The global trade in human hair has a rich, hidden politics

Entanglement unravels the knotty story of the hair trade, from the 19th century to the wigs of today's  Orthodox Haredi.

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Human hair is an anomalous substance. It is a waste product, like nail clippings, but it is also a highly marketable commodity. Our relationship with it is fraught with contradictions. A single hair from the Buddha’s head is the precious relic over which a towering golden pagoda was built in Yangon: a single hair found in your soup is disgusting. The Victorians kept strands of hair from dead loved ones and made them into jewellery. We find this practice strange, and perhaps repellent; yet many of us treasure curls snipped from a baby’s head.

Emma Tarlo’s clever, idiosyncratic book explores the international trade in human hair. In doing so, it illuminates a surprising range of subjects, from global capitalism to the construction of Savile Row suits.

Hair merchants trade in human body parts but their commerce is different from that of those who buy and sell functioning kidneys. For one thing, no one actually needs hair on their head: its value is founded in vanity. Once cut, though, it is useful, and not only to wig-makers. Until March this year, when an EU directive put paid to the practice, it was the source of one of the ingredients (an amino acid used as a dough conditioner) in most factory-produced bagels. It is used to strengthen mud-and-dung walls of Indian village houses, or to repel snails on
Irish vegetable plots. It is made into mats for soaking up oil spills or stuffed into the upholstery of railway carriages. In Tamil Nadu it is wound into ropes and bound around auto-rickshaws to ward off bad luck.

The trade in human hair isn’t new. In Brittany in 1840 Thomas Trollope watched hair dealers shearing peasant girls “like sheep”. In 19th-century England, inmates of prisons, workhouses and hospitals routinely had their head shaved, the sale of hair providing an income to these institutions. Hair dealers were barred from ­Ellis Island, but all the same, every year in the early 1900s, about 15,000 immigrants sold their hair on arriving in New York. The harvesting of hair is dependent on the poverty of the sellers. As Tarlo notes, “It is no coincidence that most hair now on the market is black.”

Her curiosity takes her across the world. She visits the International Hair Show in Jackson, Mississippi, where she learns about wefts and weaves and chemical straighteners, and reflects on the irony of an industry devoted to selling such a panoply of products to help black women achieve “natural” hair. Black hair is rich in political symbolism; Angela Davis grew her afro as a protest against cultural imperialism. Tarlo reproduces photographs of fantastically complex Nigerian “hair architecture” and makes a case for considering hairdressing as an African art form. Black hair care is an art, she argues, even when its outcome is the artificial smoothness of a coiffure boosted with sleek extensions, manufactured in China to make it possible for African-American women to look like Snow White.

In Myanmar Tarlo watches villagers patiently untangle balls of combed-out waste hair. In China she meets Raymond Tse, a manufacturer of bespoke toupées, who impresses on her the need for secrecy in his trade. “We are invisible. That is our job . . . We never make advertisement.” A man whose naturally growing beard needs augmentation doesn’t want it known that the hair attached to his chin comes from the belly of a yak. Raymond teaches her the vocabulary of the hair trade, about “remy” and “non-remy” and “matrix” (it’s all to do with the cuticles), but will tell her nothing about his clients, the Westerners who spend so much on aids (made by Chinese workers, few of whom have ever met a Westerner) to help them conform to Caucasian ideals of masculine good looks.

Tarlo is an academic anthropologist and a lively reporter. Her book is arranged radially – as a sequence of interviews and reflections going off in all directions from her subject. Though at times repetitive and inconsequential, it is full of amusing, “fancy that” information and arresting observations. An Indian gentleman whose wedding coat was woven from human hair asks, “Why do people wear animal hair when they could be wearing human?” As Tarlo says, it’s an interesting question, because no one’s answer to it is likely to be strictly rational. She politely compliments him on his coat, but doesn’t like it. Is it, she wonders, “fetishism or cannibalism that springs to mind”? It’s not either quite: it’s just part of the weirdness that informs our relationship with hair.

In May 2004, a 94-year-old rabbi in Jerusalem declared that Jewish women should abstain from wearing wigs made from Indian hair. Much of that hair reaches the market from Hindu temples in southern India, where pilgrims submit to having their head shaved before entering the sacred space. The tonsuring is a form of purification, but to Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv it seemed that the hair was being offered up as a sacrifice to heathen images. Idolatry!

Most of the wigs (or “sheiteln”) that married women of the Orthodox Haredi sect wear to cover their own hair are made in China. Indian hair, which is finer than Chinese hair and more readily available than the European variety, is much used. Impossible for any woman to be sure that her wig was free of it. It might take 150,000 hand-tied knots to make a good-quality wig; each then costs roughly £1,500. For all that, they must, said the rabbi, be destroyed.

Tarlo imagines the stink of singeing hair that must have risen over Brooklyn and Stamford Hill as wigs were burned. Jewish wig-sellers went broke. Russian hair traders prospered, and so did those around the world unscrupulous enough to buy Indian hair, relabel it “European” or “Ukrainian” and sell it on. A new species of fraud had come into being: the practice of hair-laundering.

This story, with its global reach, its blend of hard-headed commerce and anxious piety, its queasy oscillation between treasuring a human waste-product or treating it as taboo, nicely demonstrates what a rich subject Tarlo has chosen for her book.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include “The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio” (Fourth Estate)

Entanglement: the Secret Lives of Hair is published by OneWorld (£16.99, 416pp)

This article appears in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage