Hair! Human Stories

A journey into the unexpected worlds of hair

Hair! Human Stories invites you to confront hair and to follow this intimate yet detachable fibre on unexpected journeys around the world where you will see hair treated as crop, religious donation, animal fibre, a means to a livelihood and a natural resource for recycling.

The journey begins and ends in London but it meanders across continents. We see how the lives of people in different parts of the world are connected through hair and how artists and designers have been inspired by hair to create intriguing and thought-provoking objects.

Hair poses many questions: Why do our feelings towards hair change so dramatically when it is cut from the head? Why do we treat human and animal hair differently? What recycling possibilities does hair offer?

Let hair be your guide in this exploration of our original human fibre.

Curator: Emma Tarlo, author of Entanglement, the Secret Lives of Hair
Assistant Curator: Gabriela Nicolescu

For a discussion of the exhibition in the context of hair culture, see this Infringe article.

Goldsmiths: New exhibition unveils more secret lives of human hair

Interview: Emma Tarlo @ InFringe

More info: Download exhibition leaflet (pdf).

responsive images

Alix Bizet, Hair Matters

An overview of the exhibition

Real hair post card, France c. 1920

Beyond the Personal and Cultural

Hair is saturated with personal and cultural expectations and desires but it is also a natural fibre that is difficult to control. Once cut from the head, does it still represent us or take on a life of its own?

Beyond the Personal and Cultural …

WW1 poster calling on German women to offer their hair for the war effort.


In many parts of the world hair is treated as a human crop – easy to grow but difficult to harvest. Supplies are effected less by weather conditions than by religion, politics and global economics.

Harvest …

Human-animal intimacy, postcard

Human-Animal Relations

Human and animal fibre have much in common yet we tend to think of them as conceptually different. How might we rethink their relationship?

Human-Animal Relations …

Wig mannequins in factory, Xuchang, China

Factories on the Other Side of the World

The human hair trade relies on high levels of hand labour performed by a vast and largely invisible labour force in factories and workshops in Asia. China now houses the biggest concentration of hair factories in the world. Here black hair is transformed to suit the tastes and demands of the world market.

Factories on the Other Side of the World …

Russian-made hygrometer utilising human hair

Hair Stuff

Hair products are fetishized, sexualised and commercialised in the market, but they also become incorporated into new lives. Wigs and hair pieces offer a range of possibilities from protection, transformation, fashion, beauty and disguise.

Hair Stuff …

Sanne Visser, The New Age of Trichology

Recycling Possibilities

How might we rethink our relationship to the hair that falls from our heads? What recycling possibilities does it offer?

Recycling Possibilities …

Beyond the Personal and Cultural

Hair is a natural fibre but it is rarely left in a natural state. Throughout our lives we groom it, shape it, shed it, cut it, style it, shave it, colour it, straighten it, curl it, loose it and, in some cases, cover or supplement it. But hair is not a neutral material. It comes fraught with expectations about beauty, identity, gender and race. At once seductive and demanding, it offers multiple possibilities of conformity and dissent.

Through how we style our hair we express who we are and how we wish others to see us. But once hair is removed from the head, does it still represent us? Is it forever haunted by memories of past lives?

Hairdresser's diary

Jo Doyland, Mother and Daughter

French and German real hair postcards, 1920-1930

French and German real hair postcards, 1920-1930

French and German real hair postcards, 1920-1930

French and German real hair postcards, 1920-1930

Jane Hoodless, Shorn out of Wedlock; hair, canvas, wire, foam, 2011.

Mixed Chicks dolls and Japanese doll in a wig

Hair Play: Hair is the stuff of dreams, fantasies, expectations, frustrations and excess. Many children spend hours running their fingers through hair, exploring different colours and textures and imagining alternative selves. Above all, hair seems to offer endless possibilities of transformation.

