the front that you would expect on any high street. A series of private client rooms sit down one side of a central corridor, at the end of which is the studio, where the making happens.

The basics of wig making haven’t changed much in hundreds of years. You need hair, something to knot it onto, and a hook to do that. Most of the tools fit in a little box. The things that take up room are the client files showing precise colours and styles, and the head blocks.

And then it’s a case of knotting in the hair, one or two strands at a time. It requires precision, skill, and focus.

The first step on the way to making my nose wig, was to undo the wefted ponytail of my mother’s hair, without breaking it, and keeping the length. As I peered over her shoulder Liz, confidently inserted a thread picker with the precision of a surgeon, and soon the coil unravelled.

Four hands were needed at times, to safely untangle hairs that were caught around the securing wire.

Liz then handed over the hairs, let loose after 30 years, to Anselme Bonson, known to her Raoul colleagues by the pet name ‘Pressy’. She whips the hair against a hackle, a board that looks like some sort of medieval torture machine, and which Liz said could well be as old as the business. This process combs out the hair while leaving behind the short ends, which are no good for knotting.

And then there we have it: an untethered lock of auburn hair ready for knotting.

A few days later I returned to meet Karen Werther, the woman who will be doing the actual knotting. A net cap has been made following the shape of my wooden form, and, as there are not generally wig blocks in the shape of noses, the same structure was created out of plastic film stuffed with tissue paper, to give a solid but pliable body to knot into. This was then mounted onto a more conventional canvas block as a base to work on. So we were in the rather surreal situation of looking at a large nose shape pinned to the top of a head.

And then Karen was off; one hair at a time. “She’s an extremely neat knotter,” Liz says cheerily.

So the hairy nose begins to take shape. It is painstaking work. I drop back in some days later to check up on the progress. It’s not hard to see why wig making is an expensive business. It takes a long time.

The effect is already uncanny as I see my mother’s hair take a new shape.

I return to Raoul to pick up my nose wig. Karen proudly knots the last few hairs.

There is still plenty more to do before it becomes the object I want it to be but thanks to Karen, Liz, Pressy and the team, the hard graft has been done. As Liz says, “What’s left is for you to personalise it. You can style it the way that you want. You could braid it one day and curl it the next.” I leave Raoul my head full of possibilities for nose wig styles.