It’s no secret that we love hair. But aside from its creative, transformative side what we really appreciate about hair ultimately boils down to its cultural significance. Hairstyles are era defining, marking each year, trend or social movement – and although the zeitgeist is typically characterized by music, fashion and art – hair, arguably, is integral to each.
This is the thinking behind Somerset House’s latest exhibition, Hair, which is a retrospective of one of the most iconic hair stylists of the last 40 years, Sam McKnight.
Sam’s been responsible for a whole bevy of seminal hair do’s – from Princess Diana’s slicked back bob to Tilda Swinton in full redhead Ziggy Stardust mode, he’s turned his comb and scissors to just about everyone, clocking up an impressive 190 Vogue covers. Somerset House have collected together a back catalogue of references, from the 1970s to today, creating an installation that they say represents “The transformative nature of hair within the image.”
Naturally, we’re particularly thrilled that the cultural importance of hair, not to mention the (often overlooked) role of the session stylist is being recognized in such a big way. The exhibition’s curator has remarked that this is the first of its kind – there have been retrospectives of hairdressers before, but none exploring the individual and the process behind that final image. This feels like the first to uncover the techniques behind hair creations, bringing the subject to centre stage.
Everything from Sam’s (quite hefty) hair kit to brightly coloured wigs and his countless magazine covers fill Somerset House. It also chronicles his relationships with the designers and brands he’s worked so closely with over the years – from Westwood’s flame red punk wigs to the sleek, minimalism he creates in Lagerfeld’s shows.
However there’s one relationship – and hair transformation – Sam has long been renowned for. Not Kate Moss’ disheveled bedhead, nor Agyness Deyn’s bleach blonde mohawk, but Princess Diana’s chop of the century during the 1990s. Whilst working on a shoot together, Diana asked Sam what he would do with her hair if he had free reign. Sam told her he would cut it all off and there’s no prize for guessing what followed. Diana’s oh-so-modern, combed back bob defined an era, changed her entire image, and marked a new phase of her life as her marriage to Prince Charles fell apart. Who says a haircut can’t change your life?
When it comes to fashion imagery, sometimes it’s so easy to focus on the clothes and not appreciate all the other elements that combine to make the finished product. This exhibition illustrates hair-power in all its spiked back, gel-heavy, piled up glory. Plus, it gives a unique insight into one of the industry’s most talented creative minds. So, whether you’re just after vintage pics of Mossy or want a deeper insight into the life of a session stylist, this one’s not to be missed.
Hair by Sam McKnight is running at Somerset House until 12th March 2017.
Words: Lucy Vincent
Cover image: Somerset House