Hairballs for All Seasons, Emma Tarlo 2018 in collaboration with clients from Hacketts Salon


Human hair has long been treated as a curious kind of crop – easy to grow but difficult to harvest. In the nineteenth century rural women all over Europe sold their hair in exchange for money or trinkets. Today most hair is collected from India, China and other Asian countries where large numbers of women still have very long hair and many are poor enough to think of selling it. Once cut, it is used as material for wigs, hair extensions and eye lashes which are sold worldwide and form part of a billion dollar global industry.

Dried, Koppal, India 2013

Bleached, Chennai, India, 2013

Puffed, Mandalay, Myanmar, 2015)

Street market, Yangon, China

Street market, Yangon, China

Street market, Yangon, China

Mother selling daughter's hair, Brittany 1900

Hair advertisement, 1912

London hair merchant, 1909

Politics and Trade

Hair has long been caught up in global politics and commerce. Poverty, political events, religion and fashion all effect supplies. When men were forbidden from wearing long plaits (known as ‘pig tails’ or ‘queues’) in China after the 1911 revolution, this boosted supplies of hair for European fashions but when the United States introduced a ban on imports of hair from communist countries in the 1960s, hair traders turned from China to India in search of supplies.

Forced hair cutting by Chinese revolutionaries, 1911

Chinese revolutionaries cutting plaits, 1911

Mockery, desire, hypocrisy on willow pattern plate


In many religions cutting and shaving hair is an act of humility, self-sacrifice and devotion or a way of thanking or pleading with God. In the 19th century ‘church hair’ was collected from Catholic convents in Europe and used for making wigs and hair pieces. Today the Hindu pilgrimage site of Tirumala in South India is famous for its tonsure halls where 650 barbers are employed to shave the heads of pilgrims who have come to fulfil their vows. In Myanmar (Burma), thousands of women have had their heads shaved to raise money for building bridges and repairing roads. In renouncing their hair, they follow the example of the Buddha who renounced worldly attachments. These altruistic offerings of hair are sold by auction into the hair trade.

By offering hair, people offer something of themselves. Today charities like the Little Princess Trust invite people to donate their hair for children with cancer and alopecia.

Buddha renounces his hair

Tonsure 1, Palliani, India

Tonsure 2, Palliani, India

Tonsure 3, Palliani, India


We shed between 50 – 100 hairs a day. In many parts of the world long haired women collect up the combings that accumulate in their brushes and sell them in the form of matted hair balls. These combings can be upcycled and are commonly used for making the cheaper range of hair extensions and wigs. Forking waste hair balls out of the gutter was once the job of street pedlars in Europe. Today there are hair peddlers all over Asia who travel by foot, bicycle, motorbike, boat or bus, gathering waste hair door to door in exchange for small gifts or petty cash.

Parisian ragman

Ragman preparing to hook hair out of the gutter

Chignons for supplementing bobbed hair, Paris 1925

Street collector, Chennai, India

Combings airing in Mandalay, Myanmar

Jane Hoodless, Hair Receivers, 2017

Jane Hoodless, Hair Receivers, 2017

Personal combings

Human-Animal Relations

Human and animal hair have much in common biologically and humans have long relied on animal fibres for clothing, furnishing and a variety of uses. Human and animal fibres literally brush against each other when pig’s bristle is used in hair brushes, badger hair in shaving brushes, yak hair in false beards and horse hair in judge’s wigs. Yet we tend to keep the categories of human and animal hair distinct and feel disturbed by objects that confuse these categories.

In 2008 the EU introduced a ban on the commercial use of cat and dog hair on the grounds that European citizens consider them as pets – some sort of intermediary category between animal and human. Interestingly there is no restriction on the sale of human hair.

What do human, animal and vegetable fibres have in common? What makes us perceive them differently? Does clothing made from human hair connect us to our animal qualities?

19th century postcards illustrating human-animal interaction

Boiled bristles, Chunking, China

Hedgehog postcard with shaving kit

Boar more

Pig bristle

Pig bristle brushes

Horse hair bundles for tailoring

Justine Waldie, Kitten mittens

Soft coated Wheaten terrier hair balls

Poodle and cat hair necklaces

How to!

