Good Hair, Bad Hair

Our love/hate relationship with hair is dependent on whether it is still attached.

Last week, I had my hair cut. While I was in the chair, I overheard the two trainees squabbling over whose turn it was to sweep the floor. It seems they felt that this job was beneath them. These women are so fond of hair that they have devoted their careers to handling it, and yet when hair is lying on the floor, detached from the head, it becomes so repulsive that they avoid it at all costs.

Hair is “both revered and reviled”[1]. In some contexts we adore it. It is fondled, envied and worshiped. In others, it provokes a feeling of revulsion. “We find it a source of shame or a case of filth… discarding it with disgust as it collects in the bottom of our sinks or bathroom drains”[2]. As soon as hair is removed from the body, it is classified alongside other bodily waste. It is classified alongside blood, urine or nail clippings, and is considered similarly unhygienic.

This perception that hair can be unhygienic extends to hair that is still attached to our bodies. Whenever it is unkempt, or sprouting from the wrong body part, it can make us feel uneasy. A hairy body seems to imply regression to a savage, animalistic state – like the Wild Man who lives in the forest [3]. In contrast, shaved or tamed hair implies intellectual advancement and civilization.

Image courtesy "Mizter H"

Image courtesy “Mizter H”

If hair trimming are considered human waste, comparable to nail clippings, it is curious that they recover their desirability when woven into wigs. Wigs and extensions made of human hair are significantly more expensive than synthetic alternatives. In some cases, a full head of someone else’s hair can be more desirable than your own. So it seems that recovered hair is cleansed of the distasteful connotations. Once it has been filtered through the creative process of wig-making, detached hair seems to regain its status as a thing of beauty.

If it is reclassified, hair is a valuable commodity. Scarcity of hair donors (particularly natural blondes) keeps the price elevated. Hair buyers flock to the poorer regions of Russia and the Ukraine to pay cash-in-hand to women who are willing to shave their heads[4]. In the West too, women have been known to sell their hair to wigmakers in times of economic hardship. With a recent boom in the popularity of extensions, thieves have been incentivized to steal hair from salons[5].

Hair detached post-mortem can have symbolic value. Braids feature in commemorative jewelry and other memento mori of the Victorian era. If there is a connection with celebrity, the hair of the dead is a historical curiosity. A single hair from John Dillinger’s death mask was sold at auction last year. Similar auctions have featured locks from George Washington and Horatio Nelson [6]

In all of these cases, the value of hair is directly affected by context. Every object “passes through different cultural contexts which may modify or even transform what it means”[7]. As with many other objects, recontextualisation of hair can diminish or increase its value, and alter our perceptions. Just as Duchamp was able elevate a urinal to the status of art by placing it in a gallery, waste hair that is gathered up from the hairdresser’s floor can be reclassified as a beauty product.

[1] Doan, Sean-Patrick, ‘After Shave: the Historical, Cultural, and Social Implications of the Shaved Body,’ (2011), 2.
[2] Park, Gloria Toyun, ‘Shave,’ Frontiers, Vol. 17, No. 2 (1996), 101.
[3] Dickason, cited in Doan, 6.
[4] Kramer, Andrew, ‘For Russia’s Poor, Blond Hair Is Snippet of Gold,’ The New York Times [online], (November 21, 2010).
[4] Williams, Timothy, ’Costly Hairstyle Is a Beauty Trend That Draws Thieves’ Notice,’ The New York Times [online], May 16, 2011.
[6] Khan, Eve, ‘Historical Hair Locks Selling at Auctions,’ The New York Times [online], (December 13 2012).
[7] Rose, Gillian, Visual Methodologies, 2nd ed., (London: Sage, 2007), 223.


Ambiguous Garments: Are we limiting our wardrobe choices by categorising clothes?

The fashion industry is littered with hybrid clothing: jeggings, jumper-dress, vest-top. Arguably, compound terms such as ‘jeggings’ are essential in marketing new designs. People find unfamiliar things unsettling, and so existing terminology is used to help consumers understand new garments. However, such terminology also has the potential to restrict creativity in fashion design. If we can only conceive of clothes in pre-exiting terms, how can we ever create something entirely new?

The linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf, proposed a theory of linguistic determinism (the ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’), suggesting that “language… rigidifies channels of development”[1]. Our understanding of the world is governed by the language that we use. When language is limited, the objects it describes appear similarly limited, and so lack of terminology often holds back progress.

The problem is evident in the labelling of garments that are not quite one thing or another. Is this a dress or a jumper? It is both – a ‘jumper dress’. We define this new creation – the ‘jumper dress’ – in terms of what has come before, therefore only allowing our imagination to consider it in pre-existing terms. It is not just compound words that are problematic. Any pre-existing term equates new objects to old.

Some of the most interesting garments in my wardrobe cannot be easily defined. I have a kind of knitted wrap top bought from Etsy, which is essentially a scarf for the torso. The garment’s creator uses a string of familiar terms to describe her designs, as she knows that otherwise she would struggle to communicate with potential consumers.

Is it a sweater, a wrap, or a scarf? This garment by Pille Ploomipuu (via Etsy) defies definition in existing terms. Ploomipuu is able to be innovative in her designs because they do not conform to standard terminology.

Is it a sweater, a wrap, or a scarf? This garment by Pille Ploomipuu (via Etsy) defies definition in existing terms. Ploomipuu is able to be innovative in her designs because they do not conform to standard terminology.

A problem that plagued designers in the late twentieth century was the idea that “true invention is a myth”; everything has already been done before. In 1990, Malcolm Garrett declared that “all art is theft – without reference to the past nothing can be created”[2]. It is true that fashion is cyclical, and often borrows from the past, but does this mean that innovation is no longer possible? Perhaps it only seems so because we are using old terminology. If we keep using existing terms, we will fail to identify something entirely new. We will fail to recognise innovation. It is only by introducing new language, to describe new artefacts or practices, that the unique properties of those artefacts and practices can be appreciated and that further development can be encouraged.

One of the most innovative fashion designers of recent years is Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. Kawakubo is able to be innovative because she ignores existing categories of clothes:

“I decided to start from zero, from nothing, to things that have not been done before” (Rei Kawakubo interviewed in The New York Times, 1982).

Her first internationally received collections “questioned the logic of clothing itself”[3]. This has allowed her to redefine clothing, and to present shapes that do not resemble anything seen contemporaneously or historically. One of Kawakubo’s stated aims is to “design clothes that have never existed”[4]. Many of her garments, therefore, resist established garment classifications.

rei kawakubo

Rei Kawakuo of Commes Des Garcons, various collections (1983-present)

Kawakubo recognised that it is prescriptive to start with a brief that defines the outcome. For the fashion designer, linguistic determinism limits the possible extent of creativity. If employed to design a ‘dress’, a designer can only exercise his/her creativity within the confines of the established definition of ‘dress’ (“a one-piece bodice and skirt” [5]). These features are, by definition, integral to the ‘dress’ garment, and are taken for granted.

Predictable design stems from assumptions. If we have too many assumptions, we will never create anything new. Fashion design can only be truly innovative when designers follow the example of Rei Kawakubo and “start from zero”.

[1] Whorf, Benjamin Lee, ‘The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language,’ in ed. John Carroll, Language, Thought and Reality, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1956), 82.
[2] Garrett, Malcolm, ‘A Dearth of Typography’, Baseline (May 1990) 41.
[3]Evans, Caroline, and Thornton, Minna (1991) ‘Fashion, Representation, Femininity,’ Feminist Review, No. 38 (1991), 61.
[4]MOCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit), ReFusing Fashion: Rei Kawakubo, (2008).
[5] Miriam-Webster dictionary, ‘Dress’ (noun),

Etsy garment:

The problem with quantitative size labels

Do clothing sizes make us feel fat?

