Book Review: Hair: An Illustrated History

Hair: An Illustrated History   By Susan J. Vincent

A Review by Tamsen Young

Hair is both deeply personal and distinctly public. It can be a form of individual expression or organizational control. It can be an emblem of belonging or it can reinforce difference. As a topic of study, hair spans the entirety of human history. From biology to anthropology, gender identity to ethnic identity, politics to hygiene, hairstyles to hair care – the subject of hair is exceptionally broad. A scholar could pull any strand and find rich material to research.

Advertisement for Edwards’ Harlene, c.1890s. ‘Mama, shall I have beautiful long hair like you when I grow up?’ asks the girl, as she learns the lesson in the performance of femininity while watching her mother wield a hairbrush. Welcome Library, EPH154:20. Photo: Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

Hair: An Illustrated History (Bloomsbury Visual Arts 2018) is both lavishly illustrated and well researched. Susan Vincent focuses on how, over the past 500 years, hair practices have participated in the creation of social identities and fashionable ideals for both men and women. Some of Vincent’s finds are touching, such as this excerpt from a 17th-century letter by a husband describing the hair of his wife, who had recently passed, “It was by many degrees softer then the softest that euer I saw…This is the onely beauty remaining of her that death had no power ouer…[and] a part of her beauty that I am confident no woman in the world can parallele.”

The introduction begins by looking at how visual codes of hair color, texture, and style have been used to judge character, personality, health, and overall acceptability.

“Once given the interpretive key, which include hair colour and texture, any observer could thus ‘read’ appearance to unlock the moral truth within.”

Certainly, hair has been used in the West to identify and group folks by social status, profession, political group, age, gender, and ethnicity. But the author is quick to point out that hair is also objectified. For centuries it has been used as a stand-in for a person (think reliquaries to baby or love lockets), as well as an impersonal commodity, creating a market for hair from the 18th century to today. During the 19th century the “cult of hair” reached fever pitch, and hair work was made or purchased for items such as jewelry, scrapbooks, purses, or parlor decorations. Vincent includes a photograph of an incredible knit cap, circa 1850, made entirely from human hair!

As a result of such demand, the author tells tales of hair stolen from young women in Boston, Pennsylvania, and London towards the end of the 19th century. However, when she turns to the contemporary market, Vincent barely mentions that today’s hair trade, whether legitimate or illicit, has a tremendous impact on communities around the world. Vincent does note anthropologist Emma Tarlo’s Entanglement, a 2017 book entirely about the human hair trade, but she could have added a few sentences on some of the troubling effects of this global commodity prized by the West.

An early nineteenth-century male hairdresser attending a woman. Comb and scissors, the tools of his trade, are to hand in his coat pocket. The high points of his starched shirt, the seals hanging from his waist, and his fitted pantaloons, fixed with a strap beneath the instep, show him to be a modish fellow who pursues the latest fashions. Colored engraving, no date (early nineteenth century). Wellcome Library, ICV2046L. Photo: Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

Following her enjoyable introduction, Vincent delves into the themes of the book and does a fine job of maintaining a lively tone throughout. Chapter One focuses on “the practice of haircare and its associated material culture.” Vincent discusses tonics and potions used to solve the “problem” of hair. Interestingly, the same issues have concerned us for the past 500 years: hair growth, hair loss, hair removal, hair texture, and hair color.

Chapter Two looks at the variety of providers of hair care services, from servants to salons, and the social customs and traditions that arose around them. Did you know that barbers were once notoriously providers of condoms?

Chapter Three examines the practice of shaving and shows how it was not just a means to “manage” hair but also served “to punish and control, to shame and disempower.” Auschwitz still houses nearly two tons of hair shaved from the heads of prisoners. The razor, an important tool, gets significant attention in this chapter as well.

The following chapters are “Case Studies.” “The practice of being hairy” dives into the attraction and aversion to facial hair on men (and women), introduces us to new words like pogonotrophy(1), and takes measure of the fashion, culture, and counter-culture of beards. “The politics of appearance” examines ways that the English politicized hair during the 17th and 18th centuries. “Social challenge: The long and the short of it” covers bobbed hair in the 1920s and the long hair of hippies in the 1970s, but oddly leaves out any mention of the afro and the “black is beautiful” movement.

While Vincent states clearly that her book centers on “the key ways that [hair] has been managed over the last five hundred years,” its research is mostly limited to those of European descent. Not every subject can be covered in a book of this scope, but the author misses a number of moments when she could address non-western cultures and customs. Since she focuses on British and American histories, why omit afro hair or the Black British or African-American experience? In chapter two, for example, “From servant to stylist,” Vincent could have taken the opportunity to discuss how hair salons and barber shops are important cultural centers for the African American community. Or in chapter six, “Social challenge,” when she brings up school dress codes, she had the chance to discuss how natural afro hair has been controlled and even banned. There was some discussion of hair in relationship to queer culture, but given how much new research exists in this area, this topic was also marginalized (For example, the books Queer Style and A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk were left out of the bibliography).

“We have a hair genealogy, and I hope this book helps illuminate our place in it.”

Hair: An Illustrated History is an entertaining and informative work. It appears at a time when there is a growing body of scholarship on a variety of hairy topics. Since many books on hair are compendiums of essays, Vincent’s book stands out. Her anecdotes are charming, and she finds absorbing ways to relate the histories of hair and appearance to the human experience. She includes a wide array of engaging images of people and their hair practices and uses a rich assortment of primary sources. Curious readers can easily dig more deeply into the extensive endnotes and bibliography.

Hair is a well-written and enjoyable read that draws you in and takes you on a journey around a surprisingly rich topic, although Vincent’s “hairy genealogy” in global terms is not for everyone. No book on hair can be encyclopedic. We hope Sarah Vincent has a companion volume in the works.


Tamsen Young has over 20 years of museum experience. She currently heads the department of Digital Media for The Museum at FIT where she oversees web development, online collections, video production, in-gallery media, digital marketing, and social media engagement. In 2014, the online presence for the exhibition A Queer History of Fashion won an American Alliance of Museums Silver Muse Award in recognition of the highest standards of excellence in the use of media & technology for Digital Communities. In 2015, Tamsen was keynote speaker at the Digital Fashion Futures conference organized at MoMU by Europeana Fashion and presented “A Small Museum Goes Global” at the Museum Computer Network conference. She founded the blog Hair is For Pulling in 2011. More posts by the Author »

  1. The cultivation or growing of a beard

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