The Weird and the Wonderful: Leila Cohoon’s Collection of Antique Hair Art

Photo of Katherine Doolittle
15 November 2016

Leila Cohoon’s Hair Museum in Independence, Missouri is a spectacular showroom of opulent sculptures created from real human hair.

Founder of the Hair Museum – Leila Cohoon | Image Courtesy of Adam Green

First came vampire books, then zombie TV shows. Even taxidermy is making a comeback through boutiques carrying skulls, framed butterflies, and mounted peacocks with glittering eyes. When did the undead become so popular?

In 1956 hair stylist Leila Cohoon walked into an antique dealer and discovered a (6” X 6”) gold frame containing a small wreath made of human hair. This remnant awakened an urgency to preserve an art form long past. Today, she owns one of the only hair museums in the world. Leila’s Hair Museum of Independence, Missouri is the final resting place for thousands of sculptural antique hair objects. The space, located behind her cosmetology school, is bursting with hair wreaths, rings, bracelets, brooches, and one work containing a snippet of Marilyn Monroe’s Hollywood glam bob. The first location for the museum opened in 1986, and Leila’s devotion to hair quickly stuffed the space. In 2005 she moved to a bigger location to accommodate her thriving collection.

Left to right: hair wreath, hair brooch | Images Courtesy of Adam Green

Most of the collection, which dates back to the Victorian Period (1800-1900), consists of hair wreaths or tightly woven colourful hair strands representing families. These wreaths are mounted on a mat board type material and tucked in frames. The wreaths are hung salon style, one on top of the other, with little breathing room. The space doesn’t feel meant for an audience, but appears private, personal, sacred, like a mausoleum. Some of the wreaths hold inscriptions of the individual’s date of birth and death. Other wreaths include a list of family names and markers indicating what hair belongs to whom. Looking at this hair held in gold frames it’s hard not to feel stuck in an undead world somewhere between attraction and aversion.

Left to right: Marilyn Monroe’s hair, detail of hair wreath | Images Courtesy of Adam Green

Glass cases packed with hair jewelry fill the remaining available space in the museum. During the Victorian Period, English and French jewellers would advertise hair jewellry as a memento, a way to carry a lost one with you. In the United States, during the Civil War, it was popular for husbands to leave a lock of hair as they left to war. By the 19th century this type of sentimentality was out of fashion.

Leila accumulated her hair collection through estate sales, auctions, antique dealers, and garage sales. Makes one really think about what they leave behind.

Hair bracelet | Image Courtesy of Adam Green

A hair museum is different than framed butterflies or watching the Walking Dead. But there is one thing that enthusiasts of zombies, vampires, and hair wreaths have in common: these notions, these relics will never really belong to them.

Leila’s Hair Museum (1333 S Noland Road, Independence, Missouri) is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9am to 4pm.

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