Whatever our size, clothes labels force us to directly compare us to those that are smaller or larger than ourselves. Size label make us aware of our body flaws, and can make shopping an emotionally painful experience. Perhaps the sizing system needs an overhaul.

fat size label

A hundred years ago, consumers were more likely to get clothes tailor made than buy them off the rack. Many women never knew their dress size, or at least not in a simple term that could be easily compared to the relative sizes of other people. The process also ensured that no one’s body flaws could be exposed by ill-fitting garments. As soon as size labels were introduced, women became painfully aware of how their bodies differed. Moreover, they were able to quantify the difference between their own bodies and the ideal.

Jill Fields suggests that the introduction of standardized sizing in corset manufacture is responsible for the notion of the ideal body type[1]. In previous centuries, corsets had been measured and made for every individual consumer. In the early twentieth century, however, corsets were mass-produced. This required them to be designed to fit a range of different bodies, which in turn led to the need for different body types to be classified. Corsets were sold in different categories, for different body types, labelled as ‘stout’, ‘average’, and ‘slender’. This prompted comparison between consumers, drawing attention to their physical differences. The identification of ‘figure faults’ in customers who did not fit the standard sizes, exacerbated the problem, by publically labelling some women’s bodies as faulty.

Being classified as ‘stout’ would dent anyone’s self-esteem. Contemporary sizing systems attempt to sooth egos with euphemisms like ‘plus size’, but as these terms become widespread they become synonymous with ‘overweight’.

There are labels that equate to ‘fat’. The term ‘extra’ suggests ‘excess’, and as anything labelled with an ‘x’ – XL, XXL, XXXL – strongly suggests abnormality. ‘Extra’ (even when abbreviated to ‘x’) is a term that directly references greater-than-normal volume.

Numerical sizing (10, 12, 14) is as neutral as it can be. It is quantitative rather than qualitative. It does not judge; it simply states the facts. However, over time, we have been led to believe that the ‘perfect 10’ is the ideal, and so that any higher number is imperfect.

One solution may be to develop new sizing systems that are not based on relative sizes, rather on positive connotations that already exist elsewhere. Women who might normally feel ashamed at having to pull a size 16 or 18 off the rack might feel far more comfortable if those clothes were labelled in a way that explored the positive connotations of feminine curves. That size ‘16’ could be replaced with a label that reads ‘burlesque’.

size label burlesque

Similar systems could be developed for men. A broad-chested 42 could be renamed ‘athletic’. A sturdy 46 could be rebranded as ‘warrior’.

Perhaps retailers could name their size labels after role-models or celebrities. According to anthropologists, evolution has programmed us to want to imitate prestigious individuals in whatever way we can[2]. I would certainly rather buy a ‘Marilyn’ than a size 14.

marilyn size label

Designers and retailers are aware that smaller sizing can boost confidence, and increase sales, hence the rise in vanity sizing [3]. While vanity sizing can positively influence self-esteem, it also irritates consumers, making it impossible to predict what size to try when moving from one shop to another. Perhaps a better solution would be to start afresh; to begin with a new size system that doesn’t label people as larger or smaller than the ideal; one that acknowledges that everyone is equally different.

[1] Fields, Jill, ‘Fighting The Corsetless Evil’: Shaping Corsets And Culture, 1900-1930,’ Journal of Social History Vol 33, No. 22 (Winter 1999),
[2] Jamie Tehrani, ‘Four Thought,’ BBC Radio 4, 26 June 2013.
[3] Aydinoğlu, Nilüfer Z., and Krishna,Aradhna, ‘Imagining thin: Why vanity sizing works,’ Journal of Consumer Psychology Vol. 22, Issue 4 (October 2012),  565–572

Mangled Mannequins

Shopfront mannequins are falling to pieces.

There was a time when a mannequin was the sculptural equivalent of fashion model. Like a fashion model, the mannequin was intended to reflect our social, professional and aesthetic aspirations. Although she was permanently frozen in an idealistic tableau – artificial in every sense – she represented a living human being. Seeing her hacked into pieces, with body parts scattered across a shop floor, I am reminded of the scene of a brutal murder.

Mannequins in GAP are dismembered, with body parts spread across the store.

Mannequins in GAP are dismembered, with body parts spread across the store.

At GAP, mannequins appear to have been sliced in two, with legs on one side of the shop and dismembered torsos on the other. More widespread is the practice of simply lopping off the head or legs. Headless mannequins seem to have become the norm.

