Bec Secombe 2014
Every single day, as human beings we package ourselves as we get ready in the morning. We wrap ourselves with our clothing, coat our faces with products and style our hair, our crowning glory, like the final adornment on a gift. We are packaged beings, choosing to represent our ‘self’ to the world through the way we present ourselves.
Throughout history hair has played an important part in the identity of a human being as a status symbol, an adornment or an emotional connection to self. The biblical character of Sampson drew his strength from his long locks. Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs wore braided wigs of human hair, curled and waxed into place to mark status. During the Victorian era, people wore hair pieces and jewelry, carefully stitched together from the hair of their loved ones, as part of the mourning process. Today judges still wear wigs, a remnant from 17th century fashion that was retained by the courts. American Indian trackers keep their hair long as they believe it has a sixth sense, warning of impending danger. In truth, hair is an extension of the nervous system, transmitting information to the brain. It is also a conductor of electromagnetic energy from the brain out into the natural environment.
Interestingly, hair is one of the parts of the human body that will last for 100’s of years without decay.
Today we have a deeply personal connection with our hair or lack thereof. The way we wear our hair or cover our head creates meaning and can speak of social, cultural and religious significance. In contemporary society the hairdresser is a critical friend, a confidant, a significant influence in the way in which we view ourselves. Hair is cut, coloured, braided, extended, transplanted, dreaded, spiked, curled and straightened all in the pursuit of personal enhancement. We have an industry to promote hair and an industry to remove it, body hair deemed unsightly is plucked, waxed, shaved, lasered and epilated in the search for the ideal expression of the body as self.
There is shame associated with hair loss on the head; male pattern baldness, alopecia, or hair loss due to medical conditions or treatment.
What happens to one’s sense of self when hair is lost from the inside out through the aggressive treatment of chemotherapy? How does this affect one’s personal identity when one of their significant defining features is damaged and lost? When the patient becomes the property of the medical profession and their body is no longer private and sacred?
There is a nakedness, a vulnerability in losing this natural human packaging, this soft, warm protector that cushions oneself from the outside world. The cancer patient transitions from the person they knew intimately to this sallow eyed, shiny headed, puffy version of their former self. Over the months, a new identity is developed as wigs, scarves, hats and baldness become the norm and the loss is integrated.
This piece represents the packaging of the human identity. It presents a conundrum, what if we valued the hair on our bodies like we value the hair on our head? If self is a ‘product’ and our clothes are our day-today packaging, what if our hair became our clothes and our heads were insignificant? For the person with cancer, loss of hair is the most significant and obvious marker of treatment. By drawing attention to this headless body by clothing it in hair, I encourage the viewer to experience a new paradigm. In fact this model could easily be used in a cancer awareness campaign, by radically confronting viewers with the antithesis of the predicted outcome of cancer treatment. The viewer is challenged to consider the psychosocial value of hair in our culture.
The design process for this piece began with researching the significance and meaning of human hair. I then explored a variety of art works made with hair. I also read blogs and articles on the cancer patient’s experience of hair loss, as well as reflecting on my own journey of undergoing chemotherapy in 2012 and subsequent hair loss for 12 months. I also drew from the emotional content embedded in art works created by people reflecting on their cancer journeys.
I experimented with different ways hair is shaped, styled and manipulated. Samples were made by plaiting, braiding, looping, crocheting, wrapping and weaving. I chose to use a headless mannequin designed to be clothed, to show the self as an aberration, no head (depersonalized) and clothed in hair.
I considered the parts of the figure than needed to be covered or left bare, and eventually abandoned the idea of having a sash across the naked chest reminiscent of winning a beauty pageant as it did not translate.
Design trials using different hair adornment techniques incorporating wire, beads, cotton thread, glue and wool were discarded as I became more comfortable with the medium and developed the idea of using hair as the sole covering. In my research I found an example of an art piece with a full skirt made from hair and chose to move away from the affrontation of a hairy body, to a more intentional and ornamental design. In creating clothing made from hair, we consider again the meaning of hair as an expression of self and conversely, what happens to the sense of self when we no longer have hair.
Using a wired framework for the skirt, I was able to enhance the luxurious fullness of cascading tresses by allowing them to freely flow out from the body. Using plaited and crocheted adornments, as influenced by Victorian hair art, I was able to embellish and create intricate detail to hold the eye.
The design process has allowed me to reflect on my own cancer journey. As I combed and worked the hair around the mannequin, loose strands and clumps frequently came away in my hands, reminiscent of my own experience of hair loss.
In packaging the headless body with hair that belongs on the head, I sought to create a dialogue around the lived experience of hair loss in contemporary culture.