Yak belly, Chinese human died blond, Italian human natural, Russian human, and Yak again

Erwan Fichou, portrait of man wearing cardigan made with his dog's fur

Jenni Dutton, Blond Dress, human hair

Factories on the Other Side of the World

Synthetic wigs and artificial hair fibre such as kanekalon came onto the mass market in the late 1960s, stimulating a boom in wig wearing and creative hair play. Huge factories emerged in Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and later China. New fibres were absorbed into black hair cultures and wigs and toupees offered women and men from all backgrounds a cheap way of transforming their appearance. For a while it looked as if human hair would disappear from the market. But synthetic hair looked less natural and was less versatile than human hair. With the popularity of hair extensions in the 1990s, the demand for human hair rapidly increased.


India, Chennai

India, Koppal


Hair Stuff

Tabitha Moses’s gleeming Hairpurse is a striking reminder of how human hair is fetishised, sexualised and commercialised. Today the Internet abounds with websites selling hair and bears witness to the range of wigs, extensions, eyelashes and other products available on the market, whether in London, Lagos or Los Angeles. History reminds us that this global trade is nothing new. When hair becomes attached to new heads it becomes incorporated into new life stories, offering possibilities of protection, transformation, fashion, beauty and disguise. Reborn on different heads, hair takes on new meanings.

Factory-made wigs, Korea, ca. 1970

Hair products for sale in a London shop

Head moulds

Templates for American male hair pieces, made in China

Wig blocks showing scars of travail, Raoul's, London

A Brief History of the Human Hairnet

In the first half of the 20th century a trend developed for hair nets made from human hair. This delicate work of hand-knotting was performed by poor women and children in Alsace, Bohemia and later China.

Only Chinese hair was considered strong and flexible enough for making hairnets. This lead to a hypocritical situation in which Americans mocked the Chinaman for his ‘pigtail’ whilst simultaneously coveting his hair for their hair nets. Ladies of fashion in Europe and America preferred not to know too much about the origins of the hair in the packets, fearing that they might catch diseases from it. Companies preferred to put emphasis on the fact the hair was ‘sterilized.’

Hair nets were made either from combings collected from men’s plaits by local barbers or from whole plaits which flooded the market in the years around the revolution of 1911.

The Alsatian peasant woman dressed in her finest Sunday best, demonstrating hair net making in Harrods represents the front stage of the industry. Backstage as many as half a million Chinese women and children were employed making hairnets for the Western market when the fashion was at its height around 1920. But fashions are fickle. With the advent of nylon the global demand for human hair nets plummeted.


Alsatian peasant

Collection of hairnets hand-knotted with human hair, 1910-1940

1926 patent for apparatus and testing of hair nets.

Bale of hair

Machine for testing fog using human hair. Croydon 1922

Russian hygrometer utilising human hair

Tabitha Moses, Hairpurse, 2004

Human hair wig

Back to exhibition sections

Recycling Possibilities

Hair has remarkable characteristics. It is fine, strong, flexible, porous and long lasting. As such it has been put to a wide variety of uses. It is also a renewable resource that grows back, once cut. Every year the UK throws away about 6.5 million kilos of hair which enters the waste stream. How might we make better use of this natural fibre? History provides some interesting examples of possible uses whilst the experiments of designers and entrepreneurs point to new possibilities. Many of their ideas echo practices that have long existed in India, China and other Asian countries.

How might we make better use of this natural resource?

Making drainage mats at Matters of Trust.

Booms for soaking up oil spills made at Matters of Trust.

Detail of drainage mat made with human hair and animal fur.

Street collector's bicycle

Sanne Visse, recycled hair "string bag" and balance.

Sanne Visse, recycled hair braids and ropes

Alix Bizet, Hair Matters, human hair

Sarah Cheang Metamorphoses, 2018

Hair! Human Stories / London
7 - 26 June 2018, The Library Space, London SW11 4L

Thanks to all participating artists: Alix Bizet, Sarah Cheang, Akinola Davies Jr., Jenni Dutton, Erwan Fichou, Cyndia Harvey, Jane Hoodless, Tabitha Moses, Sanne Visser

Exhibition designers: Caitlin and Calum Storrie