Des cheveux et des poils at MAD April 5th to September 17th

Dear Shaded Viewers,

Denis Bruna, curator of fashion and textiles at Musée des Arts Décoratifs is also the curator of the new exhibition at MAD that opens April 5th and continues to September 17th. He was asked to make an exhibition on fashion as he is curator of the fashion department at MAD and chose not to use clothes. Instead he did a study on hair and body hair going from the mid fifteenth century to now a days. Des cheveux et des poils is the body material that everybody has. Some pieces are from Egyptian and Greek antiquity to explain the wigs. Hair and body hair are a sign of fashion and fashion moves quickly however there is a direction in all shows that the hair for a man or a woman is very linked to their animality that it is important to tame hair and that makes us different from the beast. For example if you look at advertising for shaving and the beard there is often a comparison of the beard with animals. During the 18th and 20th century it was important to have a clean shaven face for a man. Bruna has had a beard during the 80’s when it was not fashionable to have a beard but he wanted to portray a 16th century painting.

“Des cheveux et des poils” shows how hairstyles and the arrangement of human hair have played a part in the construction of appearances for centuries. An essential element in the staging of the self, the arrangement of hair and body hair is an essential element of self-presentation and conveys a message, a fashion statement, a conviction, a protest, and can carry a multitude of meanings, such as femininity, virility or negligence.

The exhibition explores through more than 600 works, from the 15th century to the present day, the themes inherent in the history of hairstyling, but also questions related to facial and body hair. The trades and skills of yesterday and today are highlighted with their emblematic figures: Léonard Autier (Marie-Antoinette’s favourite hairdresser), Monsieur Antoine, the Carita sisters, Alexandre de Paris and more recently studio hairdressers. Great names in contemporary such as Alexander McQueen, Martin Margiela or Josephus Thimister are present with their spectacular creations made from the singular material that is hair. The exhibition is presented in the Christine & Stephen Schwarzman fashion galleries, in a scenography entrusted to David Lebreton of the Designers Unit agency. Unless I missed it I did not see the wonderful hair dress designed by Patrick Van Ommeslaeghe in the early 90’s but it would have fit here perfectly.

The exhibition is divided into five themes and questions what makes hair, in Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures, an attribute of the animal and savagery and explains why hair had to be constantly tamed to keep women and men away from the beast.

The first part of the exhibition opens with a study of the evolution of women’s hairstyles, a true social indicator and marker of identity. In the Middle Ages, in obedience to the commandment, obeying the commandment of Saint Paul, women were obliged to wear a veil until the 15th century. Little by little, they abandoned it in favour of extravagant hairstyles that were constantly being renewed. In the 17th century, the “urluber” hairstyle (dear to Madame de Sévigné) and “à l’urluberlu de Sévigné) and “à la Fontange” (named after Louis XIV’s mistress) are emblematic of real fashion phenomena.

Around 1770, the high hairstyles known as poufs are without doubt the most extraordinary of Western hair fashions. Finally, in the 19th century, women’s hairstyles – whether inspired by ancient Greece, or called “à la girafe”, “en tortillon” or “à la Pompadour” – were just as convoluted.

After the hairless faces of the Middle Ages, a turning point occurred around 1520 with the appearance of the beard, a symbol of courage and strength. At the beginning of the 16th century, the three great monarchs of the West: Francis I, Henry VIII and Charles V were young and wore beards the beard from then on associated with the virile and warlike spirit. From the 1630s to the end of the eighteenth century, the beardless face and the wig were the hallmarks of the courtly man. Facial hair did not reappear until the beginning of the 19th century with the moustache, sideburns and beard: this century was by far the hairiest in the history of men’s fashion. A multitude of small objects used (moustache-fixers, brushes, curling irons, wax, etc.) testify to this craze for moustaches and beards. During the 20th century, the rhythm of bearded, moustachioed and smooth faces continued, until the return of the beard among hipsters in the late 1990s. The maintenance of hair among these young urbanites revived the barbering trade that had disappeared since the 1950s. Nowadays, full beards tend to give way to the moustache, which had deserted faces since the 1970s.

