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"This Lock You See": Nineteenth-Century Hair Work as the Commodified Self

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Abstract:

Hair locks held many meanings for middle-class nineteenth-century Americans. They could embody the supposed essence of individuals and their relationships, symbolize the ties of friendship, evoke immaterial remembrances, and transcend time from absence to presence. Hair work was not only found in scrapbooks and albums, but also in jewellery and parlor decorations. Hair was a commodity, but its seemingly stable individuality, its fragility linked with materiality, and its transcendence meant that it was very compelling. Hair fancywork thus illuminates issues of identity and self as they are intertwined in the market with practices of consumption. The article examines how issues of self and identity for nineteenth-century middle-class Americans were negotiated through hair work, which was emblematic of how individuality could become subordinated to that market. By the end of the century, largely due to the waning force of sentimentality as a form of cultural expression, hair work declined in popularity and practically disappeared by the 1910s. Sheumaker concludes that hair work was only in a most limited sense an escape from the market. Yet its power as a symbol of emotion and sentiment meant that its relationship to the market could be recognized only obliquely.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/136270497779613620

Publication date: November 1, 1997

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  • Fashion Theory takes as its starting point a definition of “fashion” as the cultural construction of the embodied identity. The importance of studying the body as a site for the deployment of discourses has been well established in a number of disciplines. Until Fashion Theorys launch in 1997 the dressed body had suffered from a lack of critical analysis. Increasingly scholars have recognized the cultural significance of self-fashioning, including not only clothing but also such body alterations as tattooing and piercing.

    Fashion Theory provides an international and interdisciplinary forum for the rigorous analysis of cultural phenomena. Its peer-reviewed articles range from foot-binding to fashion advertising.
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