LOOK AT IT THIS WAY: IF MICHELANgelo’s David had been made of hair, he’d be packing ’em in at Leila Cohoon’s museum in Independence, Mo. That is, if Leila could find the room. As it is, the beautician-cum-curator’s tiny Hair Museum is crammed with more than 1,000 antique objets de cheveux, including wreaths, rings and crosses. Once, says Cohoon, 63, when some of her pieces were displayed outside a store, “one lady got so upset that they were made of hair that she almost ran through a plate-glass window.” But, she adds, “for the most part, people like them.”
For the 1,000 yearly visitors who tour Leila’s Hair Museum in the Independence College of Cosmetology, the beauty school Cohoon runs with husband Donald, 63, the displays introduce a long-lost craft. “In the Victorian age, art made from hair was very popular,” explains Cohoon. “Families saved their hair and had it woven it into decorative items.” One such treasure is an 1852 floral tapestry made from the locks of 156 members of a single family; another, a wreath from the late 1800s, combines the tresses of two sisters who shaved their heads before entering a convent.
Raised in Marceline, Mo., the daughter of Alvah, a farmer, and his wife, Inez, Leila bought her first piece of hair art—a wreath—in 1959 in an antique shop. Because many pieces were burned around the turn of the century (“People thought you could catch the plague from them”), Victorian hair art is now rare, and Cohoon—who paid between $100 and $150 for each of her artifacts—has seen its value soar. While she was at a London museum recently, a docent told her the 18th-century hair brooch she had on was too valuable to wear in public.
Still, Cohoon won’t part with her collection. Recently she started making her own family wreath, using hair from son Bruce, 43, daughter Linda, 40, and their six children. Though it took her years to master—strands must be tied to miniature weights to keep them from tangling—Cohoon insists it’s worth the effort. “This art form,” she says, “is a way of preserving a part of someone you love.”