The choice to retain, remove, conceal or display hair from other parts of the body is also a historical topic that the exhibition addresses through the representation of naked bodies
in the visual arts and in written accounts. Hair is rare, if not absent, in early painting. The hairless body is synonymous with the ancient and idealised body, while the hairy body is associated with virility, even triviality. Only the followers of virile sports such as boxing and rugby, but also erotic illustrations or medical engravings show individuals covered in hair. Around 1910-1920, when women’s bodies were uncovered, magazine advertisements praised the merits of depilatory creams and more efficient hair clippers to remove them. In 1972, the actor Burt Reynolds posed naked with a hairy body for Cosmopolitan magazine, but fifty years later, the abundance of hair is no longer in fashion. Since 2001, sportsmen and women have been photographed nude for calendars such as Les Dieux du stade calendars have had their hair rigorously controlled.

Doing one’s hair is an intimate act; a well-born lady could not appear in public with her hair down. A painting by Franz-Xaver Winterhalter, dated 1864, depicting Empress Sissi in a dressing gown with her hair down, was strictly reserved for Franz Joseph’s private cabinet. Louis XIV, who became bald at a very young age, adopted the so-called “bright hair” wig which he imposed on the court. In the 20th century, Andy Warhol had the same misfortune: the wig he wore to hide his baldness became an icon of the artist. Nowadays, hairpieces and wigs are used in haute couture, during fashion shows or, of course, to compensate for hair loss.

The natural colours of the hair and their symbolism are studied along with what they convey. Blond is the colour of women and childhood. Red hair is attributed to sultry women, witches and some famous stage women. As for black hair is said to betray he strong temperament of brunettes. From the experimental dyes of the 19th century to the more certain dyes of the 1920s, artificial colours are not forgotten. The work of the hairdresser Alexis Ferrer, who makes digital prints on real hair, is also presented.

The exhibition reveals the different hair professions: barbers, barber-surgeons, hair stylists, wigmakers, ladies’ hairdressers, etc., through archive documents and a host of small objects: signs, tools, various products and the astonishing perm machines and dryers of the 1920s.

In 1945, the creation of haute coiffure elevated the profession to the status of an artistic discipline and a French savoir-faire. 20th century hairdressing was marked by Guillaume, Antoine, Rosy and Maria Carita, Alexandre de Paris styling the hair of princesses and celebrities. Nowadays, great hairdressing is mainly expressed during the fashion shows of prestigious fashion houses. Sam McKnight, Nicolas Jurnjack and Charlie Le Mindu were invited to the exhibition to create extraordinary hairstyles for top models and
show business personalities.

Another section is devoted to the iconic hairstyles of the 20th and 21st centuries: the 1900s chignon, the 1920s garçonne haircut, and the new hair styles. This section looks at the iconic hairstyles of the 20th and 21st centuries: the chignon of the 1900s, the boyish haircut of the 1920s, the permed and notched hair of the 1930s, the pixie and sauerkraut of the 1960s, the long hair of the 1970s, the voluminous hairstyles of the 1980s, the gradations and blond locks of the 1990s, not to mention nappy hair.

The arrangement of hair in a particular form can reveal membership of a group and manifest a political, cultural opposition to society and the established order. More ideological than aesthetic, the Iroquois crest of the punks, the unkempt hair of the grunges or the shaved heads of the skinheads are strong moments of hair creativity. Wearing someone else’s hair, known or unknown, has  a worrying dimension, and this superstition seems to be well established. Despite these apprehensions, some designers choose to transcend this familiar material into a fashion object. This is the case of contemporary designers such as Martin Margiela, Josephus Thimister and Jeanne Vicerial. The question of identity, whether treated lightly or more deeply, is often at the heart of the reasoning, whether the hair is real or fake.

The exhibition has benefited from the exceptional participation of the Château de Versailles, the Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Orléans, the Musée du Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay.

As you might imagine I find this exhibition fascinating, educational as well as very amusing.


Diane Pernet

A LEGENDARY FIGURE IN FASHION and a pioneer of blogging, Diane is a respected journalist, critic, curator and talent-hunter based in Paris. During her prolific career, she designed her own successful brand in New York, costume designer, photographer, and filmmaker.