Some of these mannequins have been reduced to resemble dressmakers’ forms. This reverts to the style of some of the earliest shop mannequins of the 1850s, which were headless dress forms made from wicker or cane[1]. Such mannequins were not designed to express personality or lifestyle; just to display the silhouette of the garment. In such close imitation of a dressmaker’s dummy, the mannequin draws attention to the creation, rather than the wearing, of the clothes. We are reminded of the dressmaking process, and the labour that goes into making the garment.

Some headless and limbless mannequins resemble dressmakers' forms. This reminds us of the labour of the dressmaking process.

Some headless and limbless mannequins resemble dressmakers’ forms. This reminds us of the labour of the dressmaking process.

In the 1870s, heads and limbs were introduced to make the mannequins more representative of the customer. For the next 60 or 70 years, manufacturers went to great lengths to achieve realism, even using real hair and live models [2]. 1920s mannequins began to be seen as expressive rather than simply functional. The addition of interchangeable arms and moving parts in the 1930s allowed them to express with their entire bodies, and they could be seen to be engaged in activities which were a reflection of a lifestyle[3]. Over the following decades, mannequins went through periods of realism and artistic expression, always representing a customer’s body or values. Like models in fashion photography, mannequins began to appear in staged scenes and against styled backdrops. The shop display became an opportunity for retailers to associate a set of ideals and values with the garments on display.

What we see in the highstreet today seems to contradict the established purpose of a mannequin, as well as the rules of marketing. The removal of the head imposes anonymity. These bodies could belong to anyone and everyone. Faceless anonymity is also a tactic employed by Maison Martin Margiela in his catwalk shows. Margiela is infamous in his anonymity. He does not explicitly claim ownership of his designs. At Maison Martin Margiela, clothes are given plain white labels, bearing no name[4]. This anonymity and invisibility is a practice continued throughout the entire branding and distribution process. Margiela stores are not identified with signage. Within the stores, staff wear white lab coats with no identifiable marks, and white sheets cover the furniture in the stores. Anonymity even extends to Margiela’s shows, in which models often walk the runway with covered faces.

Anonymous models for Martin Margiela.

Anonymous models for Martin Margiela.

Generic, anonymous mannequins on the highstreet.

Generic, anonymous mannequins on the highstreet.

Without a face to represent an ideal, models or mannequins become unable to represent the target consumer or his/her aspirations. Instead, they imply a kind of democracy in which the consumer could be anyone. The consumer cannot directly see him or herself reflected in the mannequin, and so the retailer opens itself up to any possible consumer. The headless mannequin tries not to impose an idea of who its target consumer may be.

Even where heads are still used, they have become blank and expressionless. Some are dehumanised: coated with cloth or pattern. They are generic, anonymous – like cloth dolls or androids on a production line.

These two tactics seem to make sense independently of one another. The dressmaker’s form is effective at invoking ideas of dressmaking, and the headless mannequin is effective at broadening a target market to include any possible customer. Problems arise when we see a half-hearted or confused approach to reducing the body. The mannequins in the window of GAP Kids are posed expressively, as if the bodies are having fun, but their heads are missing. It is as if these bodies have been decapitated mid-play. The result is an unsettling compromise between liveliness and lifelessness. They are alive, but without personality or identity.

Mannequins at GAP Kids are headless yet animated - simultaneously lively and lifeless.

Mannequins at GAP Kids are headless yet animated – simultaneously lively and lifeless.

[1] Thesander, Marianne, The Feminine Ideal, London: Reaktion Books, 1997, 75.
[2] Dwyer, Gary, Window Dressing: Idealized women in the age of mannequins and photography, Lulu, 2008, 4
[3] Schneider, Sara K., ‘Body Design, Variable Realisms: The Case of Female Fashion Mannequins’, Design Issues Vol. 13, No. 3 (1997), 7.
[4] Mackenzie, Mairi, …Isms: Understanding Fashion, London: Herbert Press, 2009, 120.

Martin Marigiela:
All other images: author’s own.